Tile tales

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 August, 2007, 12:00am

Interior designers are going to extremes - choosing tiles that are either oversize rectangles or small mosaics. The bigger the better to complement oblong baths and basins; whereas mosaic tiles can create a bold feature wall. Tiles used in sequence no longer need match perfectly. A creative alternative is to mix varying sizes in the same shade - for example, laying large tiles on the floor, with brick-sized tiles on the walls and mosaics for a border.

Tiles can also be used to add texture in a room. At Coverings 2007 - an international trade show dedicated to tile and stone - texture was a key trend, from limestone interior surfaces resembling basket weaves to tiles that recall woven wool with a modern metallic finish.

Coverings demonstrates how fashion is increasingly influential when it comes to home interiors. Metallic sheen and faux animal skin patterns have been seen on international catwalks in recent months, and tile makers displayed their latest models, offering similar finishes, at the show. Echoing menswear fabrics, tiles in pin- stripes and herringbone offered a masculine look, while lacy, flowery tiles catered to more feminine tastes.

Other trends on display were organic themes, graphics and geometrics, and a colour palette of bold brights. The main new direction was for tactile, handmade tiles with an arts-and-crafts look and feel.

Looks aside, the most important consideration is whether a tile is suitable for its purpose. No matter how much you love the look, if it's to be laid in a frequently used area, durability is a must.

Ceramic and porcelain are the most widely used materials, and a commonly asked question is: What's the difference?

Ceramics are made primarily of clay, processed with heat, and then (usually) glazed with a surface layer that determines the finished tile's colour, design and texture.

A glazed ceramic tile is durable, relatively simple to install and one of the easiest surfaces to clean. It's highly resistant to scratching and moisture and won't absorb odours or support allergens. The downside is that the colour isn't consistent throughout the tile, so a chip in the glazed surface is irreparable.

Pressure and high temperature are also used to make porcelain tiles, in which the primary ingredient is finely ground sand. The tiles have a dense, glass-like appearance and are highly water-resistant, although their hardness makes them more challenging to install, which rules out the average DIY enthusiast.

In the past, porcelain tiles were the same colour the whole way through, but fastfloors.com warns that modern versions often have a design layer on the top surface, the same as a ceramic tile. So, a chip that once may have been barely noticeable in a porcelain tile will now require a replacement.

Glass tiles are emerging as a fashionable design choice. Glass is a durable and non-porous material, so they're a sensible choice for both the kitchen and the bathroom.

Glass is popular in ocean shades when designing showers. It's also increasingly being used in one large, vibrantly coloured piece to craft an attractive, easy-to-clean kitchen splashback.

Marble tiles may not be as popular as they once were, because of their cost and quality, but the soft, earthy appeal of natural stone continues to have a strong following.

Marble works especially well in bathrooms if you're trying to create a spa-like atmosphere.

But because natural stone has varying levels of hardness, it's important to establish if the stone you choose is suitable for its intended purpose. Depending on its absorption rate, some stone can stain easily and may need to be finished with a stain-resistant sealant. This is when it's wise to seek an interior designer's opinion.

Industrial-style metal tiles from the 30s are back in vogue. Available in copper, silver or pewter finishes, they're much lighter than the originals and more affordable.

At the high end, hand-crafted bronze floor tiles from US company Foundry Art develop a natural patina as the material matures.

Texas-based company Carina Works designs and manufactures solid aluminium wall tiles and floor planks in different styles and patterns. It also creates custom-designed metal tiles. 'Because all of our products are handmade, each piece is as unique a creation as an original painting,' says Carina Works president Libby Fenner.

Introducing art in the bathroom appears to be an emerging trend. The Fired Earth showroom in Wan Chai reports a growing demand for its wall tiles, 60 per cent of which are handmade or hand-decorated .

'Customers seem to particularly value the skill that goes into making tiles by hand and they're also keen to support specialist craftsmen,' says Elizabeth of Mar of Fired Earth.

The company has identified a trend towards eco living and traditional artisans and is adding products to meet demand.

'This autumn we'll be launching a series of hand-painted wall-tile panels,' says of Mar. 'They'll be almost like a wallpaper, but in tile form, and this in itself looks like an interesting trend.

'Customers will also often just use one or two decorative tiles to add interest to simple base tiles, perhaps using them as insets or creating a splashback or panel. This can make handmade tiles a more affordable option.'