Ceramic tiles are shedding their old, square imaage

March 13, 1994|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

Tile in the American home has a utilitarian history, unlike in Mexico and countries in Europe, Asia and South America, where the creative use of tile is an integral part of architecture and ornamentation. The practical perception of tile in America has kept the medium relegated to unassuming spots in the bath and kitchen. After all, tile is hygienic, easy to care for and virtually indestructible.

"Tile is still scary to most people," says Olivia Buehl, a home-furnishings-magazine editor and writer, who is at work on a book called "Tile Style," to be published by Clarkson Potter in 1995. "People tend to go with conservative choices."

The growing variety of shapes, colors, patterns and textures of tile featured in magazine spreads demonstrates that tile can change the mood of an entire room. Today's designers and architects are using tile as an engaging building block.

The very configuration of tiles has been expanded beyond squares to include octagons, hexagons, circles, rectangles, and even irregularly shaped pieces in sizes ranging from 1 to 24 inches.

There are decorative borders. In fact, there is an entire array of caps, corners and moldings that allow the most sophisticated architectural installations.

With new technologies, tile manufacturers have figured out how to mimic minerals, stones, fabric, rug weaves, wood, brick, metal, leather and even hand-painted frescoes and mosaics -- sometimes at a fraction of the cost of the real thing. They have perfected glazes to produce brilliant colors and metallic looks.

There are even ecologically compelling reasons for using tile. For instance, it's a heat insulator, a passive collector for solar energy. It's also a hypoallergenic material. It doesn't retain liquids or absorb fumes, smoke or allergy-inducing elements.

One of the most familiar applications for tile is on the floor, and designers are looking beyond the basics for more provocative installa- tions. Tile can be as arresting as an Oriental rug when used in an overall, multicolored pattern.

One of the simplest applications is to use tile as a border -- even if the floor isn't tile. A fresh look is to inlay a tile border into wood to define a space. Or design a mosaic border on a tile or stone floor. Some manufacturers are adding edging in other materials such as wood to individual tiles; even wood tiles are available, designed to create parquet-like looks. Faux wood tiles replicate intricate inlays.

Tile also may be used to design an eye-catching area "rug." The no-wear, no-fade rug might even include faux fringe.

Similarly, tile may be applied as a decorative inset to create a focal point on the floor. Mosaic lends itself well to this technique, and manufacturers have pre-assembled an array of decorative patterns such as concentric circles, geometric and figurative designs.

Designers also can create their own mosaic effects in any scale. In a kitchen for a Kips Bay show house in New York, Eric Bernard created a Pompeian-style mosaic pattern with unevenly cut segments of white tile banded in strips of stainless steel. By crisscrossing the 4-by-4-inch black Italian tiles from Vogue with 1/4 -inch lines of cobalt grout, he underscored the grid for a dynamic effect. Ribbons of blue-grouted black tile climbed the walls and help defined the vaulted ceiling. The Vogue tiles run $7.90 a square foot.

Besides the attention lavished on tile floors these days, designers are addressing innovative wall uses as well. All-tile walls are not new, but thinking of tile as wall covering is. A variety of patterns is available today, from florals and paisleys to stripes and basket-weave plaids.

Capeginese, an Italian tile manufacturer, showed just how striking a dining room wall can look by mixing tiles decorated with curling ivy and lively stripes with solid blue and white tiles as accents. Part of its "Xenia" series, the blue-on-white pattern reverses to white on blue on the decorative relief border, which also introduces a sunny yellow as an accent and serves as a chair rail. Solid blue tiles set off decorative niches. Prices range from $35 to $38 per square meter, depending on color.

Another way to draw the eye to a wall is with a mural. Traditional floral or fruit compositions are especially popular today on stove hoods, behind a range or on kitchen walls.

Portland, Ore., artist Jennifer Guske creates murals in ceramic mosaics. The material is rolled out in a slab roller, like dough, and the pieces are cut according to the design. The spaces then are filled in with old tile. One still-life composition features a vase brimming with sunflowers and a bowl filled with fruit. The piece measures 1 1/2 -by-2 1/2 feet, and if "high-fired," even could be installed on a floor. The mosaic murals, which are sold by Ann Sacks Tiles, may be customized to size and design. Approximate costs are $150 per square foot. That particular pattern consists of tiny 1/2 -by-18-inch pieces; larger pieces of mosaic would bring down the costs slightly.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.