What does the phrase 'Spanish tiles' conjure up? First, if you have any historical interest at all, the magnificent Moorish buildings of Andalucia or the even more exuberant work of GaudÝ in Barcelona and their derivatives that are still to be found in varying manifestations in bars and restaurants throughout the country.
Think again, and you will remember that Spain still has the right conditions for manufacturing tiles - the appropriate clays and materials for glazes - and that it makes them in vast quantities. You can buy lots of high-quality tiles in all colours of beige and some brighter tones to do a very serviceable job in the kitchen or bathroom. This is true, and not to be sneered at. After all, with a total annual output of 656 million m every year, Spain is the largest manufacturer in the EU, accounting for 40 per cent of its production. And who hasn't had a project for which they have speci-ed some tiles?
But it can seem just a little bit dull, can't it?
Well, no. Of course, there are all the serviceable standards, on the principle of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'.
The advantages of tiles - durability, impermeability, ease of cleaning - remain, and manufacturing techniques have made great advances over the past couple of decades. And there are plenty of new ranges every year, which are largely unthreatening but ensure that tiles do not get stuck in a time warp. There is, in short, plenty available to cater for conservative and modestly adventurous tastes.
But there is also a whole lot more. Look at the activities of the members of ASCER, Spain's ceramic tile manufacturers' association, to which 98 per cent of the country's manufacturers belong, and you discover a world of innovation. Tiles are not just for kitchens and bathrooms; they can be used in every room internally, and also on the outside of buildings. Research ranges from the application of nanotechnology to the incorporation of electrical control systems in a tile. There are projects to entirely change the acoustic qualities of tiles, and new printing techniques to reduce waste and provide a range of effects that were previously unattainable. There is a whole rede-nition of what a 'tile' is - think of a piece of 'cooked clay' that has a certain two-dimensional quality, and that is probably as definitive as one needs to be. We are unlikely to see windows made of tiles, or the material used for upholstery and office furniture, but there are few other limits.
Tiles, at least as far as the Spanish consider them, have moved way beyond their original limitations, and have also been used on some elegant and fascinating projects. But manufacturers are pragmatic, and as you enjoy, or are amazed or fascinated by, the developments on these pages, don't fret about those more run-of-the-mill projects.
No matter how innovative or imaginative the industry can be, it is not going to turn its back on the kitchen and the bathroom, where its products have been loved and valued for so many years.
DIGITAL PRINTING Digital technology has been applied in many fields to provide what customers increasingly want - affordable customisation. One of the advantages of working digitally is that there is no longer the production-line ethos that decrees that short runs are prohibitively expensive. Instruct your computerised printing system appropriately, and a one-off will prove scarcely more expensive than a short run, or even a really long run.
Tile-making is ideally suited to this approach, since the tiles themselves can be standardised in size, shape and thickness, with only the pattern varying.
As well as versatility, the technology brings other advantages. Using an approach very similar to graphic design processes, it works by injecting tiny (nano-) particles of glaze into the clay, resulting in a four-colour printing process.
There are resulting benefits both in environmental terms and in appearance.
The environmental benefits come from the fact that far less glaze is wasted in all stages of the process - in preparation, application and in cleaning.
With digital technology, only the exact amount that is actually needed is used.
Visually, there is a greater degree of realism, thanks to better colour, to the fact that all relief work is decorated at the same time, and that the colour goes to the very edge of the tile.
These are yet more important because of the increasing popularity of imitating other materials in tiles - not only stones such as marble, but also materials like clay and wood.
One of the first firms to use this process is Colorker, which has launched the Tecktonia Digital Concept. Its products using the new approach include the Magma Series, which has a natural-stone effect, the Tundra Series, which has a wood effect, and the Dana Series, which also has a stone effect with soft reliefs and subtle texture.
Another company to invest is Inalco, with its I+ technology.
It has also launched several ranges, with increased verisimilitude.
NANOTECHNOLOGY One of the areas of growth in the use of ceramics is externally. High-profile projects by internationally acclaimed architects make use not only of the material's properties but also of the opportunities to use colour adventurously. These include the autumnally tinted hexagons that made up the facade of the Spanish pavilion at the World Fair in Japan, designed by Foreign Office Architects and winner of a Tile of Spain prize, and the late Enric Miralles' Santa Caterina market in Barcelona, with its undulating multi-coloured roof.
But there are also many projects where architects are using, or considering using, ceramic rainscreen cladding in a more restrained yet elegant manner, taking advantage of the durability and dimensional reliability of the material.
A natural development from, on the one hand, brick and, on the other, stone cladding, the material is relatively low maintenance but does need cleaning. As we become increasingly obsessed with near zero-maintenance, through, for example, the increasing take-up of self-cleaning glass, it is unsurprising that the ceramics industry should look for similar advantages.
These could come through one of the most fashionable and least understood areas of scientific advance:
nanotechnology. The name relates to the harnessing of the potential of very small particles to, according to one's tastes, offer either a universal panacea or the end of civilised life as we know it. Neither of these scenarios is likely, and certainly not in the world of tiles, where the aim is to produce a desirable but relatively mundane end - a self-cleaning surface that is also immune to graffiti. In furtherance of this aim, quimiCer, a company specialising in the production of frits, glazes and stains for the ceramic tile industry, is working with the Spanish branch of German nanotechnology company NTC to develop a tile that is self cleaning with the help of rainwater.
The value for ventilated facades would, believes the company, be in reduced maintenance costs, in the prevention of stain build-up due to pollution, and in the abolition of graffiti.
OUTSIDE/INSIDE Tile manufacturer Rosa Gres has tackled several key issues in its latest range, called 'OutFloors Technology'. These are the desire to use tiles externally, the wish to use them near water, and the aim for continuity between indoors and outdoors. Although there is nothing revolutionary in its approach, it has had the intelligence to attend to every detail, providing an overall solution that should make both specification and the end result simpler and more pleasing.
Out-Floors Technology uses porcelain stoneware pieces that are through coloured, can cope with frost, and are slip resistant. Although slip resistance itself is not difficult to design in, the concomitant roughness has usually made the tiles difficult to keep clean.
This can result in staining which not only means that the appearance changes but that it does so unevenly, since some areas will be more highly trafficked or better protected than others. By coming up with a surface that is both slipresistant and easy to maintain, Rosa Gres is confident it has licked this problem.
The next innovation is in terms of the range, offering everything that is likely to be needed for a project. So, the same colours that are available externally are also available in a smooth finish for internal use, allowing the continuity of surface that is key to many designs. Similarly, the company offers a complete solution for swimming pools. There is non-slip flooring for the surround, porcelain mosaic tiles for the tank, and special edge pieces for the pool perimeter. In addition, with its Prestige System the company provides a method of overflow control where the water stays at the same level as the surroundings, with benefits in appearance and in noise.
Nor are swimming pool surrounds the only place where a non-slip finish is useful.
In commercial kitchens and restaurants there are frequent spillages, so a non-slip finish can offer safety benefits.
However, hygiene is key, so it is only with this easy-clean surface that non-slip becomes an option. The surface is also resistant to abrasion, chipping, and to acid and alkali attack.
HOME AUTOMATION With the increasing number of electronic devices in many households, the area of home automation or domotics (a portmanteau term derived from domus, the Latin for house, and informatics) is becoming increasingly popular.
Householders not only want systems that will allow them to control everything from the lighting to the blinds; they also want it to be simple to operate and elegant to look at. Tile manufacturer Tau has teamed up with controls company Lartec to offer a 'domotic tile': one that incorporates the controls, and their relevant technology. This will be a visually pleasing and unobtrusive solution for any customer intending to have a tiled wall. The tiles, which operate by touch, are available in a range of colours and with complementary pieces.
Coming up with new approaches to the use of ceramics is the purpose of the Department of Ceramic Studies (Cßtedra Cerßmica) that ASCER set up within the Advanced School of Architecture at the International University of Catalonia in Barcelona, in 2004. By encouraging architects and ceramic-tile manufacturers to work together, it has become a focus for creativity, as demonstrated by a number of projects that come into the category of 'hybrids' - combining ceramics with other materials.
Natalia Manzanas, for example, has designed a tile that has very different acoustic properties to conventional ceramic tiles, which are entirely hard and reflective. Using a ball-shaped absorbent material in the manufacture, which either remains after firing or falls away to leave hollows and small holes, results in a surface that is not only optically fascinating, but also will absorb high-pitched sound, as well as producing intriguing lighting effects. Varying the shape of the perforations, and whether or not they go all the way through the material, will make their acoustic behaviour change.
Rather than incorporating another material within the ceramic, Jaume Colom has come up with the concept for a laminated porcelain material that could be built up in the same way as laminated glass using a PVB (polyvinyl butyral) resin as an adhesive. This would create an extremely tough, hard-wearing material that could be built in to, for example, exterior furniture or, as in the design that Colom developed, a pillar or rafter.