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On the tiles

Theme: flooring

Spain's tile industry has to keep innovating to stay ahead of the competition in Europe and in Asia. Spearheading developments are two very different research organisations If you ever thought you knew exactly what tiles do, a visit to Castellón in Spain would swiftly disabuse you. On the east coast, to the north of Valencia, Castellón is the centre of the country's massive tile industry. An unassuming town that has enjoyed a great influx of wealth in the last few decades, Castellón sits on the edge of a plain where huge manufacturing plants are swiftly edging out agriculture.

Many of these manufacturers are churning out relatively undistinguished floor and wall tiles in every shade of beige that you can imagine, but there is also an extraordinary degree of innovation. Some of this comes from individual manufacturers, such as Diago, which is creating textures that one would never have thought possible with tiles.

But the greatest degree of innovation emanates from two very different but complementary organisations. ALICER (Asociación para la Promoción del Diseño Cerámico) is a centre of innovation and technology in design. More science-based testing and research is handled by ITC (Instituto de Tecnologica Cerámica).

Between them they help to keep the Spanish tile industry at the forefront, in an increasingly competitive world where it is pitched not only against the Italians, on a relatively equal footing, but also against much lowerpriced products from China.

Some of the activities of ALICER are surprising to an outsider. Considering the size of many of the companies in Castellón, and the fact that they are competing with each other, one would not expect them to use a central design resource. But this is exactly what ALICER is for many of them. It provides everything from a graphics studio to a service predicting trends in the home. The design staff will even design a new tile and then offer it to whichever manufacturer is willing to pay to adopt it.

At the moment it sees the main trends as curves and strong reliefs. It has responded to the former by producing some interlocking dumb-bell-shaped tiles, and to the latter with some eye-catchingly bright designs.

More interesting is when it moves into more imaginative fields. These include some large-scale white tiles with numerous perforations, intended not to go on walls or floors but to be used as partitions within rooms. In more familiar environments, such as the bathroom, ALICER's designers are investigating the three-dimensional, by working on tiles that can also be used as hooks or soap stands. And it is developing a system of nongrouted tiles that are fixed in such a way that they can easily be replaced when the client wants a new colour scheme.

Externally, the three-dimensional approach extends into a modular system of ceramic benches and also into research into the development of permeable paving.

Slightly disturbingly, the researchers do not seem aware that such products already exist and are in fairly widespread use.

But the most breathtaking ceramic project of all is one developed by Barcelonabased practice Actar Architectura. Known as 'Casas-setos' (bush houses), this is a project that aims to bring together the very different elements of hard ceramics and soft vegetation, in houses with compound walls and interior spaces arranged, it says, like a set of Russian dolls.

The practice began with the idea of a facade element measuring 60 x 60cm with a pattern of cut-outs through which vegetation can be encouraged to grow. Fixed in a metal framework, these tiles can be used to build up external walls. But then the form of the cut-out is flipped onto the horizontal plane and extruded upwards, on a far larger scale.

The solid parts form the houses and the gaps the gardens and landscaping between them. And on the roofs of these 'green houses' (green coloured ceramic with green vegetation), what else would be appropriate but a green roof? As Actar says, this is a new interpretation of land architecture.

Other approaches are far more down to earth. In a joint project with ITC, ALICER is investigating the laser curing of glaze, instead of the second baking that tiles currently undergo. ITC is also looking at ways to improve the polishing process for porcelain tiles. Porcelain (fully vitrified) tiles are taking an increasingly large share of the market, and are available in either unpolished, semipolished or fully polished versions. But this polishing process is inherently inefficient, since it involves making the surface rougher before it becomes smooth. As part of this project, ITC is working with the University of Cambridge to develop a machine for simulating the polishing process.

Much of ITC's work is devoted to testing, to ensure that a company's new developments will succeed, and also forensically, to discover why problems have occurred that lead to discoloration or spalling of glaze. But it also has its own lines of discovery.

Its researchers are interested in the possible application of nano particles for decoration, and also in colour-changing effects. The difficulty there is that the normal high temperatures used to fire tiles would destroy the colour-changing pigments. To the outsider this looks insoluble, since it is this high-temperature firing that gives tiles their impermeable and durable properties, as well as their characteristic appearance, but the researchers at ITC seem confident that it can be done.

On a larger scale, ITC sees potential for the use of ceramics in ventilated facades on buildings, since they are dimensionally stable and durable. Such a facade, with simple and effective fixing and drainage details, has been built on another building at the outof-town university complex where ITC has its headquarters.

The researchers also take part in largescale one-off projects. ALICER worked on the recreation of a bench covered in decorative ceramics for Castellón's Parque Ribalta, and also on a new project for the Kinépolis cinema project in Valencia, with representations of Laurel and Hardy, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin. Manufacturer Tau became involved in the restoration of Gaudí's Casa Vicens in Barcelona, but most of its work is more run of the mill, if high quality.

The largest market for tiles is still in the simulation of stone, something at which manufacturers have become increasingly expert. Tau's designers, for example, start from examples of real stone and pull in the characteristics of several to make one tile.

The company has identified a trend towards specifiers using larger tiles, as they have moved away from the idea that tiles must be small in a small space. By reducing the number of joints, larger tiles actually give a less fussy feeling and hence make the space feel larger. As well as reproducing granites and marbles, Tau has produced rough stone effects in its Aspen tiles, of which the black version looks very like slate, and even timber in its Sabika range. But a distressing amount of effort goes into the design of 'listelos', small patterned or brightly coloured tiles that are set into larger ones - almost always to the detriment of the overall appearance.

The attempt to simulate other materials has been taken even further by Diago, one of the most imaginative manufacturers. Its Sahara range imitates natural flooring materials such as jute and sisal, and somehow even manages to feel relatively soft and warm to the touch. Its Boston tiles successfully mimic basket-weave leather, whereas Cuir is like a straightforward luxury leather finish. On the drawing board there are some even more outlandish solutions - damaskeffect wall tiles and others that imitate shot fabrics, changing in colour depending on the direction from which one looks at them.

This does raise the question of what the true aesthetic is for tiles, if so much effort is put into attempting to imitate other materials.

But with the level of ingenuity available, one can be certain that this is an industry that will continue to change and develop. Expect the unexpected.

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