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Technology Lets Tile Take On New Style

Wide variety includes cork, glass, leather, & metals

What do river pebbles, roasted duck eggshells, iridescent glass and leather have in common? They are tiles. Yes, tiles. The ones you put on floors, countertops and walls. Unlike their European counterparts, Americans are fairly inexperienced with the myriad ways tiles can be used in the home. Tile purchasing in the United States is the lowest of any developed country in the world, according to the Tile Council of America (www.tileusa.com). But in the past 15 years, an American industry of hand made artisan tiles has grown to the point where people remodeling or building new homes take as much care in choosing tile as they do in selecting upholstery or window treatments.

"We are talking about something that's become very fashion oriented," said Ted Cadmus, sales manager for Architectural Ceramics (www.architecturalceramics.net), a large retailer of artisian tile in the Washington D.C. area. "Today, consumers are sophisticated enough that they're looking for a look and an image."

As the average size of new homes increases, so do the opportunities to use tile. Architectural Ceramics, for one, is taking orders for wine & cigar cellars, libraries, fireplace surrounds, mud rooms and, of course, the ever-expanding kitchens and bathrooms. They are also seeing increasing demand for "doggie bathrooms" Cadmus said with a chuckle.

Like fabric and upholstry, tile runs the gamut of price. Installation, however, is always more xpensive with tile than with other materials, such as wall-to wall carpeting on the floor or laminates on the countertop. But as Jeff Wilson points out, tile pays for itself over time. Wilson is the host of "Flooring Wall to Wall" on DIY (DO-IT-YOURSELF Network). He recently hosted a show on installing tile floors. "Our whole house is hardwood and ceramic or clay tile," Wilson said. Carpeting might be cheaper at the outset, but you'll pay for professional cleaning over the years, and carpets have a finite life span. As for tile, he said, it's beautiful, it requires minimal maintenance, and it lasts "forever." Just visit the ancient ruins in Rome for proof. And with advance in tile-making technology since the Roman Empire dissolved, tile is available in virtually unlimited varieties from stone, marble and ceramic to cork, glass, leather and metals.

It's also sold with unusual elements embedded in acrylic or caly such as river pebbles. Artistic Tile (www.artistictile.com), a New York based tile manufacturer, is about to introduce its newest product: clay tile embedded with roast duck eggs from Vietnam. The roasting process lends a rich sepia tone to the shells, which are pressed into the tile molds by hand.

Like fashion, of course, there are clear trends emerging these days in how people are buying tile:
>Stone and marble are being sold in highly polished or honed looks as opposed to the rough, tumbled appearance.
>Glass tile is becoming as much a standard as ceramic. "Glass is becoming not so much a trend but something that's here to stay," said Suzie Tatum, marketing coordinator for Ann Sacks (www.annsacks.com), a specialty tile producer based in Portland, Oregon.
>Earth Tones that envoke Asian and African styles are becoming popular. One display at Architectural Ceramics features routed marble tiles at the treshold of a shower to simulate the ubiquitous grass mats found in Japanese homes. Another display features ceramic tiles with African tribal symbols etched and painted onto them.
>Unusually shaped tile, such as Ann Sacks' oval shaped "Gotham" tiles. "People are looking for patterning and texture," Tatum said.

There's ample evidence that homeowners are taking advantage of the new choices. Tile imports grew nearly threefold between 1991 and 2001 according to the Tile Council of America. Total U.S. purchases increased nearly 150 percent, from 915 million square feet to more than 2 billion square feet. The U.S. based tile industry also surged with a 176 percent growth in exports between 1991 and 2001, from 12 million square feet to more than 33 million square feet.

"Tastes are becoming so much more wordly in the United States, where we don't think twice about ordering Russian caviar," said Bob Daniels, executive director of the Tile Council of America. "Americans are traveling. They see more tile, and they see what you can do with it."

By: Jennifer Sergent
Scripps Howard News Service
AJC 10/25/03

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