For a home builder, the holy grail of materials is one that can do everything.
For a homeowner, the holy grail of materials is one that looks really good and requires no maintenance.
Such a material is now available but virtually unknown to most builders and homeowners in the United States.
It’s not a miracle of nanotechnology or even new. It’s that old workhorse, porcelain ceramic tile, updated with modern equipment and manufacturing processes to such a degree that it may change the look of suburbia as well as our notions of what constitutes a tile.
Manufacturers can now produce porcelain tiles that are huge (5-feet-by-11-feet), really thin ( 1 /8 – to ¼-inch thick) and absorb almost no water. This latter detail means that these big tiles will not crack in freezing temperatures and can be used indoors, outdoors in temperate climates such as the Washington area’s, and for an astonishingly broad range of applications. The tiles are also made in smaller sizes, though much larger than the 4-by-4-inch ones that are standard in so many bathrooms, and they can be nearly ¾-inch thick, depending on the intended use.
The tiles are marketed in the United States by Tennessee-based Crossville, which calls its tiles Laminam, and four Spanish manufacturers. Cosentino calls its product Dekton, Grespania’s version is Coverlam, Inalco’s is Itopkerand TheSize Surfaces’s is Neolith.
Because this type of porcelain tile is so new, the industry has not yet settled on a generic name. Two terms used by the National Tile Contractors Association are “thin porcelain panels” and “thin porcelain tile.”
In keeping with designers’ preference for a “soft” palette, the offerings of these firms favor grays, “greige” (a combination of beige and gray), light and dark brown, charcoal, cream and pure white. Some of the tiles are a solid color, but others mimic wood, concrete, textile patterns, metals and natural stone. The marble lookalikes resemble the real thing so closely that even experts can be fooled.
When you see these supersize tiles in someone’s house for the first time, “great looking tile” is not likely to be your initial reaction . In fact, you probably won’t even realize that you’re looking at tile until someone tips you off. Unlike small, traditional tiles with grout lines running everywhere, big tiles have hardly any grout lines, and the few that are there are nearly invisible.
The big tiles with solid colors present a tasteful, unusual finish; the natural stone lookalikes, especially the marble ones, are stunning. Though marble has a long history in American interiors, the individual tiles have been small. To see an entire counter made of what appears to be a single slab of high-quality Calacatta marble is eye-popping.
Once you know what to look for, where might you use the supersize tiles?
They can be used to finish walls as well as for flooring, countertops in the kitchen and bathrooms, kitchen sinks and fireplace surrounds. If you want to go really crazy, the thinnest tiles can be used to finish doors, tables, desks and stairs. Capitalizing on the unusually high heat resistance of the supersize tiles, the Spanish firm Inalco is experimenting with installing burners directly into the counter, which would eliminate the need for a separate cooktop. The tiles are extremely scratch and stain resistant. Spills do not have to be cleaned up right away, an appealing feature if you’re one to leave the kitchen cleanup until the next morning after your last dinner guest leaves at midnight.
Another plus with the large tiles in the kitchen is crack resistance. Traditionally manufactured tiles can crack when heavy objects are dropped on them. These porcelain tiles, however, are manufactured with a different process that makes them extremely crack resistant. As Jacobo Pardo of Grespania explained, as long as the tile is installed properly, “you can drop a large cast iron frying pan on the counter, no problem. If you drop a big cast iron pan on the floor, it won’t crack.”
In addition to their size, another difference between these tiles and traditional ones is their surface finish, which can vary from a soft matte to a highly reflective glossy (Cosentino’s Lorenzo Marquez said his firm’s “X-Glossy” finish is so polished “you can almost see your face [reflected in] a black or white Dekton surface.”) The tiles range from a smooth surface to a “gentle relief” that feels slightly irregular, “bush hammered” with a uniform nubby surface, and “hand tooled” with deeper gauges that appear to be hand made.