An Ancient Material with Contemporary Applications

American designers turn to Italian ceramic tile for both classical and contemporary styles.

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Ceramic of Italy forges a connection with the Italian landscape while innovating the future of spaces.

Terracotta roof tiles, decorative porcelain, mosaics, and the tiled floors of ancient villas; ceramic tile is central to life in Italy, where craftspeople have been developing this material since ancient times. But tile as a building material is about more than calling back to classical tradition; it is about forging a connection to the Italian landscape and innovating for the future of design. So argues a new video, titled “Ceramics of Italy – Ahead of our Time,” directed by award-winning filmmaker Francesca Molteni for Ceramics of Italy, a trade association that represents over 100 innovative Italian ceramic and porcelain tile producers.

Narrated in the David Attenborough style and accompanied by orchestral music, the film features the cerulean waves of the Mediterranean Sea, elegantly patterned tiles, and the undulating forms of contemporary, ceramic-clad Italian architecture. The video makes the case that it’s not only the raw materials – sand and clay – that come from the Italian landscape; it’s also the inspiration for form, color and texture. It’s the wide variation of these qualities and the balance between beauty and functionality that make Italian ceramic tile such a dynamic building material that architects and designers continue to use today.

One of the oldest building materials, the versatile, dynamic and stunning ceramic tile from Italy continues to be designers’ favorite cladding material.

The Italian ceramics industry is centered in the small city of Sassuolo in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, where over 80% of Italian tiles are produced. The area, abundant in clay and water, has been a center of ceramic production and was a hotbed of master ceramicists during the Renaissance. According to Maria-Teresa Rubbiani, who runs the Ceramic Tile Museum in Sassuolo, big changes to the industry came in the 1950s and 60s, when post-war Italy needed durable and inexpensive building materials.

Here in the United States, architects are using the versatility of Italian ceramic surfaces to help realize a wide range of projects. When it came to designing a new cathedral in Raleigh, North Carolina, ecclesiastical design experts at O’Brien & Keane decided to make use of porcelain tile to provide a classically beautiful look that will remain intact for generations to come. Tiles from Italian manufacturers Ergon and Provenza and setting products from Mapei can be found in the nave, transept, and narthex of the 43,000 square foot Romanesque Revival church.

Cerulean waves of the Mediterranean Sea are imitated in the elegantly patterned tiles.

While Italian tile echoes the beauty and traditions of the old country, today’s manufacturers are constantly taking advantage of new technology to provide more formats, finishes, and application possibilities, than ever before. In a Soho apartment building designed by SWA Architects, ceramic tile is used inside and out to create an efficient building envelope and luxe interiors. Efrain Perez, senior project manager at SWA, says, “We used porcelain throughout the project because of the flexibility of the material. Different finishes allowed us to create different interior and exterior environments using the same material.”

On the exterior, large panels of ventilated porcelain from Florim’s Matrice and B&W collections provide a lightweight cladding that prevents moisture infiltration, increases energy efficiency and requires minimal joints. “They look simple,” says Rubbani, “because they are plain looking, uniform in shape and texture. In fact, getting that size is quite difficult because it requires heating a larger piece up to very high temperatures.”

For more information on the Italian ceramic industry and a gallery of design-forward products from Ceramics of Italy brands, visit


Categories: Materials, Sponsored