Spanish Tile in the Digital Age

As digital printing becomes the industry’s standard, Spain’s legacy of craft takes on new meaning.

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Argila Pasadena, by Peronda Group. The intricate and complex pattern, seemingly etched, is actually produced by reactive inks which are “printed” into the glaze.

There is a quiet revolution happening in the tile industry and, by embracing the technological innovation of digital printing, Spanish manufacturers are leading the way. But even as Spain’s tile makers look to the future, they deliver from past generations a legacy of artistry. For interior designers and consumers, this blend of old and new serves up a nearly limitless menu of previously unimaginable choices.

Less than a decade ago, before the introduction of digital printing transformed the manufacturing of ceramic tiles, options were restricted to designs that could only be pressed or rolled onto surfaces. This resulted in limited, repetitive patterns, low color range, and flat tiles whose edges could not be covered. As for tiles that attempted to mimic natural surfaces, “everything looked fake,” recalls Ryan Fasan, technical consultant for Tile of Spain.

Like ceramic dust, all those limitations floated away with the advent of digital printing. Similar to a color printer, the process uses inkjet technology with millions of pixels distributing the ink over the body of the tile before it’s placed in a kiln to be fired. Not only does this “painting” provide exquisite realistic reproductions of surface materials, new glazing materials even give the tile realistic textures and reliefs.

Portofino Cemento, by Vives Cerámica. The classic terrazzo texture is reproduced with stunning realism with the help of digital printing.

“Now, whether it’s wood or marble or whatever, with inkjet printing and a combination of glazing, you can actually make tiles not only look, but feel, like marble or wood,” Fasan says. “Anyone who hasn’t seen the cutting edge of tile for the past few years will be shocked.”

PUTTING IT IN RELIEF

Since 2010, when high-tech tiles were first unveiled at Cevisama, the international trade fair for ceramic tiles in Valencia, virtually all Spanish tile makers have moved away from silk-screen and rotocolor to embrace inkjet technology. Meanwhile, with each passing year, manufacturers continue to advance their products both visually and technically.

Most recently, for instance, stone designs are employing a new generation of reactive inks that sink down into a glaze to produce a rich, hyper-realistic effect, such as in the just-released lines Fenix by Fanal and Vermont from Ceracasa.

Vermont series, by Ceracasa. Reactive inks produce visual and tactile textures reminiscent of cut stone.

“Reactive ink has both rising and falling qualities,” Fasan explains. “When it’s rising, it adds volume by puffing up to create ridges. When it’s sinking, it goes down through the glaze, creating a relief surface. For marble lines, it’s creating a really, really effective finish that has a bit more gravitas, like an older stone that has that character.”

Fabric collection, by Colorker. The tile resembles intricate textile patterns thanks to a special glazing process developed especially for inkjet printers.

“That’s another digital step forward we’ve made,” says Tony Garcia, Fanal’s North American export manager. “We’re now able to print glaze through the ink machine. This is a process where the colors are able to create a relief on the surface, with color and texture imitating the fabric.”

THE NEW CUSTOM

Other advantages to digital printing include greater flexibility with production amounts and tile size, making customization much easier. Ceracasa, in fact, introduced an entire custom brand, called Emotile, in 2009. “Inkjet printing means it’s nearly 100 percent limitless from a design point of view,” says Alfonso Beltrán, export area manager at Ceracasa, who works with commercial and residential customers.

“One thing that’s been quite popular for bathrooms is a waterfall or rainforest theme,” he notes. “Choose an image and we scan it and create it in tile.” High-resolution scanners are also used to scan surfaces of natural products, such as wood grain and marble, to produce realistic patterns that oftentimes outperform the real thing.

Fenix series, by Fanal. Glaze effects produce a stunning, marble like finish, while eliminating many of marble’s drawbacks.

“Marble is a good example,” consultant Fasan says. “It’s made of 75 percent calcium carbonate, a very acid-sensitive mineral, so it’s not a good idea to put it in a kitchen because it can stain. Tile solves those problems.”

DIGITAL PROWESS, ARTISANAL LEGACY

Moving forward, Fasan predicts that the tile manufacturing process will move towards “soup-to-nuts” digital, allowing near total flexibility, which in turn means even more options for consumers.

But despite the speed of and reliance on technology, Fasan believes there will always be a place for old-fashioned experience, something that Spanish producers have in abundance.

“These days, it’s easy enough to create something; all you need is a high-resolution image, a ceramic body and a kiln, and you can print on it,” he says. “The real artistry comes in knowing how that glaze, that worked beautifully in your grandfather’s time, is going to react in a kiln and then applying these new techniques to further enrich it. That is the benefit of generational experience— building upon itself to create something completely new.”

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