The aesthetic value of porcelain tile has progressed in recent years. Crossville Porcelain Stone® introduced its new line, Color Blox. This series provides a choice of 20 evocative colors. Tile Manufacturer: Crossville Porcelain Stone®, Crossville, TN

With New Exotic Stones constantly being discovered and intriguing new products such as iridescent glass and metallic tiles being introduced, manufacturers of porcelain tile also have to be innovative in their approach to product development. While the issues of strength and durability are almost always at the forefront in the materials selection process, architects and designers also have an interest in finding new product lines that inspire fresh and unique designs. And by observing some of the latest collections of porcelain tile that have recently been put on display, it is apparent that porcelain manufacturers have been diligently working to meet the growing demands of this market.

It is only in recent years that there has been a noticeable change in the aesthetics of porcelain tile. Decades ago, it was only considered suitable for high-trafficked commercial applications such as for floors in shopping centers and airports. Color options were minimal. The material was primarily chosen on merit for its sustainability - slip and scratch resistance being priorities.

But the perception of porcelain tile has shifted dramatically during the last several years. Gradually, color options have improved and the overall appearance of product lines has reached a new level. A wide range of tile sizes is now available, and the porcelain pieces are offered in a variety of styles.

Stone-look Tiles

One of the most noted trends in porcelain collections in recent years is stone-look tile. With natural stone being a popular design choice, porcelain tile manufacturers have honed their technology to capitalize on this market. And with each passing year, advances in state-of-the-art equipment lead to an increase of quality and authenticity.

New developments have resulted in more realistic coloring. Porcelain tile is being produced to mimic slate, limestone, marble and travertine, among other stone types. The stone-look collections available today are characterized by color variations, non-repeating vein patterns and chiseled edges. It is becoming more difficult to decipher what is real and what is imitation - even to a trained eye.

Further contributing to the authentic appearance of stone-look porcelain tile is the texture of the products. Different finishes are now used to give the tile more depth and interest. The added texture also provides more of a natural stone feel - especially for a material such as slate.

It is also evident that many of these porcelain tile lines are being named after specific towns or regions - particularly those in Europe which are rich in culture and history. In many cases, the namesakes are stone-producing areas. This further adds to the allure of the material, bringing life to an otherwise flat tile.

New color options

In addition to stone-look tiles, other porcelain tile collections are presenting rich and vibrant colors that were never previously available. Bright shades such as yellow, blue, orange and green are now incorporated into new product lines - offering numerous design options that can create bright and festive spaces.

In the past, the colors for porcelain were limited at best. The design community certainly did not look to this product type when aspiring to create vivid and dramatic designs. But with the latest developments in color, this has all changed. The boundless color options that are now available in porcelain are giving designers new inspiration.

There are also many neutral hues like beige, black and gray on the market, which are being used to develop a minimalist look. This contemporary style has become more popular over the years in both residential and commercial design. The solid-colored tiles are being utilized to create clean lines and a sleek atmosphere in chic restaurants, hotels and retail outlets as well as residential kitchens, bathrooms and living rooms.

While these neutral tones are often being utilized to achieve a modern look of simplicity, they can also be spiced up with a splash of color. It is not uncommon for a space to feature primarily monochromatic tones of a neutral shade with a splash of color used as an accent, such as for a floor border or a backsplash.

Moreover, earth tones remain a favorite in design. Many porcelain collections offer the natural-looking shades of beige, brown, green and taupe. Once again, these shades can be used in conjunction with bolder colors to create a point of interest in a room.

Manufacturers of porcelain tile are producing product lines with the design community in mind. They realize the importance of products that lend themselves to creativity and invention. There is a value to porcelain collections that attracts a designer's eye. Manufacturers want to offer products that will spark interest and introduce new applications.

A Range of Sizes

The amount of tile sizes available in porcelain product lines is also a new development in recent years. In addition to standard 12- x 12-inch tiles, modular sizes such as 6 x 6, 12 x 12, 12 x 18 and 18 x 18 inches are now in circulation. These varied sizes allow pieces to be mixed and matched - creating a floor or wall pattern with more personality and movement.

Additionally, an assortment of trim pieces is now on the market to complement porcelain tiles. These decorative elements can be used for details such as borders and chair rails, furthering enhancing the appearance of a space.

Another way manufacturers are enticing the design community is by developing products that are meant to be complemented with other mediums such as glass, metal and natural stone. When used in combination with each other, these materials strongly push the scope of a design and emphasize the endless possibilities available. One U.S. manufacturer has even consulted with a carpet manufacturer to make porcelain tile that coordinates with the company's carpet products.

Extruded Porcelain

The way in which porcelain tile is processed is a key component in the quality of the end product. Several manufacturers place high regard in the fact that they make extruded porcelain tile, which is different from the traditional press method.

While producing an extruded tile requires much more time, companies that specialize in this technique believe that the product is ultimately superior. The process has been compared to making homemade pasta in a pasta machine. The clay comes out very soft, and can be molded. The pieces are placed in a drying tunnel for up to 10 hours at a low temperature. This takes the moisture out of the tile slowly, which allows the calibration to be controlled. Tiles that are single caliber ensure a tight joint.

According to one manufacturer of extruded porcelain, the end product is much more natural looking than a pressed tile. Additionally, extruded tiles have an eased edge, which prevents chipping.

So as is the case with most industries, manufacturers of porcelain tile will continue the research and development of ways to improve upon the porcelain tile collections on the market today. While it is apparent that the quality of porcelain - especially from an aesthetic standpoint - has improved significantly in recent years, this only sets the bar higher for standards.

Manufacturers are driven by the challenge to continue to surprise architects and designers with new options. They will keep the cycle going to produce even more colors, sizes and finishes that will appeal to the creative eye.