I know that this has been said before, but the quality and aesthetics of the stone and tile products on the market today have reached a new level. While stone remains timeless, and its appearance and technical qualities haven't necessarily changed, new finishes and format sizes offer more diversity. Suppliers are also going to great lengths to continually introduce exotic materials that are being newly extracted in countries around the world. Meanwhile, in the tile sector, we are witnessing an explosion of new colors, sizes and textures. Glass mosaics, metallic pieces -- and even porcelain designed to resemble hardwood or fabrics -- all contribute to inspiring designs.

With all this being said, these available options are pushing the realm of design. They are encouraging architects and designers as well as homeowners to think outside the box and to create unique interior and exterior spaces.

In particular, the commercial sector seems to be experiencing an awakening. Although strength and durability remain significant factors when considering material for high-trafficked applications, the broad spectrum of stone and tile products available today allow for softer aesthetics. Many commercial designs today include large-format floor tile, mosaic-clad walls or textured finishes to bring a more "residential feel" to a space.

Whether it is a corporate office or retail store, it appears that the objective behind many contemporary designs is to create an environment where staff and consumers can be relaxed, yet productive. At the same time, the design also needs to be functional. The numerous stone and tile collections out there make this combination possible.

An example of how commercial design has evolved can be found in our feature on the new practice facility for the Cleveland Cavaliers, which begins on page 36. The design goal was to create a "home away from home" for the players and staff, and this was achieved with the use of rough-cut pieces of limestone and wood. The stone was employed both inside and outside the facility -- giving the structure a warm home-like feel.

Also, for the Springfield retail store in Madrid, Spain, on page 42 of this issue, the design goal was to create an inviting and more residential atmosphere. Large-format porcelain floor tile with a metallic finish was chosen to contribute to the "urban loft" look that was desired.

And even while "formal" and "sophisticated" motifs still have a place in some areas of design, it is refreshing to see more natural and home-like settings in public spaces. As long as innovation keeps leading to the production of new stone and tile products, architects and designers will have a continual source for creativity and inspiration.

Jennifer Adams