The tile and stone category is expected to see growth in the coming year, and retailers looking to capture that sales potential should stay ahead of the coming trends. However, that becomes more difficult as tile continues to evolve its place in the home—no longer banished to the bathroom or kitchen floor. “It’s not just for the residential kitchen backsplash or the hotel bathroom anymore,” said Lindsey Waldrep, director of marketing, Crossville. “There are more options for countertops and other horizontal applications.”
As such, FCNews tapped some of the categories top vendors to bring you the most sought-after product features that will drive tile production and trends in 2019.
Bigger and better
The large-format trend continues to reign, and “planks and rectangles remain king,” said Emily Holle, MSI’s director of trend and design. Multiple vendors agree that large format will continue its upward trajectory—in both sales and installation—in the coming year, with sizes such as 18 x 24 remaining popular while even larger sizes, some measured in feet, continue to gain ground in floor and wall applications.
In addition, these large-size tiles will push boundaries in terms of color and design. For example, Marco Fregni, CEO of Florim USA, said advancements in extra-large tiles being used as wall to floor coverings has resulted in something quite intriguing: ceramic wallpaper. “Creative designs like geometric patterns, floral and tropical patterns and art-deco motifs are really allowing designers to come up with concepts that are only limited by their imaginations.”
Functional in all forms MSI’s Holle noted that consumers today want waterproof, pet-proof and kid-proof flooring. “We are seeing function and performance get closer to the top of the list when a homeowner is shopping.”
What’s more, non-traditional tile applications, such as three-dimensional wall tile or chevron looks, are expected to reign. Other vendors agree that tile’s move from the kitchen and bathroom to these unconventional applications throughout the home is enabled by its evolving functionality.
Fregni said Florim USA is devoting significant time and effort into creating porcelain that can be used as a countertop surface but remain impervious to stains as well as run from ceiling to floor and seamlessly transition to outdoor patios without fear of being damaged by the elements. From walls and countertops to outdoor pavers, retailers should be on the hunt for versatile functionality.
Pattern and color go bold
Vendors agree encaustic prints, retro and modern geometric looks and graphic bold patterns will dominate. Paij Thorn-Brooks, vice president of marketing, Dal-Tile, also noted the impact cultural influences will have on tile patterns. “The decorative art found in Moroccan culture will play a large role in surfaces, and countries in the Far East will make an impact as well, inspiring origami and tangram geometric patterns,” she said.
When it comes to color, Emser Tile said wood looks will range from classic warmth to more contemporary cool tones featuring brushes of blue, while mosaics will see bright blues, greens and whites. Crossville’s Waldrep added that new collections will include richly nuanced surface visuals with layered and saturated colors and details.
On the surface In addition to the growth of both polished and matte finishes, vendors expect the growth of textured tiles. Due to advancements in digital printing, vendors are now able to mimic not only the look of other materials but also the feel. These realistically textured tiles—or those that give the illusion of texture—can add depth and dimension to a project, helping to spur tile’s popularity with consumers and projected growth in the coming year. “Offered in several shapes and sizes, textured tiles can make a statement on their own or be combined into exciting combinations,” Dal-Tile’s Thorn-Brooks noted.
Vendors said textured tiles will complement the forecasted pattern and color trends for 2019 with bold colors and encaustic patterns high in demand.
Modest, single-digit growth is expected for the tile and stone category in 2019, according to some of the sector’s top executives, with demand in the commercial sector poised to stimulate that growth. Large-format tile and planks have also hit their stride and remain an opportunity for the category. However, a shortage of skilled installers and higher interest rates could prove challenging moving into 2019.
Marco Fregni CEO Florim USA
What is your projection for category growth in 2019? All the indicators show a very shy growth around 3%. This is due to the rise of higher interest rates on mortgages and the housing market showing a very modest growth.
Which segments/products will fuel that growth? The commercial segment is where we can gain potential growth due to the very strict requirement for maintenance and durability. The distribution channel would be the most challenged and controversial, since the offering in this segment is higher than the demand itself.
Where do you see opportunity within the category? Challenges? I see great opportunity in the A&D market. Through our Milestone brand, which is produced in our Clarksville, Tenn. facilities, Florim USA is uniquely positioned to capitalize on increased interest within this market. [The category] is facing several challenges, including a shortage of truck drivers and installers in the U.S., competing products such as LVT and heavy competition from foreign products.
What are your biggest initiatives for 2019? Our biggest initiative is the continued launch of our new Milestone brand—the rollout and numerous unique product launches we have planned for 2019. The big achievement in 2018 was completing the EPD process. Our next challenge will be earning Greenguard certification. These initiatives are a sign of our commitment to the environment, to our employees and to our customers and end users.
Barbara Haaksma Vice president of marketing Emser Tile
What is your projection for category growth in 2019? We expect to see single-digit growth from 2018 to 2019, and we are thrilled to be on the cutting-edge of creating design-forward products with versatile applications.
Which segments/products will fuel that growth? New home builds and commercial installations continue to create new opportunities for tile and stone. Outdoor tile is growing in popularity, as well as gauged porcelain and modern ceramic wall tile.
Where do you see opportunity within the category? Challenges? There are infinite circumstances for statement-making design: bold colors and dynamic, eye-catching textures. We are excited to bring the classics that consumers love, mixed in with several new ideas in 2019.
What are your biggest initiatives for 2019? Emser will bring more than 20 introductions to TISE and IBS in early 2019 with a bevy of aesthetics. We have also launched an online platform for our existing partners and are excited to be a part of digital platforms such as Material Bank. We also offer Emser University to our partners—a customized program that shares the latest product knowledge, manufacturing processes and selling strategies.
Raj Shah President MSI
What is your projection for category growth in 2019?We expect to see between 4% to 6% growth in the tile category in 2019.
Which segments/products will fuel that growth? Large-format tile and planks will remain popular. We also believe the wall and outdoor products will have disproportionate growth in 2019.
Where do you see opportunity within the category? Challenges? Opportunity is endless. The biggest thing we need to do as an industry is to continue to inspire the consumer. MSI’s Augmented Reality app is a perfect tool to enable this. Visualization continues to be the consumer’s biggest hurdle, and as tile variation and sizes are increasing, tools are required to keep up with the growth rate. Finally, the continued transition from soft flooring and even hardwood to tile is an opportunity.
What are your biggest initiatives for 2019? Our goal as a company is to continue to make dream surfaces attainable. This becomes a larger challenge in an inflationary and slowing economy, but the MSI team is very well suited to do this. We will be investing heavily into new products, inspiration tools and finding ways to offset inflationary pressures.
Lindsey Waldrep, Vice president of marketing Crossville
What is your projection for category growth in 2019? The tile market is growing. There’s increased demand across both commercial and residential sectors, and competition has grown to meet demand domestically.
Which segments/products will fuel that growth? Large-format and porcelain tile panels are fueling growth. Field tile dimensions upwards of 36-inches are popular, even residentially. Then there’s porcelain tile panels—tiles measured in feet, not inches—that are earning more specifications in commercial and residential projects. The material is so versatile, including its ability to be installed tile-over-tile, making it a great alternative for a range of surfaces.
Where do you see opportunity within the category? Challenges? The need for qualified labor to install the tile is an ongoing challenge. We will continue our expansive installer training and education programs—including industry partnerships and in-house workshops to ensure installers are trained and ready to answer demand.
What are your biggest initiatives for 2019? We’re gearing up for a busy year with product launches that exemplify the latest innovations in our industry. A primary focus for us is deepening our solutions for those who select and specify tile. For example, we just launched a new website that was designed based on extensive research in the A&D community.
The ceramic tile industry can best be described as a two-sided coin: one side shows a business thriving from a healthy economy and consumer preferences trending toward floors resembling or made from natural materials; but on the flip side, a projected decline in new housing starts and unfavorable macroeconomic issues threaten to stymie growth.
“I predict that by the end of the year, the overall consumption of ceramic tile [floor and wall] will be flat with the previous year,” said Gianni Mattioli, executive vice president, product and marketing, Dal-Tile. “New residential applications should be positive thanks to new home construction, while residential remodeling could be slightly negative.”
When you look at the numbers, ceramic is a steady performer, posting eight consecutive years of sales growth through 2017. Sales rose 5.8% and nearly topped $3 billion for the first time while volume rose 5.5%, according to FCNews research. The U.S. remains fertile ground for tile makers, as the amount of ceramic sold is significantly less than other parts of the world.
“Products continue to get to market through tile distribution and dealers’ showrooms, though e-commerce continues to grow, as well,” noted Lindsey Waldrep, vice president of marketing for Crossville.
In 2018, the category benefitted from numerous factors ranging from a strong economy and new housing market to high consumer confidence and low unemployment rates. The remodeling market remained busy, observers report, as more people chose to remain in their homes and update them to accommodate evolving needs.
“Many homeowners are compelled to upgrade materials in their homes,” Waldrep said. “We always aim to guide homeowners and the remodeling professionals they are working with to choose the right tile products for the applications at hand.”
Meanwhile, the category expanded usage into key commercial sectors— namely hospitality, healthcare, education and corporate offices—and new high-end homes saw greater quantities of tile specified. “Consumers are still extending the use of tile in applications outside of traditional kitchen and bathroom floors,” said Bob Baldocchi, chief marketing officer and vice president of business development, Emser Tile. “Wall, decorative accents, indoor/outdoor, external landscaping and cladding are all growth areas.”
But the eight-year winning streak for tile is expected to end soon. Rising prime lending rates, tighter mortgage qualification criteria and rising real estate costs are among the factors expected to impact demand in 2019. For example, Dodge Data & Analytics projects single-family housing starts will slide 3% to 815,000 units in 2019 while multi-family starts drop 8% to 465,000 units.
“Total housing starts will decline 5% to 1.28 million units,” stated Kim Kennedy, manager of forecasting at Dodge Data & Analytics. “In dollars, single-family housing starts will remain flat in 2019 at $232 billion, and multi-family housing starts will fall 6% to $87 billion.”
New housing is one of the biggest markets for tile consumption. Residential construction data, however, can be skewed by peaks and valleys in key regions. For example, the South region, the largest in terms of building activity, saw housing starts decline by almost 14% through September. Unforeseen situations—such as the recent fires in Northern California and Hurricanes Florence and Michael in the South—impacted flooring choices in home improvement projects as well as new residential construction, according to published reports.
Emerging issues A major issue affecting the builder business is affordability, as declines in home ownership persisted well into the market recovery and recent gains have been restrained, Dodge Data reported.
Limited increases in income, large spikes in house prices and rising mortgage rates are combining to hamper affordability, particularly for first-time homebuyers. “Home affordability issues within key markets are driving a push towards lower square footage,” Emser Tile’s Baldocchi said.
From a product perspective, LVT is reportedly expanding into commercial and residential spaces previously occupied by ceramic. What some industry members find worrisome about this trend is that tile is a superior product on paper, as it is a natural product offering an inert and impermeable surface with zero VOCs, is more durable and offers arguably better looks. “So it must be cost to the consumer that is a primary deciding factors, which includes everything up to and including installation,” said Ryan Fasan, Tile of Spain consultant and tile specialist.
Tile costs are slowly climbing with the average per-square-foot price increasing from $0.95 to $1.20 in the last decade, according to FCNews research. Rising tariffs and transportation/freight expenses contributed to higher sticker prices for a product among the priciest of floor coverings. Suppliers are cognizant of this, and adjusting to decrease landing costs (such as shaving a millimeter or two from the product thickness). This minor adjustment can have major ramifications throughout the supply chain.
“The lighter material is easier to carry, cut and work with on site, potentially cutting project timelines and cost when it comes time for installation,” Fasan explained. “The goal is to engineer product that does its job without overkill to allow for a broader range of projects to afford the premium characteristics and style that tile provides.”
Tile is among the most difficult floorings to install, as there are many product types, sizes and applications indoors and outdoors, plus potential floor preparation issues on job sites. Further complicating matters is the shortage of qualified installers, as retailers and contractors are challenged to find good help. “Labor continues to be a topic of conversation as it relates to both the availability and quality,” Emser Tile’s Baldocchi said. “However, recently we have seen and heard reports of markets where this is easing, and efforts are being made to do more training and attract new installers.”
Industry associations and suppliers are doing their part to boost installation quality and recruit more mechanics. For example, the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA) offers an online apprentice program for tile installers. The University of Ceramic Tile and Stone (UofCTS) provides an online Tile Installer ITS Verification course, which features an extensive section on how to install gauged porcelain tiles on floors and walls. “It only takes about five hours to complete,” said Donato Pompo, UofCTS founder.
Crossville, for its part, prioritizes installer training and education. Its industry partnerships and in-house workshops are non-stop efforts to help more members of the installation community be equipped with the know-how to answer demand. “When installers are armed with the knowledge to land projects and achieve successful installations, they are in positions of strength to grow their businesses in terms of staffing, further training and resources.”
Eye on innovations Tile is reportedly becoming mass marketable due to improvements in technology that have led to usage beyond floors and walls. For example, the advent of slabs for countertops and 16mm-30mm thick paver options is providing an entry for ceramics into areas of specification dominated by natural stones and other manufactured goods.
“By creating product in these progressive formats—with all of the inherent benefits of ceramics coupled with the ever-growing capabilities for staggering decoration methods—ceramics are making big waves in these areas of specifications,” Tile of Spain’s Fasan pointed out.
Emerging formats, such as large tiles and porcelain panels, are expected to continue expanding into multiple end uses in 2019. “The market is accustomed to larger proportions in field tiles, making dimensions upwards of 36-inches viable in the residential market,” Crossville’s Waldrep explained. “Even larger, porcelain tile panels are starting to be embraced residentially as options for shower stall walls, fireplace surrounds and backsplashes.”
Size does matter as vendors continue churning out larger formats and myriad shapes to accommodate pent-up demand. For instance, rectangle sizes are popular both in small subway wall tiles and large floor tiles. “We see strengths in larger rectangular sizes, like marbles and limestones, in general,” Dal-Tile’s Mattioli explained. “Polish material is getting more popular, and wall tile is strong in all categories and sizes.”
Wood grain, stone and concrete tile looks are top sellers in hard surfaces, and ceramic is no exception. Mosaic tiles are also trending as consumer confidence holds strong, making homeowners open to more bold and customized styles. “Wood-look tile collections are now staples,” Waldrep said. “These products are perpetually popular as durable alternatives for bringing the look of wood to spaces where the real thing wouldn’t be an option.”
Suppliers continue to invest across their manufacturing footprints to bolster production efficiency and speed to market. Digital printing is becoming so sophisticated that it has completely transformed the category, allowing production of high-quality tiles that mimic natural materials and vary in design.
Case in point: The colors in Crossville’s new Astral Plane collection offer nuanced details captured through the latest tile manufacturing technology and are somewhat warmer in tone. “We also offer mosaic options that not only add to the aesthetics of the line, but provide functional slip resistance when installed as flooring in wet areas such a shower stalls,” Waldrep said. “The size options are varied and align with popular preferences as well.”
In addition to improved aesthetics, R&D efforts center on developing larger sized floor tile and polished materials. “We also have a new product focus on wall tile that is 3D, providing an artisan look, or features structure,” Dal-Tile’s Mattioli said. “Our extra-large Panoramic porcelain slabs are hitting the market with a competitive program.”
It’s been said a leopard can’t change its spots, but this idiom doesn’t apply to the world’s oldest form of flooring. Natural stone suppliers are reinvigorating the category by utilizing new production technologies to produce high-fashion products in larger formats to meet any design vision for inside and outside the home.
“It is important for the manufacturer/distributor to holistically capture the trends taking place across all surfacing applications and offer the products that meet these needs,” said Sam Kim, vice president, MSI. “As a distributor, we see this as a unique opportunity to serve our business partners and end consumers with the ability to service the full basket.”
A robust economy and housing market are enabling the category to make inroads in residential applications. “Natural stone is enjoying a rise in demand following several years of a market saturated with imitation stone,” observed Joshua Levinson, president wholesale, Artistic Tile.
There is a correlation between stone consumption and new housing starts. As single-family homes get bigger, it provides opportunities for stone surfaces to expand beyond the kitchen. Meanwhile, the state of the luxury home market is another barometer, as stone floors and walls are commonly found in these dwellings.
“As home prices rise, we have seen more full house applications,” Bob Baldocchi, chief marketing officer and vice president business development, Emser Tile, pointed out.
Despite economic indicators pointing in the right direction, modest growth of approximately 1.5% to 2% is projected over the next three years as commodity stones face increased competition from hard surfaces. “The stone flooring market has been losing share over the last few years to ceramics, hardwood and now, luxury tile plank,” Baldocchi said.
The influx of hard surfaces in the low end, which mimic nature inspired styles of stone but cost less, is a major competitive issue. For example, “the technology in porcelain tile manufacturing has advanced so well that the natural stone look porcelains are becoming increasingly popular,” noted Meredith Locker, associate ASID, regional manager for Crossville Studios, the distribution division of Crossville, Inc. “They not only offer the beautiful aesthetics of natural stone, but the benefits of low maintenance porcelain.”
Stone flooring is positioned as a premium upgrade over ceramic and certain hardwoods, experts say. While stone is among the priciest of floors, producers are leveling the playing field by introducing products that offer more bang for the buck. Plus, when installed prices are amortized over the life of the floor, the initial investment looks even more reasonable.
“Manmade products can do a decent job of replicating basic stones, but simply can’t compete with the vivid veining, rare colors or the depth and complexity of natural stone,” Artistic Tile’s Levinson said. “As a result, suppliers are currently seeking out more unique natural materials.”
Buyers from the high end are said to appreciate one-of-a-kind looks that can be achieved with a heavily veined natural stone. “The finished look of the install is an expression of the designer and/or property owner that simply cannot be reproduced anywhere,” Levinson said. “It acts as a lasting legacy of the work of the design professional.”
Popular stone used in the home include granite, limestone, sandstone, slate and flagstone, vendors said. Marble and stone mosaics are among the fastest growth categories, with double-digit sales spikes expected this year. “Marble has risen as a top option, with new color variations boosting its appeal as a solution for modern designs while still maintaining its timeless style,” said Roy Viana, director of natural stone and slab at Dal-Tile.
New looks, formats
Innovation is rampant, industry members said, despite the fact stone maintains timeless appeal and durability few materials can match. A major area of focus is decorative and wall elements as more dimensional and complex styles are developed. “As acceptance for decorative products grows, manufacturers and suppliers are finding better efficiencies,” Emser’s Baldocchi said. “This has enabled us to develop new ideas at even better pricing as manufacturers find better manufacturing techniques.”
Technology impacts the ability to design with natural stone in many ways. For instance, abrasive water jets can cut stone into intricate flowing patterns as well as precise geometric designs. “CNC technology has allowed natural stone to be carved into dimensional pieces of different forms,” Artistic Tile’s Levinson pointed out. “These technologies have also allowed for the combination of natural stone with metal and glass, which add intriguing contrast to natural stone.”
Water jet cutting advances enable suppliers to produce highly styled patterns and intricate shapes in products such as mosaics. “The value that water jet cutting is giving consumers and designers is greater flexibility in the stone, so they can now consider stone for certain design aspects where they previously would have turned to wall paper or tile,” Dal-Tile’s Viana said. “You can now modernize a look with stone because it is no longer available in just traditional sizes and shapes.”
Bigger is better when it comes to size, experts said, as variations from tile to tile are more pronounced, plus it meets pent up demand for larger formats. Standard 12 x 12-inch sizes are being supplanted by 24 x 24-inch and 12 x 36-inch formats while planks measuring 8 x 36 inches and 16 x 48 inches are utilized in large spaces. “One of the hottest trends in the industry is extra-large pieces,” Viana noted. “This size category is appealing because it empowers customers to create continuous, seamless design.”
Geometric and irregular sizes—such as rectangles and hexagons—remain popular choices, experts said. “We have developed a new Marble collection that blends the coveted white and gray palette with on-trend geometric shapes to answer all trend needs,” MSI’s Kim said.
Production improvements have allowed for introductions of more heavily veined stones, providing designers and homeowners with more variety. “We’re noticing a rise in demand for veining and color,” Artistic Tile’s Levinson said. “Specifically, colors such as greens, pinks and reds are beginning to interest the design community once again.”
Innovation is also leading to more creative looks, including mixing colors and surface finishes. “In some cases, when we are talking about mosaic or smaller 3 x 6-inch stone wall tiles, we are talking about the same stone in multiple finishes being installed together—whether it is a combination of raked and honed, a honed with a scraped finish, or polished combined with a bush hammered finish,” Dal-Tile’s Viana said. “These texture combinations create interesting variation within the stone application.”
Decorative pieces—in polished, honed and split face finishes—are utilized to provide an unexpected break of texture in otherwise continuous, sleek spaces. “What has helped the category is the expansion of the decorative piece,” Emser’s Baldocchi said. “This has inspired more homeowners to use more flooring to match the selected decorative.”
Color preferences are reportedly trending towards gray, black and white, often found in limestone and marble. “Black and white stone combinations are very popular,” Crossville’s Locker said. “Brass accents in mosaics is a noteworthy trend right now, as are textured finishes, color-etched finishes and large format sizes.”
Light-colored, polished natural stone remains a sought-after option for interior flooring, MSI’s Kim noted. “Alternate finish as well as dark-colored natural stone flooring, including pavers, show significant growth in demand.”
The color combination of gray and beige—fondly known as “greige”—is gaining traction as well, manufacturers noted. Greige is a fresh way to incorporate warmer shades into spaces while still providing a contemporary feel. This color blend ranges from sand tones to deep charcoal.
“A nice example of this color range is found in the Dal-Tile Center City marble and limestone collection, which offers beautiful shades of greige,” Dal-Tile’s Viana said.
One of the hottest new products is natural quartzite, vendors said, which combines the look and feel of marble with the durability and hardness of granite. “Quartzites are becoming more available in a lot of different looks,” said Donato Pompo, CTC, CMR, CSI, CDT, MBA, founder of the University of Ceramic Tile and Stone. “The textured leather finish has been a desirable look without having the maintenance issues of a textured finished stone.”
Classic styles, such as white marbles, remain in vogue and available in many variations. “We offer many white marbles with various price points,” Crossville’s Locker said. “There’s also lots of excitement for color-etched stone with a gold leaf option.”
With the help of technology, ceramic can go where it wasn’t able to go before. High-definition printing and screening has completely transformed the category, allowing it to be a more versatile floor and thus a more attractive option to the consumer.
The industry has been raving about the aesthetics of wood, and with high-definition printing, manufacturers can now offer these hot looks to the marketplace. If the consumer wants to install a floor that looks like wood in her bathroom but doesn’t want to put in real wood because water may damage the floor—no problem. In short, she can have the wood look she wants, with the benefits of ceramic tile to go with it.
Case in point: Dal-Tile uses digital printing to replicate looks of not only wood to stay on trend, but also stone, marble, masonry and concrete. High-definition printing allows the company to give the consumer a plethora of options and designs to appeal to all different tastes.
“Digital printing continues to be an innovation that lets us develop tile lines to meet consumer demands,” said Laura Grilli, senior manager of product development, Dal-Tile. “By combining digital printing with our existing expertise in tile design and manufacturing, our leading tile brands are able to develop tile that accurately replicates the natural surfaces but still features the benefits of tile, such as design, durability, cleanability, high-performance, health and sustainability.”
The manufacturer uses its Reveal Imaging, Visual Imaging and EverLux technologies in its three main tile brands—Daltile, Marazzi and American Olean. Grilli emphasized that not only do these technologies provide the look of the material that it is imitating in the design but also realism by creating the feel of the material it’s imitating. “Our technologies can create tile for our brands that capture the visuals and texture of the material we are trying to achieve, so much so that it is difficult for consumers to discern what is tile and what is the natural surface we are imitating,” she explained. “Our EverLux technology actually synchronizes the texture to the design for the ultimate realism.”
Emser Tile also uses high-definition printing to its advantage. The company cited its Porch line, a glazed porcelain that features subtle wood grain movement on tile panels. The collection gives realistic wood looks and can be installed in shower walls and floors, kitchen counters, inside pools and other wet areas due to the benefits of ceramic as a flooring option.
“High-definition print technology continues to evolve, enabling ceramic designs that showcase high-resolution pattern and texture at once,” said Barbara Haaksma, vice president of marketing.
Technological advancements have also allowed manufacturers to have more control over the design process of tile. MSI shared that not only has high-definition printing revolutionized the category, but it provides companies with the ability to have 100% control of the outcome of the print. Because of this, MSI can change images on the tile to the way the company wants it to look.
“The unique beauty of this is if there is a vein coloration or awkward knot hole in the natural material that we want to remove or alter, we can,” said Emily Holle, director of trend and design. “At MSI, our strong background in natural materials gives us a very good eye for color, detail and movement in graphics. We are very particular about what graphics work and which ones don’t. We now have the ability to take a high-resolution scan of natural stone, wood plank, cement look, etc., and print it on tile.”
Using the latest advancements, MSI is also able to produce larger-format tiles for shower walls, floors and now countertops. This pairing of hot graphics with popular large tile sizes is its key ingredient to success in the industry with ceramic tile. “Large 5 x 10 panels are being printed with the most beautiful graphics,” Holle stated. “This happy marriage of digital print and large format panels is going to change the tile industry as we know it. Large-printed tile is now perfect for countertops. Think about countertops that won’t fade and can be in any high-end stone look you desire for a fraction of the cost. It won’t scratch and it’s heat resistant.”
Leslie Wolfe, designer and owner of Benton Parker Design, LaGrange, Ga., who frequently collaborates with MSI, attested to how high-definition printing has completely transformed the category. She has experience designing multiple spaces with tile for many years but has always been resistant to its looks. Now, tile can offer authentic stone looks, which she prefers, with digital printing.
“I have always been a natural stone loyalist because of its authentic colorways, rich depth in veining and overall luxurious appeal,” Wolfe explained. “In the past, there was no comparison. Ceramic tile wasn’t anywhere close to the quality of looks I specified for projects. With the massive improvements in print technology, the visuals look better than ever. There are some prints on tile that do not exist in nature, so that is an added bonus—high durability plus a unique design.”
Ceramic tile manufacturers continue to push the proverbial design envelope by developing new shapes, formats, patterns and sizes. The aim is to better meet the needs of a diverse and growing range of end users.
In terms of visuals, ceramic is looking to nature for inspiration—literally. Wood planks continue to rise in popularity, based not only on the high level of realism that can be achieved due to sophisticated digital printing, but also because of the advent of longer plank sizes and wider widths.
“Playing with the different sizes side by side adds a more modern yet sophisticated element to the design because the non-linear pattern will pop as a focal point,” said Laura Grilli, senior product development manager, Dal-Tile. As an example, she cited Daltile’s Emerson Wood collection, which is available in three extra-long sized planks, including 12 x 48, 8 x 48 and 6 x 48 formats.
But it’s not just wood looks that are trending. Warm, gray-colored concrete tile, as seen in American Olean’s Union collection, is turning heads, according to the company. “There is a softness that comes through when using gray,” Grilli explained. “Once installed, end users have the option to choose a design direction ranging anywhere from minimalistic to modern.”
Industry observers also continue to track interest in larger formats. While 12 x 24 remains the staple tile size, larger options such as 24 x 48 and 18 x 36 are gaining in popularity. Proponents cite the appeal of minimal visible grout lines, which are inherent in larger tiles, to the greater floor space bigger tiles cover, particularly in more expansive settings.
Larger-format ceramic tiles are also being utilized in various indoor spaces that require a clean and professional look as well as low maintenance. “Think elevator bank walls in office buildings, exterior cladding for hotels and retail centers, feature walls in multifamily lobbies as well as fireplace surroundings in living areas with vaulted ceilings,” said Lindsey Waldrep, vice president of marketing at Crossville. “These huge pieces of ceramic tile have infinite design capabilities and are so appealing in these environments.”
Interestingly, larger tiles are creating opportunities beyond interior settings. “Consumers are using larger panels for a monolithic look that takes tile from the front door all the way out to their patio,” said Emily Holle, director of trend and design, MSI. “Ceramic tile has proven its functionality no matter the environment, and people are taking advantage of it.”
But that doesn’t mean smaller tiles no longer have a place in the home. Observers say miniature ceramic tile sizes are still being utilized for decorative applications such as backsplashes or accent walls. “People are much more appreciative of the handmade products these days,” Waldrep said, citing Crossville’s Retro Active 2.0 collection, which is available in 13 different colors and various shapes. “Smaller tiles allow for more options of how to use the space on the wall by playing with different shades of colors and how they are arranged.”
What’s more, using various shaped tiles allows end users to experiment with color and size in both traditional and unconventional ways. For instance, Emser Tile’s Design Form collection of 9 x 9 tiles offers 16 different black and white patterns that can be mixed to make a classic linear design or busy flooring pattern that can function as the focal point of a design.
“People are playing with irregular angles, linear etching and plaster effects to add texture and alluring dimensions on their walls,” said Barbara Haaksma, vice president of marketing, Emser Tile. “It draws in the eye so much quicker and keeps it there because there is so much to take in when the pattern is kept busy.”
Some of the most popular shapes being used on walls are fish scale, chevron and herringbone—some of which may incorporate 3D textures for a multi-dimensional look. “Our Visual Impressions collection is the perfect example of a wall tile that is not only visual but tactile and can make a space much more comfortable,” American Olean’s Grilli explained. “People are looking to take it to the next level so that you can touch and feel the texture of the tile which adds even more personality to the entire design.”
Technological leaps Ceramic tile producers attribute many of the latest looks and designs to the advent of digital printing technology. This, observers say, has almost single-handedly ushered in the ability to create patterns and designs that at first were thought to be unrepeatable.
“Ceramic can now mimic looks that cannot be replicated in other materials,” Emser Tile’s Haaksma said. “The tile can capture textured concrete looks, mod-inspired graphic patterns and reminiscent terrazzo prints while outperforming other materials in cost and ease of maintenance.”
More specifically, printing technology has allowed marble to thrive because of the new capability to manipulate small details within the material so the design pattern can expand to more than one tile and be used in larger areas.
“Printing technology has allowed manufacturers to perfect minor aspects of the graphics that could not be achieved in the past,” Grilli explained. “For example, we are now able to adjust how one specific vein looks on a piece of marble that could not have been adjusted previously. This allows us to synchronize multiple pieces together.”
But it’s not just flooring we’re talking about here. Large porcelain slabs, such as Daltile’s Panoramic Porcelain Series, can also be used for countertop applications. “Porcelain slabs are easy to clean, waterproof, scratch-proof, cannot be stained and don’t freeze,” Grilli noted. “They are becoming the obvious choice because of the design capabilities, along with the numerous everyday advantages.”
The U.S. ceramic tile industry registered its eighth consecutive year of growth in 2017, buoyed largely by a strengthening economy, sizeable gains in the construction and housing sectors, falling unemployment numbers and favorable interest rates.
FCNews research shows sales rose 5.8% to $2.921 billion while volume increased 5% to 2.426 billion square feet. The 2017 numbers were similar to 2016 when sales jumped 5.7% and volume increased 5.5%, reflecting the continued strength of a category that is the third-largest sector in flooring in terms of dollars, representing 13.3% of all flooring sold in 2017, up from 13% in 2016. In terms of volume, ceramic tile represented 12.35% of total industry volume, up from 12.1% in 2016. Only carpet/rugs and resilient account for larger pieces of the flooring pie.
The eight-year winning streak follows a rather dark period (2007-2009) when the cate- gory fell an almost incomprehensible 20% or more for three consecutive years before beginning its comeback in 2010. The nadir took place in 2009, when the ceramic market fell 24.2% in sales to $1.347 billion while volume dropped 22% to 1.28 billion square feet. Fast forward to 2017—ceramic sales have risen 116% since 2009 while volume has increased 89.5%.
While the overall economy—and housing in particular—is showing robust activity, ceramic is taking advantage with gains that only LVT has surpassed among flooring product segments. “Housing starts are crucial for the ceramic tile industry,” Donato Grosser, industry consultant, told FCNews. “During the recession, housing starts fell by 70% and ceramic tile sales fell by more than 30%. Now, housing starts are progressing at a moderate pace. When the sector cools off, it will not do too much damage.”
The combination of still relatively low interest rates, high home equity and a backlog from the economic crisis of 2008–2010 has been instrumental in the flooring industry growing at rates exceeding that of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), which grew 2.3% in 2017. Ceramic has been a main catalyst for flooring’s spurt.
“It is almost the perfect storm of economic data that is enabling ceramic tile to continue its double GDP growth rates,” said Raj Shah, president of MSI International. “The U.S. continues to be significantly below the long-term average of residential investment as a percentage of GDP. If we can get back to our long-term average, then we can expect almost a 20% increase in the overall industry size.”
From a residential perspective, there is a strong parallel between tile consumption and new housing starts. To that end, new housing starts greatly contributed to the growth of the ceramic category in 2017, most notably in Florida, Texas and California. There are other trends at play as well. “Single- family homes have generally grown larger in size over the years, providing an opportunity for tile consumption to reach new levels,” said Jason Roshel, product director for Dal-Tile. “These bigger homes tend to use larger quantities of tile because of its style and effortless maintenance. Additionally, we are seeing an increase in wall tile application.”
Role technology plays Beyond the economy and housing, ceramic tile is taking a disproportionate share within the flooring industry, in part because it is becoming mass marketable due to improvements in technology that have led to applications on countertops, walls and outdoors. Specifically, advances in ink-jet printing have allowed companies to mimic the popular looks of hardwood that so many consumers demand.
“We’re seeing expansion where tile is used for walls and countertops,” said Bob Baldocchi, chief marketing officer and vice president, business development, Emser Tile. “A lot of product we put on floors is also suitable for walls, with 12 x 24 formats and wood-look tiles being the most popular. Ceramic/porcelain and application usage is blurring together. The use of product beyond the floors is happening in all classification of the business. While some products we develop are ceramic, the trend can be seen nearly across the board in terms of what materials are being used to create amazing looks.”
While ceramic sales continue on a healthy trajectory, the average selling price has remained relatively steady for the last four years. Observers cite a directional tug of war that is keeping the average-selling price relatively flat. Among the mitigating factors impacting pricing: less trim is being used today (in favor of profile strips); the growth in wall tile usage; better pricing on 4 x 16 and 3 x 6 white ceramics, and competitive, entry-level price points and competition from LVT/WPC/rigid core product segments. On the flip side, the reasons behind average-selling price increases include: more indoor/outdoor applications; greater feature wall tile usage, and large formats and countertop slab materials. In the end, observers agree average-selling prices for 2017 was virtually unchanged from 2016.
Commercial market Positive growth was apparent across several commercial segments in 2017, among them corporate offices, healthcare spaces, educational facilities and hospitality. The multi-family segment was strong as well, experiencing growth throughout the year. In general, technology is largely impacting the commercial market with advancements that provide outstanding performance capabilities.
Commercial projects and spending continued on its growth path seen from the last three years. However, growth in the commercial sector was slowed partially due to continued labor issues in the marketplace.
Imports vs. exports In 2017, imports comprised 68.9% of U.S. tile consumption in square feet, up slightly from 68.6% in 2016. China was once again the largest exporter to the U.S. in volume, a position it has held since taking over the top spot from Mexico in 2015. Chinese imports accounted for 31.3% of U.S. imports (in square feet) in 2017, according to the Tile Council of North America (TCNA). This was up from 29.4% the previous year, and it’s the highest percentage China has ever held of the U.S. import market, research shows.
While the peso has fallen significantly vs. the U.S. dollar over the last five years, ceramic tile imports from Mexico have declined sharply, TCNA reported. Shipments from Mexico comprised 18.9% of 2017 U.S. imports, down from 23.4% in 2016 and off from 27% of U.S. imports just two years ago. Italy was the third-largest exporter of tile to the U.S., making up 18.1% of U.S. imports, down from 19.4% in 2016. The next largest exporters to the U.S. in 2017 were Spain (11.7% import share) and Turkey (6.2%).
On a dollar basis (including duty, freight and insurance), Italy remained the largest exporter to the U.S. in 2017, accounting for 33.7% of U.S. imports.* China was second with a 26.6% share, and Spain was third at 13.9%. U.S. shipments of ceramic tile rose 4.1% in 2017 to a record high of 946.5 million square feet. Domestic production, which has increased each of the last eight years, has been boosted recently by the expansion and opening of additional manufacturing facilities in Tennessee.
Domestically produced ceramic was by far the tile of choice of consumers, as 31.1% of all tile (by square footage) consumed domestically in 2017 was made in the U.S. The next highest countries of origin were China (21.6% of all tile consumed in the U.S.), Mexico (13.1%) and Italy (12.4%).In dollar value, U.S. FOB factory sales of domestic shipments in 2017 were also at a record high of $1.43 billion, up 6.1% vs. 2016. (FOB port means the seller pays for transportation of the goods to the port of shipment, plus loading costs. The buyer pays the cost of marine freight transport, insurance, unloading and transportation from the arrival port to the final destination.) Domestically produced tile comprised 39.3% of total U.S. tile consumption by dollar value, almost double that of Italian tile imports, which made up 20.5%.
Challenges While the ceramic tile market has risen for eight consecutive years and bears little resemblance to the 2007-09 period, its growth has nonetheless been constrained by a continuing shortage of labor and—to a lesser extent—the massive growth of LVT and its subsegments such as WPC and rigid core.
The installation shortage has hurt the tile industry more so than others, observers say, because of the difficulty in finding qualified tile setters. However, not everyone is ready to call the labor shortage a calamity. While acknowledging that a lack of qualified installers is driving inflation, MSI’s Shah maintained the paucity of labor shortage is also reducing overall unemployment which is helping the industry. He also suggested that the growth of LVT is not hurting ceramic tile, which is not necessarily the consensus out in the market. “LVT has been a game changer in the industry and is really taking share of laminate and hardwood,” he said. “Ceramic tile has the ability to be used on walls, counters, outdoors, etc., and thus has been able to continue to grow in this environment. Technology is enabling much larger, wider and thicker tiles that can be used on floors, as facades, on countertops, walls as stacked stone, or bricks and outside pavers.”
Some observers believe that while the popularity of LVT- related tile may stunt ceramic’s growth in the short term, the durability of LVT long term is still a question mark. “In a few years, LVT growth may slow as consumers realize that the product does not keep up, it looks like ceramic and is not fireproof,” Grosser explained. “I expect more tile usage, especially tile panels (3½ x 10 feet), on walls particularly in commercial installations.”
Most industry observers expect ceramic tile to continue its positive trajectory in the years ahead, citing the fact that the U.S. is still one of the lowest-per-capita consumers of ceramic tile, and therefore there is still a great deal of upside.
(Editor’s note: The product’s value is calculated at point of entry into the U.S. In other words, it is recorded when it lands on U.S. soil. So, much of ceramic tile’s increase was attributed to suppliers beefing up their inventory levels and not reaching first point of sale.)
Chattanooga, Tenn.–Xpress Global Systems, LLC (XGS) has opened a new, 68,500-square-foot service center in Lakeland, Fla. According to Darrel Harris, CEO, the new facility allows XGS to more efficiently service a greater footprint in Florida.
“Analysis showed us that a much larger, more modern facility in Lakeland would provide better service to our valued customers and allow us to improve efficiencies,” Harris stated. “The Lakeland facility fits well with our expansion plans in the Florida market and beyond.”
XGS, which began in 1986 as a long-haul shipper for the carpet industry, employs more than 600 people across 31 facilities around the U.S. With decades of experience serving the transportation needs of the floor covering industry, XGS has a long track record of success in handling a wide range of products, including carpet, hardwood, laminate, vinyl, tile and area rugs.
“XGS remains committed to efficiency and growth in 2018 and beyond,” Harris added. “We are happy to add the Lakeland facility to our portfolio.”
Several of the industry’s major players have invested significant capital and resources into the development of next-generation tile flooring and wall products. Judging by the introductions making their respective debuts at various markets this winter, those investments are paying off.
On one hand, advances in digital printing are enabling producers to introduce head-turning formats and designs. At the same time, technological breakthroughs are helping suppliers improve performance and durability. “We are constantly evaluating our technologies, always looking for new ways to improve our product offerings,” said Gianni Mattioli, executive vice president, product and marketing, Dal-Tile. “Our digital printing techniques allow us to create tile that is so realistic, most customers cannot discern between what is tile and what is the natural surface we are imitating.”
Emerging formats such as large slabs are providing a broader canvas for many of these new designs. At Surfaces, Dal-Tile showcased its Panoramic porcelain series available in a 10 x 6 format. Then there’s the Industrial Panoramic series, which comes in four colors, and the Elemental Panoramic series, which comes in seven colors. Tiles for the new collections are available in varied thicknesses including 12mm for countertop applications and 6mm, which is more suitable for the floor or wall applications.
“We had to go bigger because people’s kitchen islands are growing larger and their surrounding counters have larger wrap-arounds,” said Roy Viana, Dal-Tile’s director of slab and natural stone. “Within this collection alone are color and texture options for just about any look to be achievable along with the durable and long-lasting benefits of porcelain.”
Another hot trend in porcelain tile is thinner looks. One of the most significant advantages of thin tile is the ability to be offered in much larger slabs than traditional tile, according to Barbara Haaksma, vice president of marketing, Emser Tile. “Grout lines are the bane of everyone’s existence in the industry. The monolithic look that comes with larger tiles allows for [rooms] to look spacious and, therefore, much more appealing.”
Vance Hunsucker, national sales manager, tile and stone, Shaw Floors, also cited the new tile’s ease of installation. “Gauged porcelain slabs take less time to install since they are manufactured in large pieces and don’t require the same intensity in terms of grouting and cutting that’s inherent with traditional tile formats.”
New designs in products such as porcelain slabs are offering even more incentives for homeowners and specifiers to choose tile for more than just showers and backsplashes. “We see convergence of designs appealing across both commercial and residential,” said David Koenig, vice president and general manager, Crossville Studios, the tile maker’s distribution division. “Porcelain slabs are starting to come into the market and will continue to gain market presence over the next two to three years.”
Aesthetic enhancements High-definition printing is completely transforming the category, allowing manufacturers to supply consumers with high-quality floor tiles that resemble natural materials. Image resolution, observers say, is integral to creating products with superior characteristics in terms of detail, color fidelity and graphic designs.
The digital printing process has become so sophisticated that manufacturers are creating tiles that vary from piece to piece, much like the real products.
A case in point is Marazzi’s Urban District BRX collection, which closely resembles brick but is actually ceramic tile. Exuding the look of handcrafted bricks, the Urban District BRX line is inspired by 19th century Chicago brick, so realistic consumers will be hard pressed to tell the difference.
One natural look that remains strong in commercial and residential flooring is wood, thanks to the introduction of new graphics and sizes. Longer, wider formats in wood visuals are becoming increasingly popular, Shaw’s Hunsucker said, a trend that is in line with hardwood flooring. “There appears to be a transition away from 6 x 24 formats, which are quickly becoming more of a commodity product within the market.”
One thing still seems to be true regarding the tile trends at this year’s Surfaces: the bigger the better. Large slabs with infinite design possibilities due to printing technologies were seen all over the showroom floor in varied thicknesses. These new slabs are available for floor, wall or countertop applications.
Roy Viana, Dal-Tile’s director of slab and natural stone tile, raved about Daltile’s Panoramic porcelain series. The series’ larger tile formats, which include a 10 x 6-foot tile, provide a cleaner, monolithic look. Industrial Panoramic comes in four colors, while Elemental Panoramic is available in seven colors that mainly revolve around shades of white with marble imitations. Tiles for both of these collections are available in varied thicknesses including 12mm, suitable for countertop applications, and 6mm, ideal for floor and wall applications.
“We had to go bigger because peoples’ kitchen islands are growing larger and their surrounding counters have larger wrap-arounds,” Viana explained. “Within this collection alone there are various color and texture options for just about any look to be achievable along with the durable and long-lasting benefits of porcelain.”
Some of Daltile’s other offerings include Emerson Wood, a wood-look tile with subtle wire-brushed effects in 6 x 48, 8 x 48 and 12 x 48 formats. The large format tiles also feature Daltile’s innovative StepWise technology for improved slip resistance. RetroSpace is a translucent-glazed wall tile that reflects light in spaces and can be mixed with other tiles designs. There is also Chord, a cement-look offering available in a floor tile, 12 x 24 decorative accent and 3-inch triangle mosaic.
Also from the Dal-Tile family of brands, Marazzi is launching D_Segni this spring, which offers a classic reinterpretation of traditional handmade cement tiles. The product will be available in an assortment of colors and decorative accent tiles that can be used individually or mixed together. D_Segni is available in an 8 x 8 floor and deco tiles. Hawthorne is one of Marazzi’s new wall tiles available in an 8 x 24 large format as well as 10 x 14 and 4 x 12 versions. Colors include monochromatic shades of white, taupe and gray in two types of construction: smooth flat surface or beveled edge. Arenella, another introduction, presents the illusion of marble with soft natural tones. It is available in a variety of sizes for floor and wall applications as well as a 2 x 2 mosiac dot-mounted on a 12 x 12 sheet.
American Olean, another Dal-Tile brand, highlighted three of its new spring collections. Union offers an authentic interpretation of time-worn, weathered concrete factory floors. Designed with StepWise technology, Union touts improved slip resistance. Windmere provides smooth concrete and weathered stone looks in a monochromatic color palette. The collection features a full assortment of floor and wall sizes including a mosaic and jolly trim. American Olean’s third collection, Visual Impressions, offers a contemporary and fashionable wall tile in neutral colors and 3D patterns.
Other manufacturers are also taking advantage of the latest printing technologies. For example, Del Conca showcased its Boutique collection—a marble-inspired porcelain series available in four colors. The collection was also just released in 48 x 48 panels.
“The bigger face is so much easier to sell and offers a rustic charm with the dark brown and taupe options,” said Kendall Litton, marketing specialist, Del Conca. “There are visible veins where one could truly be fooled into thinking this is a marble product.”
Among Emser Tile’s product debuts was its Porch collection, a porcelain plank printed in wood patterns with color variations in each individual piece. The collection comes in four colors, but the plank’s “cutting-edge” attribute is its wide range—6 x 47, 8 x 47 and 12 x 47—a variety that allows for staggering patterns when various widths are used side by side.
“The [ability to] mix and match the widths along with the color variation allows for experimentation with light and dark colors as well as patterns and shapes all in one material,” said Barbara Haaksma, vice president of marketing, Emser Tile. “You have the option to use only one size panel for a more uniform look, but that would not be taking advantage of all this collection has to offer.”
The manufacturer’s other offering, Façade, is a cement-themed collection that is combined with a plaster effect to give the tile a much softer, more pleasant feeling. This collection, which can be used for interior and exterior applications, is available in four colors in two panel sizes: 12 x 24 and 18 x 36. As Christine Wu, product development manager for Emser Tile, explained, “We are building on the concrete trend but offering a more welcoming texture, which is something you don’t see very often on the market these days. These colors are so understandable and very diversified.”
Lindsey Waldrep, vice president of marketing, Crossville, said the manufacturer’s new porcelain stone tile collection, Java Joint, exemplifies the continuous need for fresh designs that play with the basic neutrals. Java Joint is available in 12 x 24, 2 x 2 mosaic and is offered in five different colors. “The colors of this collection are all warm and comforting—similar to the feeling of a coffee shop,” Waldrep explained. “These colors give you flexibility but have just enough edge so your final design looks new and fresh.”
On the topic of flexibility, Dal-Tile’s Viana added that white continues to be one of the best-selling colors within the tile industry because of its ability to balance with the other patterns or designs. “White will always be a best seller,” he said. “Now consumers can have an easily maintainable product that offers a clean and chic look but will complement these bold and more accent-like designs for a nice, easy balance.”