Is it tile or not? Fabulous fakes are behind the biggest cover-up in home design. And just about any bare surface is a candidate for today's fashion-forward ceramic tiles -- walls, floors, ceilings and counters, indoors and out.
Wood look-alikes, some designed in wide-plank formats with simulated grain, are convincing. Some tiles are dead ringers for leather, suede and skins such as alligator, ostrich and lizard. Others mimic metals such as stainless steel, even down to hand-hammered pockmarks and the look of mottling that results from oxidation. Traces of the real element can be infused or embedded, adding shimmer to a metallic look.
Tile patterns that include textural grass cloths, paisleys, polka dots, contemporary Op art or bold graphics channel other types of wall coverings. Florals bloom in tone-on-tone, three-dimensional or bas-relief tiles. Ferns, leaves and corals round out offerings with an organic theme.
Replicated fabric weaves, including damask, linen, denim, nubby chenille, striated moire and even lace, lend texture to tile surfaces when applied in dimensional overlay. Tweeds, herringbones and pinstripes pick up on menswear fashion themes. Even sisal rugs and embroidery can be simulated with corrugated grooves.
Polished marbles, rough pebbles and smooth river rocks are convincingly replicated in mesh-mounted tiles that make installation a breeze.
Look-alikes often cost less than the real thing. But although an average price for tile is $3 to $7 per square foot, some of the high-end tiles, with special glazes or metallic effects, may cost as much as $40 per square foot.
Tile also has other pragmatic attributes that are appealing. Considered an eco-friendly material, ceramic tile is chemically inert and inhibits the growth of mold, mildew and other organisms. It is non-toxic, rarely absorbs odors and improves air quality and hygiene by reducing allergens.
Another plus: It's easy to keep clean. That it's durable is attractive to homeowners who wish to shed throwaway habits and stop replacing carpet and wallpaper.
Lifestyle changes are affecting consumer buying, says Patti Fasan, a tile consultant whose firm PATTI, an acronym for Professional Attention to Tile Installations, is based in Vancouver. Tile especially appeals to dual-income couples who also may be time-deprived and looking for ways to cut down on home maintenance.
Uncertainty in the world also has shifted the way we want to live in our homes, Fasan says.
"Luxury is in demand, with people wanting as high quality as they can afford," she says.
And consumers are thinking beyond the backsplash with the availability of uber luxe details like gold flecks, washed looks, glossy finishes and incredibly rich glazes.
Changes in the way we use and combine rooms in our homes create new needs for surfacing materials. That may be especially true in outdoor living spaces, game and media rooms, spa baths and kitchens, for example.
"The kitchen now is part of a great room, which we want to be beautiful, to reflect who we are," Fasan says.
Aesthetically, tile trends are being influenced by savvy, globe-trotting, digitally linked consumers who want distinctive environments, according to trend spotter Maxine Lauer of Sphere Marketing in Waterford, Mich.
Options for customizing are appealing. At an international ceramic tile and stone trade exposition called Coverings, held earlier this year at Chicago's McCormick Place, some exhibitors showed how digital and printing technologies now allow images of people, flowers and travel destinations to be translated to ceramic or mosaic tile.
Supersized images on tile can add a powerful dynamic to a room. Used as art, the composition creates an obvious focal point.
The tile's finish can further alter the effect, especially as natural and artificial light play across the tile over the course of a day. In a neutral living space furnished with all-white contemporary seating, for example, a mural depicting a field of oversized coneflowers against a softly clouded blue sky, floor to ceiling, is as arresting as an enormous painted canvas.
In addition to images presented with the clarity of fine photography, there are others purposely blurred, like a giant rose viewed through a Vaseline-smudged lens, oddly teaming Impressionism and Modernism.
Patterned mosaics can stand in for wall coverings. Add a glint of metallic, and an allover damask pattern dances in the light. A white-on-gold traditional design, for example, can play off white modern furnishings and wall-to-wall carpeting in a casually elegant vibe.
Like wallpaper, a tile pattern's visual weight and color affect how much it dominates a room. Last year, the idea of chocolate-on-lime damask was as attention-grabbing for its palette as its pattern. This year, damask continues to be a popular tile pattern, but with many different looks in contrasting colors, tone-on-tone.
A faded version, such as one by the Italian manufacturer Portinari with charcoal on a silvery zinc ground, is as subtle as vintage paper. Some damask designs have more contrast, a development owing to sophisticated glaze techniques.
Wallpaper-inspired tiles also can be appropriate for floors. Used in a monochromatic interior, the effect can be as boldly defining as a patterned jacket teamed with a solid-colored outfit. In tandem with the same design on the wall, the look creates a seamless canvas.
While pattern is appealing as a decorative treatment on walls or floors, consumers who prefer quiet style can take a cue from designers who vary surface finishes and fabric textures for depth in neutral interiors devoid of pattern. Relief tiles add dimension that can be sculptural or purely textural, especially effective in a modern setting.
Smooth river rocks and rough stacked tiles have drawn fans in such outdoor applications as patio fireplaces and fountains. Now the style also is embraced indoors. Mesh backing has facilitated installation just as it did with mosaics, and some of the results look amazing, as if tiny stones had been hand-placed, one by one.
Another take on rustic is a faux metal look, attractive for chameleon properties that lend texture to the tile's surface. A matte finish of weathered steel has a range of color variegation that's like a spotted etching or cloudlike rusting resembling hand painting. The Italian manufacturer Ceramica Fioranese's Target, a golden- and rust-speckled tile that also is available with raised circles in gold or silver, is reminiscent of Japanese raku pottery.
"As people travel more and are exposed to European and Asian design, they want to be at the edge of fashion," Fasan says. "And tile manufacturers have become fashionistas."
For more information:
* Porcelanosa, 201-712-0556 orhttp://www.porcelanosa-usa.com .
* Granada Tiles, 213-482-8070 orhttp://www.granadatiles.com .
* Ceracasa and Venus Ceramica, Tile of Spain Center,http://www.spaintiles.info .
* Ceramica Fioranese, Ceramic Tiles of Italy, 212-848-0300 orhttp://www.italiatiles.com .