Peter Vann, director of Ceramique Internationale, explains the advantages and versatility of natural stone-effect porcelain tiles.
As one of our planet’s natural resources, supplies of natural stone can be limited and, as such a timeless material, it is highly sought after and rarely goes out of fashion.
With that in mind, ceramic tile reproductions of natural stone are an incredibly popular alternative to stone itself, offering a more affordable, easier to maintain option without sacrificing any of the design impact or beauty – and this is largely thanks to hyper-realistic reproduction techniques.
Whether natural or ceramic reproductions, polished white marbles such as Carrara and Statuario continue to be the favoured choice for luxury finishes, and slate is consistently popular in many forms, finishes and shades.
Casalgrande Padana’s new Boulder range is a perfect example of the love of the slate trend. The 300 by 600mm porcelain stoneware range has an expressive colour palette, featuring four shades – Fossil, Ink, Rust, and Cloud – to accurately replicate the textures and rich coppers, greiges, and inky dark greys found in natural slate.
And slate is only scratching the surface - the ceramic industry has continued its dominance in offering more and more accurate replications of all the different types of natural stone imaginable… and then some!
Stone-effect porcelain tiles are now a staple in the world of interior design - and, more recently, in exterior coverings too.
Probably the most well-known category of natural stone uses the general ‘limestone’ description: a hard sedimentary rock formed of calcium carbonate. This sector is now catered for by a plethora of porcelain tile production, which encompasses countless types, colours and textures – some of which are specific to a country, or even a region within a country like Caen Limestone from France.
When you think of French Limestone, it denotes sophistication and decadence, as well as inviting images of ancient architecture. The material has been used across the globe, and throughout the centuries, as wall and floor cladding both on interiors and exteriors on chateaux, castles and abbeys.
However, the individual qualities that make French Limestone unique – such as its characteristics in both colour and mineral content – are also the very thing that make it difficult to work with. Although limestone can be very hard-wearing as a material, this doesn’t change the fact it is a natural stone – meaning its porous surfaces require substantial care and protection to avoid damage from dirt and stains.
Although the charming weathered and worn look of French Limestone is attractive when used in an ancient abbey, it isn’t quite as suitable or practical for application in modern buildings and family homes.
And this is where natural stone-effect porcelain tiles come in to play as a practical alternative to the original raw material. For residential and commercial settings, stone-effect tiles offer the exact same look and feel of real stone but with added bonuses – not least the time and effort-saving cleaning regimes.
Porcelain tiles are perfect for use in high traffic areas due to being endlessly enduring – their hardness and density make them durable and hard-wearing, while their resistance to chips, stains and scratches means that they'll continue looking good for years to come. Not only are they resilient, they also make effective temperature regulators as they conduct heat efficiently so can be successfully paired with underfloor heating systems, offering a cool surface under foot in the summer and warm, cosy floors in winter – something that is very useful in bathrooms, kitchens, living areas and conservatories.
Another type of stone that has inspired a huge market of natural stone-effect tiles is marble, which also falls within the category of limestone. Marble is a type of stone that takes its colouration and unique veined appearance from the minerals in the ground local to its origins. Well-known examples include black Nero Marquina marble – which is extracted from the Markina region of the Basque county in Northern Spain – and white-grey Carrara marble, quarried in Tuscany, Italy.
As well as recreating the nuances of regional stone, porcelain tile stone replication has also introduced a new expansive, vibrant colour palette among marble effects. Following years of minimalism, refined stone-effects are emerging with new vibrancy and verve as interior designers seek bright colours and exciting effects. Marble-effect tiles are now available in green, blue, orange, silver and white – and the design opportunities are limitless with all colours offering either strong or mild veining, cloudy effects reminiscent of onyx or bold, striated surfaces.
An additional benefit of porcelain marble-effect tiles is the variety of finishes available. Marble styles are being reproduced with matt surfaces, honed surfaces, lappatto semi-shiny finishes and the extremely sought-after highly polished finish to create a luxurious feel. Add this to the ability to invent bold, vibrant shade variations of marble and the tile industry has created a veritable mountain of ceramic choice that cannot be achieved with natural marble material.
The ability to digitally emulate stone has been enhanced in recent years by advancements in technology which allow manufacturers to make thinner 6mm large slab formats, ranging from 1,200mm squares, through to 1,200 by 2,400mm oblongs, and even 1,500 by 3,000mm oblongs.
The Grande Stone Look series by Marazzi – another collection which combines the original beauty of stone with the outstanding strength of stoneware – is available in an array of huge slab formats, the largest being 1,600 by 3,200mm. The vast tiles offer all the advantages of porcelain, including being frost-proof and abrasion resistant, while delivering incredible impact thanks to their impressive size and accurate stone-effects.
To add to the startling realism of these tiles, non-repeating patterns are used to create unique, seamless-look living spaces.
The ease of installation also makes it much simpler to achieve statement design features with a natural stone effect. Classical stone replicas now often include ‘pattern’ options such as Bookmatch - two tiles which are mirror images of each other - and Endmatch - a pattern that runs across four tiles. These striking effects would be impossible to create without the technology to print two or more identical or symmetrical stone-effect tiles – thus taking natural stone to a new level of design.
Natural stone has also been a favourite for outdoor applications for many years, and porcelain stone-effect tiles offer a great alternative to stone pavers for all the usual reasons. As a result, the trend for creating seamless living spaces that flow from the inside to outdoor areas continues to grow. Outdoor areas are increasingly becoming spaces that we consider as additional, external rooms – including outdoor dining spaces, living spaces and even games rooms – and the focus on creating seamless integration between internal and external spaces with flooring is critical to mastering this trend.
As such, many manufacturers are now adding 20mm thick versions to their collections, making them suitable for use outdoors. Gris Fleury, from Marazzi’s Mystone collection, uses digital printing to replicate the timeless French Limestone effect with a subtly varying background for an incredibly natural look. Using digital printing technology, the 20mm thick tiles feature a non-repeating pattern and tiny intricate detailing for maximum realism – and can be used in any space, indoors or outdoors.
The collection’s large rectified slab formats in 750 by 750mm and 600 by 1,200mm, which are ideal for use in indoor spaces, are now complemented by 600 by 600mm, 20mm thick, versions of the tile, allowing consumers to extend their interior living spaces outside, creating integrated patios and al-fresco dining areas.
The reason this 20mm thickness is so suited to paving patios, balconies, garden paths and even driveways is due to its additional hard-wearing qualities, including resistance to thermal shock, heavy loads and stresses.
Furthermore, safety is ensured with the tiles’ R11 A+B anti-slip rating, meaning they are safer for outdoor use even in slippery, wet weather conditions (which of course is extremely beneficial in Britain!). There are many ways to lay this stoneware, too. It can be fixed using traditional adhesive. It can be laid directly onto gravel, sand, or dry laid on grass. A final option is a pedestal mounting system that can be used to create a suspended external floor space without the additional need for adhesives or grout.
In keeping with the safety theme, Marazzi’s leading-edge StepWise technology delivers stone-effect products with an incredibly high degree of slip-resistance cleverly combined with being easy to clean – two historically opposing features – thanks to a soft-to-touch surface with no superficial roughness. The technology is an intrinsic property rather than a surface treatment, and can be used on a wide variety of designs and applications – which is becoming increasingly important in this age of the ‘blame game’ where personal liability for others is on the rise, with designers and specifiers often asking about compliance before even considering viewing a sample.
With this catalogue of time-saving and safety-enhancing benefits, as well as the fact that porcelain tiles remain unaffected over the years as their colour cannot fade, it is clear to see why porcelain stone-effect tiles are a particularly practical alternative to wood or stone in outdoor spaces.
From an indoor perspective, it is the sleek, seamless aesthetic that enhances the desirability of large format tiles in these natural stone finishes. And, while some believe large formats are only suited to large rooms, the opposite is in fact true. Large-scale tiles are ideal for use in bathrooms and other compact spaces, as they create an illusion of scale through tricking the eye into believing an area is much bigger than it actually is.
For those who desire the dramatic, whole-space effect of natural stone tiles but aren’t quite as confident with the larger format slabs, the award-nominated Stoneline collection provides a perfect solution. Inspired by the simple and unrefined surfaces found in nature, the range comprises a 300 by 600mm tile and larger 600 by 600mm square counterpart – offering the same impact as large slab stone-effects in a more manageable size.
The genuine beauty of natural stone cannot be denied, and capturing it is the top priority for designers and consumers looking to apply stone in their projects. But, with natural stone-effect porcelain now capturing the authenticity and spontaneity of stone found in nature, stone-effect tiles are the key to introducing character and impact at a fraction of the cost and difficulty.
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