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CERSAIE disparity by design

At this year’s Cersaie – the exhibition’s first true return to form since the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic and its 39th edition in total – it was difficult, if not impossible, to identify a unifying theme tying together the products on show.

In one sense this is a natural, even inescapable consequence of the sheer scope the exhibition encompasses.

Companies from all over the globe exhibit at the annual Italian fair, and despite its status as a pre-eminent showcase for tile manufacturers, it also welcomes a large contingent of bathroom furnishing companies, not to mention a bevy of service providers from across the supply chain: raw material suppliers to digital printing specialists, all the way to exhibition stand manufacturers.
Moreover, exhibitors at the show span the entire conceivable range of size and influence, with household name brands at one extreme like RAK and Porcelanosa, down to much smaller, artisanal designers at the other.

These companies serve different markets in different locations for different purposes, and it’s unreasonable to expect a significant sense of consistency to emerge between them – even if they are all housed under the same roof (or set of roofs, as the case may be).

The disparity seemed to run a little deeper than that though.

As Cristina Faedi, head of promotional activities for Confindustria Ceramica, highlighted in her presentation during the event’s opening night festivities, current design trends are defined as much by their dichotomies as their similarities, and it’s difficult not to see this as a response to the unprecedented challenges of the past several years. Physical health, mental health, economic circumstances, material supply and more: companies and customers alike are finding themselves under pressure from myriad sources, spurring a flurry of creativity and ingenuity in response.

Cersaie 2022 showcased this creativity and ingenuity in full, with designs exhibiting both artistry and functionality, tile dimensions reaching towards new extremities, and alternate product ranges expanding or contracting according to individual market needs. Certainly, it would be impossible to point to any one single theme or concept that characterised the event’s offerings this year, but in their contrasts, we see an encapsulation of what makes the tile sector so resilient and so exceptional. Whatever challenges arise, the industry counters – not just with one solution, but every possible variation.

On the surface…
This approach definitely bore fruit in 2021, as was revealed at the Ceramics of Italy International Press Conference. Held each year at the Palazzo dei Congressi in Bologna, in partnership with the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Italian Trade Agency ITA, the conference provides an opportunity for Confindustria Ceramica (the Italian national association for ceramics manufacturers) to reflect on the past year; its challenges and achievements.

Emilio Mussini, vice chairman of Confindustria Ceramica, delivered an overview of the Italian market, painting an optimistic picture: “Total sales grew by 20% compared to 2020, with increases in exports to all countries. In Italy, sales grew by 34.4% to levels that had not been seen for several years, thanks to a rebound in construction activity buoyed by tax concessions. As for international trade, we are again the leaders this year in terms of export percentage share by value (31%) and in third place in terms of quantity (15%), level with India.”

This positive assessment was echoed by Roberto Luongo, director of the Italian Trade Agency ITA, who explained: “With €5 billion of exports in the first seven months of the year (up 5-6% compared to last year), our industry is the world leader in terms of internationalisation and we are expanding in all foreign markets. This in turn reflects the dynamism, quality and high standard of the show.”

It remains, of course, impossible to ignore the wide-reaching ramifications of the war in Ukraine, particularly in its effects on energy costs. Lorenzo Angeloni, director general for the promotion of Italy’s country system at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, explained what the government is doing to help Italian companies through these demanding times: “Among the various measures adopted, the Foreign Ministry has taken steps to find alternative markets for the supply of ceramic raw materials. The companies are responding well to the situation and maintaining the tradition of quality and innovation that has established us as the second largest manufacturing country in Europe.”

Mussini used the platform to put forward several practical proposals that governments at both a European and national level could implement to ease the burden on individual entities. These suggestions included tax credits for energy-intensive companies, as well as a price cap for energy and a decision to separate the price of renewable natural gas from that of other types.

While the challenges in front of the industry are monumental, it was encouraging to see this kind of direct appeal for cooperation between government and business. The manufacturing sector in Italy may seem a distant concern here in the UK, but it’s worth remembering that most of the tile sold and fitted here is imported. The more expensive it is to make, the more expensive it will be for UK buyers. In the broader sense, a robust manufacturing sector is a net positive for the global ceramic tile industry, whose products and services will remain in demand throughout this challenging period and beyond.

Returning to those products and services on show at Cersaie itself, then, the notion of dichotomies serves as a fitting lens through which to explore the diversity of approaches manufacturers have employed in response to the breadth of challenges in front of them. From post-pandemic living, to the evolving conventions of construction, to an ever-extending projection of economic uncertainty, manufacturers and designers have explored just about every conceivable answer for the trials ahead.

Below, we’ll explore a necessarily limited selection from this kaleidoscope of creativity, demonstrating in the process that – while no one would deny the next few years are going to be tough – the tile industry has all the ability and imagination necessary to come out the other side stronger than before.

MEGA / mini
The most immediately obvious aesthetic quality of a tile is, of course, its dimensions. Broadly speaking, the size of tiles has crept up over the years (and the show certainly saw the introduction of some gigantic slabs) however this year significant attention was also devoted to the particular visual and functional qualities of small format tiles.

At that larger end of the spectrum though, there truly was an almost competitive atmosphere evoked by the increasingly gargantuan sheets of ceramic towering inside many exhibitors’ stands. With tiles at 120x120cm, 120x240cm, all the way up to 160x320cm, the appetite for larger and larger surfaces for floors and walls seems to only get stronger year on year.

For example, Porcelaingres showcased its Great Elite collection, which is offered in 120x120cm or 270x120cm with the stated aim of reducing waste. The range contains a number of monochromatic marble-effect tiles, subtle grains running throughout to create a sophisticated, elegant finish.

Ceramica Rondine, a subsidiary of the enormous Italcer group, introduced a scaled-up version of its granite-effect Himalaya range. The range was previously available at a maximum size of 60x120cm, but the company used the Cersaie platform to launch a rather impressive 120x280cm variation of the tile.

The very largest tile we saw in person was the towering Coverlam by Grespania, at 120x360cm (shown here in the wood-effect Jungla finish). This product is supplied at an astonishing 5.6mm thickness, and despite its remarkable dimensions, reportedly guarantees “all the mechanical properties and visual appeal that set porcelain tiles apart”.

Large format, while popular, wasn’t the only style on offer though. For many applications, particularly achieving specific effects in domestic interiors, small format remains a popular choice. La Fabbrica, for example, explored “the big world of the small size” through its Small range: a series of watercolour-look tiles offered in four shapes including a thin rectangle (5.1×16.1cm) and a hexagon (12.4×10.7cm).

In slightly more conventional shapes, if a rather more artistic appearance, Aparici showed off its Gatsby and Glass ranges. These 20x20cm wall tiles offer semi-translucent green and blue finishes as well as highly detailed rust-effect designs, suitable particularly for bathroom and kitchen interiors.
In stark contrast to the enormous slabs stood around the exhibition halls, Onix Mosaico’s stand was covered in the company’s delicate mosaic tiles, manufactured using 98% recycled glass. The varied use cases of these 19mm diameter hexagons were showcased in some unique compositions, including these beach loungers.

OUT OF / this world
If the size of a tile is its most fundamental visual characteristic, the clearest distinction between similarly sized pieces can be found in the finish – an area where we once again observed enormous variety and outstanding artistry. The most common aesthetic motifs on display at Cersaie 2022 were references to nature: timber, natural stone and floral patterns. In direct juxtaposition to these ideas, however, many designers opted for industrial finishes and even totally abstract effects.

Current design wisdom suggests consumers are keen to bring the natural world indoors in the aftermath of the pandemic, explaining the proliferation of these styles. On the other hand, the more out-there artistic launches suggest a desire for escapism and beauty beyond what’s found in people’s day to day lives.

Floral styles certainly reigned supreme at this year’s show though, with nearly every stand showcasing at least one design of this type. From the subtlety of Harmony’s Aqua collection, with its muted two-tone colour palette, to the flowing leaf pattern on Cerdomus’ marble-effect Omnia Statuario Vietri tile, evoking natural overgrowth of plant life atop manmade creations, the creativity with which manufacturers approached even this single theme was obvious. One highlight was the Hydra range from Fanal, a shock of bright colour in a detailed, hand-drawn style.

Wood and stone effects were nearly as ubiquitous, speaking to the need for stable, timeless propositions from manufacturers during an incredibly unpredictable time. Both Baldocer and MGM Ceramiche, for example, showcased products which not only mimicked the surface appearance, but also the typical dimensions of wood planks (from the Northwood and Naturlab ranges respectively). Taking this concept a step further, Seramiksan presented individual tiles which simulated a parquet laying pattern for its Loft, Nordic and Classic Wood ranges.

The Lightstone range from Vitra, on the other hand, is designed to help “create relaxed living spaces” through three neutral coloured stone looks. This seamless natural effect is amplified in the Marvilla Pro range by Alfa Lux, which includes bookmatched slabs to create an even more convincing impression of natural symmetry.

One interesting trend was the deployment of visual references from the natural world in distinctly artificial presentations. An industrial, rusted metal leaf design, for example, or a painterly pair of herons, serve to suggest and highlight particular qualities of nature without directly simulating it.
Beyond this though, many manufacturers chose to launch collections that deliberately departed from nature. Cerrad’s Harsh textured designs immediately recall industrial construction materials and can easily be imagined on the exteriors of public architecture. Similarly, the three-dimensional tiles of A Cimenteira do Louro explicitly eschew direct reference to recognisable visual touchstones, encouraging the creation of individualised spaces.

Tonino Lamborghini explored an opposing concept with its Korium Diagonal tiles, which emulate the comfort and luxury of leather interiors. The range is described as a “fusion between wall coverings and furnishings to ensure aesthetic continuity” and comes in a series of bright colours including orange (pictured) blue, and yellow. The use of geometric division was also seen in Ape Grupo’s large format Xlining brand. The company’s Atelier collection is reportedly manufactured using a technique that allows porcelain sheets to be printed with a fully personalised design, the company says, making it suitable for unique projects adapted to the tastes of each client.

IMAGINATION / application
As a landmark occasion in the industry calendar – one where product launches can garner an almost guaranteed level of interest – Cersaie is a time for manufacturers to introduce some of their most forward-thinking, modern concepts. The designs and dimensions discussed in the earlier sections of this article are just some ways in which boundaries are currently being pushed, but companies are implementing new technologies in various aspects of product development.

Of course, this imagination needs to be tempered with the practical reality that ultimately, tiles have to be sold and subsequently laid by humans in the built environment. These factors instantly complicate the otherwise exciting picture of innovation seen around Cersaie’s exhibition halls, and fortunately both the exhibition’s organisers and its exhibitors recognised these practical challenges as equally important.

One of the most intriguing technological developments at the show was 3D Tech from ABK, which, according to the company, enables “the application of thick layers of ceramic material in perfect alignment with the graphic design to create striking three- dimensional effects”. The tech was explained via a slick stop-motion animation on various screens around the company’s stand, providing a visual guide to the complex, multi-part process.

Inventiveness went deeper than just the shape and design of tiles though – even material composition is no longer set in stone. Enter Vetrite from Sicis, a futuristic-sounding range with an even headier pitch: “Vetrite are slabs of glass, pure matter, with a unique formula of polymers and metals inserted in between. The slabs can be curved depending on the project need, double-sided or not, and backlit for a high scenic impact.” The tiles truly do make an impact, with extraordinary combinations of colour and pattern.

As impressive as these products are however, they have to be sold eventually, and customers will naturally be wary of the most out-there, unconventional designs. Several technology companies have tackled this issue in recent years by virtualising the design process. Roomvo, for example, offers a visualiser plug-in that retailers and manufacturers can embed in their websites to showcase how given tiles will look in specific rooms. The company has also launched stickers with a QR code that customers can scan directly to access the visualiser for individual products.

For contractors, significant space at the show was dedicated not only to tool and building product manufacturers, but to the tenth edition of an initiative called Tiling Town, a series of masterclasses on contemporary installation challenges. Located in the back third of Hall 32, the 400sqm space featured slab installation showcases from expert tile layers, as well as a several events and seminars organised by Assoposa, the Italian tile layers’ association. Demonstrating its own efforts towards modernisation, the association also devoted an area specifically to women working in the world of construction.

The take-home message
Returning home from Cersaie, it was hard not to feel a little optimistic (despite the weather waiting back in England). There are enormous trials on the horizon, and no easy ways to surmount them to be sure, but Italy’s premier event for ceramic innovation showed us an industry that’s prepared to meet those trials head on.

After all, this was the 39th edition of Cersaie. That represents 39 years of challenges economic, technological, governmental, and through all that the show – indeed the industry as a whole – is still going strong. Perhaps no single design philosophy united the companies at Cersaie in 2022, but a core mandate did: survive and thrive. The industry handily accomplished that goal this year – bring on 40!

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