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On the surface

Returning this year from the 7-9 February at the Business Design Centre in Islington, London, Surface Design Show is a unique proposition in the UK’s tiling industry calendar.

The show is targeted primarily at architects and designers, and places both tile and stone within the larger context of surface materials used in the built environment. This means that alongside ceramic tiles and natural stone surfaces, visitors will see a wide array of other potential options for floor or wall coverings, including wood, metal, and even more unconventional materials like recycled acrylic or “microcement”.

This month, TSJ spoke with Christopher Newton, director of Surface Design Show, to find out how the event has emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic and what the organisers are bringing to this year’s iteration, which has been themed around Shaping Communities. “I think we’re in a good place,” Newton says of the show’s recovery. “Having not held a show in 2021, I think everyone was delighted to get out and about and get back together in 2022, and we’ve grown on that for 2023.”
The show will be bigger than last time, he says, with around 180 exhibitors there, while visitor pre-registrations are also looking “very good”.

Demonstrating the event’s significant and wide appeal, exhibitors at SDS 2023 will include manufacturers such as Mirage and Burlington Stone, surface maintenance specialists like Fila, as well as industry bodies like the UK’s Stone Federation, the Italian Trade Agency and Tile of Spain. As those last entries make clear, SDS is very much an international affair, one way in which both the show and the industry as a whole are moving on from the restrictions of global lockdown. Indeed, at Tile of Spain’s 2023 stand, a total of 12 manufacturers, from small formats and mosaics to 3D surfaces and technical slabs, will be represented across the eclectic display.

Of course, the pandemic made life extremely difficult for event organisers over the last several years, but Newton explains that for Surface Design Show at least, absence seems to have made the heart grow fonder. “Looking back, it was a very, very painful time for all event organisers because we had to cancel so much. But that slight break made people realise they were missing exhibitions, they were missing trade shows. People really wanted to be back there, and that feeling of wanting to be out of their home offices was very strong. So we certainly bounced back in 2022 very strongly indeed, and that’s helped us to build for 2023.”

One space in which the event’s international profile will be particularly felt is the New Talent area, which will feature 31 recently established start-up organisations coming from as far afield as Sweden, the Netherlands, Lebanon, Malaysia, Korea and China. The zone is also aimed to give the start-ups the opportunity to “learn from each other and to connect for a better future”.

The New Talent area, in Newton’s view, will demonstrate the “widest variety of alternative materials in the show,” including for example a Dutch company researching a material made from bacterial cellulose. “They’re always a highlight for me because they’re starting out, they’re enthusiastic, and they’re working with smaller budgets,” Newton says. “Without generalising too much, they’re probably young people who are therefore more involved with sustainability, renewable and recyclable materials.”

At the more commercial end of the show, visitors can expect a strong showing from the classics: “Acoustic materials always have a strong presence, as do veneers. Obviously we have a lot of both tile and stone. I do think we’re seeing a bit of everything,” Newton says, “right from the recently graduated up to the multinational companies. It’s that mixture that makes the show so interesting.”

Natural stone will be highlighted especially at this year’s edition, with the event’s Stone Gallery, aimed to illuminate the possibilities for one of the most “sought-after materials”. This section of the show features companies from the UK, Europe and further afield, and is officially supported by Stone Federation Great Britain, whose Knowledge Hub forms a focal point for its member companies. Also returning to Stone Gallery 2023 will be the Italian Stone Pavilion, curated by Confindustria Marmomacchine. Finally, a “Stone Tapestry” installation, curated by leading London-based architectural practice Squire & Partners, will explore “innovative textures, light, colour and pattern to create a tapestry of inspiring materials from around the world”.

Of course, the exhibitors are just one part of the equation. The organisers are also hosting a series of special features and events within the broader show, all centred around the theme of Shaping Communities. Newton explains, “It refers to sustainability and the circular economy, but it’s also all about the community of materials, and the community of design, or designing with the community. Most of our presentations are focusing on that, and the role of communities in design.”

This year’s line-up of speakers perfectly illustrates the industry’s latent hunger for in-person communication. In fact, demand for presentations at this year’s Surface Design Show has exceeded the organisers’ previously allocated capacity, requiring them to open a second stage – the Gallery stage – to host a further six or seven talks throughout the event. “It does seem to be a pattern, post-covid, that the content of shows has got stronger,” Newton says. “More and more people want to come out and speak, which is great for us!”

While all the presentations will address the theme of Shaping Communities, the ways they’re set to do this are multifaceted. On Wednesday afternoon, freelance writer and editor Veronica Simpson will host a panel discussion on Sourcing Locally, which asks the question: “How much lower would a project’s carbon footprint be if you could source locally – both for materials and skills? How can architects and interior designers do this when most plywood comes from Russia and fabrics from China?” Thursday will see Hannah Malein, Creative Director at Colour Hive, present her global colour, material & finish forecast for 2024.

When asked about his most anticipated presentations, Newton recommends Low Carbon Architecture, Natural Materials and a Return to Low Energy Construction, taking place on the main stage on Wednesday. “I think Steve Webb’s a great 4 speaker, and an engineer, which is slightly unusual for us. He’s covering stone and how it links with timber. One which I like for slightly different reasons is Hiding in Plain Sight, Second Harvest. Annabelle [Cox, CEO of Tensei] knows more about materials than most people in the UK, but she left the sector to set up in the world of paper. I’ve persuaded her back in to come and talk about the Second Harvest, and how we can protect forestry in paper. I think she’ll be fascinating because she’s just massively enthusiastic and it’s a little bit different.”

Finally, he draws attention to a presentation called Collaboration: The Key to Sustainable Outcomes. “I like that one because concrete always gets a bit of a bad press in sustainability discussions, and Elaine Toogood, who is director of architecture at The Concrete Centre, always comes up with a really strong argument as to why concrete can be sustainable. She gets a big audience too, every time.”

Exploring and promoting sustainability is, of course, one of the primary directives of a show like SDS, and it’s difficult to see that focus shifting any time soon, Newton says. The event took sustainability as its theme for the first time a few years ago, and has found itself unable to leave the theme in years since: “Because it underpins everything. In our Surface Design Awards, the judges look at each project, and if they can’t see the sustainability credentials, they don’t even look at it any further.”

In this arena, natural products (or materials requiring very little processing of natural products) are a highly valuable resource, which is one reason why the show has seen a “huge increase” in the amount of natural stone being showcased over the past two years, according to Newton. “A lot from Italy of course, but also a big involvement from the Stone Federation here. We’re a materials show, so we want to be all materials, not dominated by just one, but it’s been very interesting how many enquiries and how many exhibitors we have with natural stone. That makes me feel that they really feel they can join in the sustainability argument and come out on top.”

When the doors of Islington’s Business Design Centre open on 7 February this year, architects and designers will be presented with a multitude of materials, from the traditional to the ultra-modern. While the trends of design and fashion can be difficult to predict, the appeal of naturally derived, hardwearing and sustainable materials like tile and stone is not – the 2023 edition of Surface Design Show looks set to prove that once again.

Come and visit Kick-Start Publishing, TSJ’s parent company, on 480 at the show!

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