Over the past 20 years, a revolution in high-resolution scanning and digital printing has enabled ceramic manufacturers to replicate a wide variety of materials with immaculate precision, from stone and wood to concrete, metal and wallpaper. At Bologna’s 2021 Cersaie tile expo, however, the art of imitation gave way to a more freewheeling collage aesthetic.
Combining multiple materials and motifs into a single surface, manufacturers moved beyond simple mimicry to introduce a bold new style that felt not only fresh but distinctly ceramic, too. In the process, they began to resolve an identity crisis that had been building in the tile industry: Once a tile can look like anything, what should it look like next?
The experimental aesthetic that emerged to answer that question is particularly exciting for the way that it engages the technological innovation that has recently reshaped Italy’s tile factories. The rustic town of Sassuolo, about an hour’s drive northwest of Bologna, forms the heart of the country’s world-leading ceramics industry. Here, almost fully automated factories now turn out some of the world’s most sophisticated ceramics in an effortless mechanized ballet.
Situated within a kilometre of one another, manufacturers like Florim, Lea Ceramiche, Atlas Concorde and Ceramiche Caesar (to name a few) combine cutting-edge digital printing with precise, error-free fabrication processes. Facilitated by laser-guided driverless vehicles, they produce tiles that are thinner, stronger and more versatile than ever, and are now commonly available in floor-to-ceiling formats of well over three metres. Book-matching seamlessly translates a veining pattern from slab to slab, while full-depth 3D printing embosses designs through the body of the tile, potentially making the side profile a showpiece in its own right.
Before the pandemic, these advanced capabilities were leveraged mainly to create increasingly convincing imitations of wood and marble, which proliferated in Cersaie’s show halls back in 2019. It helps that faux material ceramic tiles boast clear advantages over their natural counterparts, offering a more durable, long-lasting and easy-to-maintain surface than the “real” thing. After all, what other surface can replicate the look of wallpaper — but for a shower? What’s more, the tile industry’s growing emphasis on sustainable manufacturing means that its products offer a smaller carbon footprint than heavily mined stones like marble, and even many renewable materials like natural hardwood.
In its efforts to further its eco ethos, Italy’s ceramics industry now re-uses 99 per cent of all production waste and water, and has eliminated all toxic emissions from its processes, thereby leaving relatively little mark on the Sassuolo landscape — beyond the footprint of the factories themselves, that is. More and more, companies are also using recycled construction waste, including glass and concrete, to produce new tiles. Even the supply chain is rigorously audited for efficiency, with train transport accounting for 24 per cent of supply and distribution flows in and out of Emilia-Romagna. (Introduced in 2021, an ISO standard for ceramic sustainability formalizes these criteria with a global benchmark.)
But even if ceramics designed to imitate other materials are now greener and more sophisticated, their core limitations remain. Consider the ubiquitous “wood-look” tile. It may be a more durable and hygienic alternative to the real thing, but on bare feet, it’s still a cold ceramic surface, regardless of how impeccable the wood pattern looks (or even feels).
And isn’t using all of this innovative technology to recreate something familiar a little, well, safe? Luckily, Italy’s top manufacturers have some tricks up their sleeves. At Cersaie, a growing emphasis on experimentation and expression was taking root, using technologies originally developed to aid in imitation as the springboard for more playful aesthetics that wouldn’t be possible with any other material.
Casalgrande Padana’s Gendai Wood collection is a case in point; inspired by a 14th-century Japanese method of charring cedar, the tiles move beyond a familiar wood effect to instead achieve a hyper-realistic grain pattern amplified by intriguingly vivid undertones in five colourways. In mint green, it makes for an exuberant yet elegant surface, riffing on natural wood but establishing a style that is all its own. The Grigio Etrusco series by Ariana is a similarly thoughtful departure, integrating striking gold accents into a wood-effect surface.
The industry’s experimental streak isn’t just redefining wood, either. Ariana’s Epoque 21 Tesserae collection combines multiple stone patterns into a single product, harnessing ceramic replication capabilities to create a canvas-like surface. Meanwhile, companies like Florim, Lea, Atlas Concorde, FAP, Ceramica Fondovalle, Ceramiche Caesar and more are imbuing their wood, stone, wallpaper and concrete styles with similarly expressive hints of whimsy.
Emerging from the pandemic, the dynamic exuberance of it all feels like (another) shot in the arm. There’s more to it than fun, too: A surprising material honesty emerges from the approach, which crafts a singular — and uniquely ceramic — identity from imitation itself.
After successfully matching the look of many other materials, ceramic manufacturers have invented a whole new take on mimicry.