The brave new world of tile

For decades, ceramic tile has been the go-to choice for baths and kitchens, for reasons mostly pragmatic. The durable medium holds up to water, inhibits the growth of mold and mildew, and repels allergens. It also will not absorb odors like smoke.

But classic ceramic is just one category of tile.

“People think of tile as a material,” says Jen Renzi, author of “The Art of Tile” (Clarkson Potter, $40). “It’s actually a format that the material comes in.”

Today those “modules” include stone, cement, cork, leather and metal — as well as porcelain, which in spite of its delicate appellation, is tough as nails because of its firing at very high temperatures. Porcelain is less porous than ceramic tile, and it’s even frost-proof, extending use to outdoor rooms with short seasons.

Porcelain also offers a formidable canvas for mimicry. With digital and ink-jet printing techniques, etching, stamping and other surface treatments, there is practically no surface or finish that cannot be replicated, often with stunning verisimilitude. That includes fabrics (linen, lace, satin, velvet, burlap), leather (hides like zebra) and a variety of skins (such as lizard, snake and crocodile), metal (including gold and silver leaf facsimiles), wood (teak, walnut, oak — even centuries’-old antiques), wall coverings (like grass cloth, sisal and other tufted rugs) and paint (including fresco, faux finishes and hand painting).

With toiles, paislies and super-sized florals that rival the best in wall coverings, tile is catching the eye of more consumers intrigued with its decorative capabilities. That expands the base of art tile aficionados. Companies like Pratt and Larson and Motawi Tileworks are known for their beautifully glazed embossed tiles, the latter especially for their Arts and Crafts inspirations that include some from Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan.

There is, of course, a formidable historic precedent for the decorative use of tile, dating to at least the fourth century B.C. Imagine the magnificent mosaics of ancient Pompeii, flamboyant Gaudi stonework in Barcelona or the precious stone inlays at the Taj Mahal.

Renzi’s book features a rich tapestry of residential examples, including a residence in Morocco whose interior and exterior spaces are clad in a consistent black-and-white scheme with complementary organic and geometric patterned cement tiles that have a surprisingly modern vibe.

One of Renzi’s goals is to “decode” tile, with its myriad choices, and the confusion about what to use where and how to apply it. The former senior writer at House and Garden and the trade publication Interior Design includes nuts-and-bolts pros and “considerations” (more caveats than negatives), as well as more than 1,500 photos of tile samples.

Not surprisingly, many trendsetting designs are Italian and Spanish imports, recalling those countries’ rich traditions as well as their capabilities for pushing the technological envelope with such features as light reactivity, self cleaning, pollution absorbance, even tiles embedded with LED lights.

The larger formats for the floor and walls seem the freshest, and they lend themselves especially well to minimalist interiors that enjoy a zen aesthetic. Fewer grout lines make for a cleaner, more seamless look and easier maintenance.

Honed finishes are especially in vogue today. That’s one reason for the appeal of cement tiles. No boring gray here; these come in chic patinated solids or in charming patterns inspired by 19th century designs from Europe and Cuba. Some tiles team matte and glossy, for example, in a tone-on-tone damask with a shimmery effect.

Textures can range from raked, rippled, ribbed, scraped and dimpled, rough as stucco to smooth as satin. You can have the look of thick tufts of carpeting or thatches of pony hair, grass cloth or rice paper.

Three-dimensional effects also are extraordinary. Imagine flat squares that turn at angles and project out — the overall look becomes sculptural.

Some textural tiles sport flakes of gold or silver. But even flat surfaces treated with a luster take on an elegant glow not unlike the paintings of Gustav Klimt. Choose from precious metals like gold, silver, copper and platinum or industrial metals like iron, steel, copper, aluminum and titanium.

Besides facsimiles, Bear Creek Bronze features real cast metal tiles including bronze, copper, white bronze  and yellow brass.

Glass mosaics have been huge, and now there’s an even broader range of translucent and opaque glass in a palette of colors from lemon and lime to butterscotch hues that resemble rock candy. Eco-friendly concerns make recycled glass a welcome option. Besides conventional square shapes, there also are stacked brick shapes, irregular, jagged geometrics, and circular bubbles that which give mosaics a whimsical dimension.

Tiles that mimic wallpaper and other materials continue to attract followers. Wood-alikes mimic the grain, not only visually but tactilely, and a range of colors suggesting everything from oak and teak to walnut and wenge (an espresso-hued African wood). kitchens, baths or, if appropriate, outdoor settings, where a water resistant option is required.