Italian design: Tales of tiles, the long lasting love affair between North American Architecture and Italian Tiles

Aug 19, 2018 393

Last May, Ceramics of Italy Tile Competition, the longest running award of its type, celebrated in Orlando, FL its 25th anniversary. This milestone was commemorated with a delicate 8 minutes film called ”Timeless Tiles: The Italian Legacy” directed by Francesca Molteni with the contribution of architectural historian Fulvio Irace; the documentary praises the extraordinary relationship between the Italian ceramic tile industry and the North American Architecture.

Ceramics of Italy is an institutional trademark created by Confindustria Ceramica (the Italian Association of Ceramics) member companies and it refers to ceramics products of Italian origin: the trademark is strictly applied after a specific authorisation process. The aim of this trademark is to protect and enhance the Italian ceramic market worldwide, as the 85% of ceramic tiles and 55% of ceramic sanitary-wear produced in Italy are exported. Although this sector is spread all over Italy, the majority of the most important companies are concentrated in the clusters of Sassuolo (Emilia Romagna), Imola-Faenza (Emilia Romagna), Civita Castellana (Lazio), Vietri sul Mare (Campania) and Impruneta (Toscana).

The word “ceramic” comes from the greek word keramos, but the discovery of clay and its use can be traced even further back; ceramics objects existed as utensils for everyday use as far as in the Neolithic, just like nowadays. In Italy, ceramic was already used during the Roman Empire years: but it was during the Medieval era that the first botteghe (ateliers) were opened, especially in Tuscany and the Emilia Romagna area, where the ceramics, especially tiles as we know them today, were created.

From the 1400s, ceramics became the main upholstery material used as floors, on the walls of churches, buildings and public offices in Italy; some examples, such as  the “Chiostro Maiolicato” of Santa Chiara in Naples, completely decorated in the XVII century, still preserves its glaze for us to enjoy as an heritage of the Italian craftsmanship.

Today, Italian tiles are chosen as the final touch to beautiful buildings worldwide, however there seems to be a special relationship with Northern American architecture firms. This year, indeed, the “Ceramics of Italy Tile Competition” boasted a total of 60 entries, honoring the innovative use of this material in the design process.

Every year, the competition awards 4 categories: commercial, residential, institutional for building projects and a student category. Contractors and distributors involved in the winning projects are as well awarded of a prize for their contribution.

The 2018 winners

Commercial category: awarded to Studio Libeskind, an architecture firm with the idea that a building should be expressive and reflect contemporary life, and Casagrande Padana, producing advance ceramics material for more than 50 years. The winning project, Sapphire, is located in Berlin, Germany, where in a plot of less than an acre, 73 apartments were created. The tiles used to cover 2,600 sq. ft. of the building’s exterior are technologically advanced to be self-cleaning and to aid in air purification. Tiles were also used for the balcony walls, through the bathroom’s and shower’s wall. A total of 3,600 tiles were used to finish this project!

Residential category: awarded to Ziger/Snead Architects in collaboration with Imola Ceramic for their “Baltimore Slate House” project, in Baltimore, MD. A contemporary retreat, the 7,000 sq. Ft. Slate House was destroyed by a blaze. The design reconnects the site to the existing contextual environment; Italian tiles were chosen due to their quality and the large format nice option, needed to complete this private home project.

Institutional category: awarded to ZAS Architects + Interior for the “Bergeron Center fo Engineering Excellence” project, at York University, Canada, in collaboration with tile manufacturer ABK. Although polished concrete was considered at first, tiles were chosen for the ground floor, corridors and social areas due to its durability, low porosity and stain resistant properties.

Student category: the winners are Raquel Raney and Brennan Broome, students at the Florida international University with their “Dove Street Market” project, where classic yet fashionable style collide with an industrial setting. The tile manufacturer are Atlas concorde, Ceramica Vogue and Ornamenta.

Clay, a natural resource used already by our ancestors, is nowadays enhanced by new techniques of preparation and processing, creating an outstanding material. Italian tiles are known for respecting the handcrafting origins traced back to more than 1000 years ago, adding high tech, a sustainable approach and a unique Italian artistic taste, making Italian ceramic another ambassador of the  “Made in Italy”.

Italian tiles are products of excellence used by architects around the world as the “ciliegina sulla torta” (“icing on the cake”) to finish up their beautiful designs. We already are looking forward for the 2019 edition of “Ceramics of Italy Competition”, to celebrate once again the love affair of the North American architecture with the Italian tile craftsmanships.

Italy really needs just to advertise itself, to show people that an Italian product is not nearly a trick of the market but it belongs traditionally to the culture; it is a cultural material, it is not just a physical material” Daniel Libeskind, Studio Libeskind

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