Focus: Ceramics

Short production-runs and high-definition printing are giving one British company the edge in ceramic tiles

Words by Francis Pearce

Digital technology is transforming the design and manufacture of tiles, an interior-design medium that has existed for around 4,000 years, and, coincidentally, giving a push to the trend for look-alike surfaces.

Historically, ceramic tile has been considered the poor relation of higher-priced porcelain. But new manufacturing techniques and designs have begun to highlight just how overlooked the modest ceramic tile is, says Claire O’Brien, British Ceramic Tile’s head of design.

British Ceramic Tile has been working with Ted Baker to produce tactile and graphic tilesBritish Ceramic Tile has been working with Ted Baker to produce tactile and graphic tiles

Glazed tiles arrived in Western Europe in the 10th century when they were used in York and Winchester cathedrals; in the 19th century Britain led the way in their mass production. Today, as in many areas of design, craft and mass customisation are running alongside one another.

‘The development of the ceramic tile manufacturing process has improved the quality of the tiles, the scope of design, the sustainability of the whole process; and, in doing so, put the ceramic tile in the interior mix,’ she says. ‘Our design team knows the importance of keeping our ranges relevant, and the HD technology we work with enables us to create tiles that are ahead of trends. We’re seeing a lot of worn and aged textures – woods, concretes, stones – and matt black is featuring across a lot of the design schemes we’re looking at.’

Textured tile Slate RT has the look of slate but as a ceramic tileTextured tile Slate RT has the look of slate but as a ceramic tile

The digital technology that arrived at the turn of this century has matured; better inks, ‘drop on demand’ printing with piezoelectric printheads, and smarter software have made it possible to print short runs of thinner tiles with at least the resolution of a magazine photograph.

As a non-contact production method digital printing eliminates the breakages and long-runs typical of traditional flat-bed or cylinder printing processes that use rollers or rotary screens. Short set-up and production runs make small batches or even one-offs of high-quality print, standard or unorthodox-shaped or relief tiles printed to the edge. ‘Full bleed’ printing plus a high degree of randomisation makes it easier to mimick natural surfaces by doing away with white edges and repeating patterns. British Ceramic Tiles’ core product range covers ceramic, porcelain, glass and natural stone tiles and includes tactile and graphic ceramic wall and floor tiles created in collaboration with Ted Baker.

The company has invested around £1.3m in ink-jet technology. This includes software that processes artwork, enabling it to print structured tiles in high resolution. In addition to developing its own finishes, the design team, located in Devon and Yorkshire, works with clients such as Conran & Partners and has helped to curate collections from the design archives of the V&A.

Its factory on the edge of Dartmoor produces tiles with design-led finishes that can now be produced at a rate of 19,000 sq m a day. Thanks to a local supply of white clay and other raw materials and a recycling policy that it describes as stringent, the company is able to do so with low environmental impact. It claims that 85 per cent of its raw materials are British-sourced.

Large-format tile ConcreteLarge-format tile Concrete

‘In the UK, it’s possible to dig clay from pits in the South West and turn it into a high-spec surface material for interior designs close by,’ O’Brien says. ‘We process the raw material in Devon, turn it into tile-ready clay biscuits that we flatten and cut to shape then twice fire in vast kilns.

‘The short distance the material travels means the carbon footprint of these ceramic tiles is miniscule, especially against any of the multitude of imported tiles that travel from China, the world leader in tile production, India, Spain or Italy. It also means that ceramic tiles can be made to order and delivered in less than a week – a crucial plus in commercial interior design.’

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