The first three months of the year are an important time for the ceramic tile industry, as manufacturers roll out their latest designs at three major trade shows, Surfaces, Cevisama, and Revistir. Every year, innovative new products vie for the attention of the thousands of buyers who travel worldwide in search of the newest styles in tile design. As more foreign manufacturers enter the U.S. market, particularly Chinese and Brazilian companies, competition for market share has become increasingly fierce. Faced with increased competition and an unfavorable exchange rate, Italian and Spanish manufacturers have responded by introducing a wide range of new products that push the envelope of ceramic tile design.

From new glazes and finishing techniques to increasingly sophisticated modular formats that allow for virtually infinite size customization, it seems that ceramic tile manufacturers never run out of new ideas.

There are two obvious trends emerging in ceramic design; on one hand, natural finishes, such as stone and wood, are becoming increasingly realistic, often rivaling their real-world counterparts for lifelike color and texture; on the other hand, modernist looks such as metal and glass are also becoming more popular.

In addition, there also seems to be a resurgence of more traditional tile designs such as mosaics, terra cotta and hand-painted glazed ceramic tiles. These traditional methods produce an astounding range of styles, from classical Greco-Roman motifs to outlandish postmodernism and every imaginable point in between.

More than ever before, the only limits to ceramic tile design are the limits of the imagination, as manufacturers offer increasing ways to personalize and customize each design. Several manufacturers now utilize computerized systems which allow users to design custom color configurations. For example, this would allow the designer or consumer to choose color schemes for their tile that would exactly match other floor coverings and textiles.

On a related theme, a major U.S. ceramic manufacturer introduced at Surfaces a modular ceramic tile line that was designed in conjunction with a carpet manufacturer, resulting in a color palette that will perfectly match any of the company's carpet colors. These types of partnerships between ceramic manufacturers and manufacturers of other floor coverings will likely be emulated by other companies.

In the next issue of TILE, we'll offer an in-depth look into the latest trends on display at Cevisama, including the latest natural looks and modernist approaches to ceramic design.

So far, 2005 is shaping up to be an exciting year for the ceramic tile industry. Despite the continuing weakness of the dollar and other pressures, the U.S. ceramic tile market is on track for another year of sustained growth.