Moldings, borders and trim tile offer endless possibilities for creating one-of-a-kind mural compositions. Photo courtesy of Meredith Art Tile.

Mixing size, texture and color provides a limitless array of potential designs. Photo: Alpaca courtesy Ceramica Colli di Sassuolo.
What types of design qualify as decorative tile? Personally, with the advanced design capabilities employed at modern manufacturers, I consider all quality ceramic tile to be fired art. Certainly, this was not the case as recently as ten years ago. Today, research and innovation have revolutionized ceramic decoration. It was necessary for the ceramic industry to invest heavily in aesthetic techniques in order to replicate the magnificent hand-crafted artistry common to tile from the 13th to 17th century. State of the art technology can now deliver the look of historic tile across all budget categories. An additional capability of the new screening systems comes when creating the totally random effects found in nature. Tile programs can now boast an almost limitless variety, with no tile repeating the same pattern. Ceramic tile fashioned after marble, granite, wood, textiles or metal have such a natural fluidity that distinguishing them from the original is challenging. So whether your choice is a monochromatic tiled canvas or a multi-hued mural - it is all decorative tile!

The unique feature of ceramic tile is the ability to add interest and define space with each tile laid. Photo: Damasco courtesy Inalco Ceramica.
Ceramic tile is also no longer thought of merely as a functional, durable material. It is all about fashion, architecture and interior design. Modular programs offer a variety of sizes, shapes and textures begging us to experiment with a floor plan and flex our creative muscles. Certainly a single size and texture can be chosen with no decorative accent, but when the tile is also square set, this is referred to as "putting tile"- a gentle way of saying boring. This type of installation treats the entire surface uniformly ignoring the unique feature of ceramic tile - the ability to add interest and define a space with each tile laid.

Specialty art or decorative tile does not always have to be included to create a one of a kind installation. In fact, when setting a single size field or plain tile, consider layouts such as brick set, herringbone, or laying a portion of the tile on a diagonal framed by a field of square set tile. This last technique helps to define specific use areas in an open concept floor plan. If a pattern is too busy for the room, changing the surface texture of the tile can create a dramatic play of light across the tiled surface. A subtle checkerboard can be achieved by alternating a matt and polished finish in the same color. Remember that the grid can be one to one or larger by using four or more tile of the same texture to form each square. Polished tile can also be used around the perimeter of the room to frame a field of slate textured tile. Playing one finish off the other increases the depth and impact of both. Finally, using more than one color is perhaps the easiest way to create a focal point. The accent tile color can be as understated as a shade variation or as striking as lipstick red on black.

Any of these techniques can be used alone or in combination. Mixing size, texture and color provides a limitless array of potential designs. Another distinctive twist that requires field tile only is called trencadis (literally, broken tile). The technique was developed by Antonio Gaudi over 100 years ago and is enjoying a tremendous resurgence in commercial and residential applications. The shattered pieces of trencadis can follow a sweeping curve or be re-assembled to cover the space of a single full tile creating a distinct texture in selected areas of a floor, wall or column.

Using one size of tile never needs to lack drama. The elegant herringbone pattern adds an ageless quality to this elegant dining room. Photo: Castelnuovo courtesy Il Ferrone.
Art Tile
Of course specialty accent or art tile can also be placed in the overall field of tile. They can form borders, murals or be spotted randomly throughout the installation. Accent pieces have as many names as styles. Some common pieces may be referred to as listel, listelli, bar, pencil, border, bordura, or moldura. This type of narrow trim is traditionally placed in a horizontal band running through the field of tile or may be used to cap the tile at wainscot height.

Art tile may be carved in raised or bas-relief patterns, gilded with metal or imbued with soft hand-painted details. Photo courtesy of Status Inc. Custom Ceramics.
Art tile may be carved in a raised or bas-relief pattern, gilded with metal, glazed with complimentary colors, intentionally crazed or craquelle for an antique effect or pressed into a three dimensional geometric or organic shape. To a large extent decorative tile prior to the last few years has been limited to the pencil-like bar tile or "spotter tile" which is sized identical to the corresponding plain tile allowing for any number of accents to be scattered randomly.