Nowadays, tile is being used to create unique and innovative exterior designs in both residential and public places. CERO Design & Built, Inc., a Puerto Rico-based company dedicated to art and architecture, recently restored beauty to a vandalized park, which it calls “In Dreams of Giants.”


It is evident that homeowners and designers devote a tremendous amount of time and effort in selecting just the right tile products for their interior applications, but tile is in no way limited to just indoor designs. Many tile lines today are frost- and slip-resistant - making them ideal for exterior use. And because they are strong and durable, it does not mean that aesthetics has to be sacrificed. Architects and designers are thinking “outside the box,” and creating unique and innovative outdoor designs with tile for both residential and commercial spaces.

While stone is an obvious choice for exterior designs, as it ties in with a home or building’s natural surroundings, tile presents the opportunity to add a little flare and color to an outdoor setting. In general, today’s technology has allowed for many more design options, specifically, it has resulted in more stylish tile lines that can hold up to inclement weather and other outside conditions.

Large-format floor tiles are commonly used these days for outdoor applications such as patios and pool surrounds. And even the use of tile for façade systems, which has been used extensively in Europe for years, is slowly evolving in the U.S. But tile is also being used in more creative ways for outdoor designs. Glass mosaics are being used to clad barbecues and patio bars, and broken ceramic pieces are being utilized for decorative elements, such as murals in parks and office campuses.

Tile products are bringing the exteriors of structures as well as their surrounding landscapes alive. Whether it is in a residential backyard or rooftop of a commercial building, tile is being utilized more and more to develop the character of exterior designs.

Another example of how tile is being used to create lively architecture is a memorial, entitled “Blacks with Wings,” that was built in Caguas, Puerto Rico, to honor the accomplishments of the African American race.

Celebrating in Tile

An example of how tile is being used to create lively architecture is a memorial, entitled “Blacks with Wings,” that was built in Caguas, Puerto Rico, to honor the accomplishments of the African American race. The intricately detailed mosaic piece was designed by CERO Design & Built, Inc. - a Puerto Rico-based company dedicated to creating works of art and architecture, which it refers to as “ARTquitectura.”

“The commission was to build a monument honoring the accomplishments of the black race in Puerto Rico,” explained Alvaro Racines Biaggi of CERO Design & Built, Inc. “Originally, the wall was to be 20-by-8 feet with 10 black personalities that CERO proposed. After a few meetings with the municipality, together we came up with 25 men and women of the arts, politics, sports and education. The actual images used in the mosaic came mostly from a book on black history of the island, which was given to us by the Municipality of Caguas. Some others came from the Internet and other sources. The design for the wall ended up being 60-by-13 feet to fit the 25 faces.”

According to Biaggi, the concept for the design was to build a Phoenix-type bird, representing the wings that took each one of these personalities to history. “This is the reason for the complex curving silhouettes at each side and the top of the sculpture,” he said. “Plenty of rebar was used to hold up the wings to the main structure - making the sculpture a real monolithic piece.”

The artist went on to explain that the greatest challenge was to make realistic portraits of each character using a broken tile mosaic technique. “CERO is well experienced in making abstract compositions with broken ceramic tiles, but the challenge of realism was learned through the process of making ‘Blacks with Wings,’” he said. “Each image was digitally manipulated to be in three tones - black, white and gray. With each portrait in three tones, we were then able to create a 3-by-3-foot stencil in cardboard. Once the stencil was cut out, we used it to paint the portrait on the wall. We then carefully placed the mosaic over it - first in black, then in whites and grays.”

An additional challenge for the two artists was to build the wooden mold to “pour in place” the concrete, explained Biaggi. “The actual pour happened in three stages,” he said. “First the footing, which was 4-by-60 feet; then the middle section to 8 feet, with 10-foot cantilever wings to each side; and finally, the crown up to 13 feet in height.”

Biaggi continued to explain that the design team had done “pour in place” ‘mosaic sculptures before, but never at this monumental scale. “The size was one of the challenges,” he said. “So were the curve conditions of the site, forcing us to make complex carpentry moves throughout the framework.”

Another phase of the design that required careful consideration was color selection of the tile. “We wanted to make a statement contrasting a highly colored background to the three-toned portraits,” said Biaggi. “This way, the portraits would be highlighted. We also decided to use earth tones to match the surrounding areas, using brown Quarry tile as the main color.”

The artist went on to say that Quarry tile consists of a different texture than ceramic tile. It does not shine or reflect like ceramic tile does. “This effect causes the Quarry tile to look further back from the shiny ceramic tile that appears to be in front, and it adds a three-dimensional appearance to the flat wall. We used oranges, yellows, greens and whites to add light to the surface, while creating contrast with the browns and reds.”

For another project, named “Ceremonial Spiral,” CERO Design & Built, Inc. created a colorful and artistic seating area at the University of Puerto Rico with ceramic mosaic tiles.

Combining Function and Art

For another project, named “Ceremonial Spiral,” CERO Design & Built, Inc. created a colorful and artistic seating area at the University of Puerto Rico with ceramic mosaic tiles. “This project is seen from above as a spiral shape,” said Biaggi. “We originally did a sketch model with a table that transformed into two sitting areas facing each other. The idea was to create a powerful gathering area for students to interact. The spiral design was to be this symbolic object that attracted you to visit, sit and gather.”

The artists recalled their own college experiences when working on this project. “Each one of the architecture schools that we studied at had their own ceremonial places for people to gather, so we wanted to provide the school of architecture at the University of Puerto Rico with their own,” said Biaggi. “Students were invited to participate in the mosaic work so they could feel a part of the process. They were also grateful for having a new colorful gathering/sitting area for their use.”

Biaggi went on to say that the design team at CERO Design & Built, Inc. tested the ergonomics of the human body when working on this project, so that they could create comfortable sitting areas. “It is important that the edges are carefully done using the ‘good side’ of the ceramic tile - not the broken one. We also made sure that the surface was as flat as possible, for the tiles all had to be in the same plane. Once the grout is in place, there should be no edges sticking out.”

This project as well as all of the company’s work is completed on site, according to Biaggi. “Our work is always done on site, because it will always come out better than if it is pre-worked inside the studio,” he said. “We always prepare a unique art for each project, and even though we do scale drawings to transfer the art to the wall, we are proud of always being able to free-hand and improvise our particular mosaic style onto each new project.”

In addition to patios and pool surrounds, tile can also be used for more innovative outdoor designs such as colorful pillars. This residence was also the work of CERO Design & Built, Inc.

A "Playful" Design

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum - located in Brower Park in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, NY - has been educating and inspiring young children since it first opened in 1899. With 108 years of history, museum officials recently decided that it was time to renovate the current structure, which is a 1977 bunker building.

World-renowned architect Rafael Vinoly was selected to redesign the building, which would make it the first “green” museum in New York City. Vinoly’s design brought the museum above ground for the first time in 25 years - doubling the square footage with a 51,000-square-foot, L-shaped structure. This has increased the museum’s capacity from 250,000 to 400,000 visitors per year.

And while the exhibits and learning programs are the heart of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the brilliant yellow mosaic tiles that were chosen to clad the roof and exterior walls of the building have gained attention. In total, 8.1 million 1-by-1-inch pieces of the bright yellow ceramic tile - supplied by DSA Ceramic Tile - was used in the exterior design.

“The new building stands out and really establishes itself in the community,” stated Lee Washesky, project manager for Rafael Vinoly Architects PC. “The fifth elevation can be seen from across the street or the sky. Yellow is the color of hope, and this is a museum for little people.”

For the installation, Laticrete System materials from Laticrete International, Inc. of Bethany, CT, were chosen. Because Laticrete’s products are GreenGuard certified, they were a logical choice for the museum that was looking to gain LEED certification. Additionally, Laticrete SpectraLOCK™ Pro Grout was made in a custom yellow that perfectly matched the specified tile.

Sidebar: DSA Ceramic Rain Screens - Worthy of ‘The Greatest'

In tradition with its industry reputation for innovation, Deutsche Steinzeug America, Inc. (DSA), formerly known as Agrob-Buchtal, has added to its repertoire of exterior ceramic architecture with the completion of the Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville, KY. Directly facing the Ohio River, the six-story, 24,000-sq.-ft. center was envisioned from inception to serve as a museum to Muhammad Ali’s life and a working entity to promote his campaign for humanitarianism and social justice.

Capturing attention for miles around like the legend himself, a 40-foot-high band of DSA’s KerAion Quadro ceramic rain-screen façades enfold the building. These tiles are mounted on a stainless steel railing system, which in turn is anchored to the building’s wall substrate. From outside, the panels create a mosaic montage of Ali in action fighting positions and facial close-ups.

To create the montage, more than 9,800 individual pieces were exactly catalogued and packaged at DSA’s factory to ensure they were installed in their proper positions. The concept required materials that were safe for external applications, while offering resistance to color chipping or fading. 

DSA noted that that, “eco-friendly KerAion ceramics help lower building climate control energy costs and further offer the HYDROTECT surface coating, which reduces dirt adhesion making the panels self-cleaning with rain water.”