The evolution of porcelain stoneware: colours, shapes and uses

From ceramics to porcelain stoneware. Background

Ceramic is a material which is ancient and very modern and, especially in the Mediterranean countries, its use is the result of a tradition born of material, art and colour.

Its origins date back to prehistoric times, when it was discovered that dried clay increased its mechanical performance: terracotta was born. The first objects made from this material were found in the Middle East about 18,000 years ago and consisted mainly of dishes and containers for food and water.

With the invention of the lathe - around 4000 BC - the production of terracotta objects underwent a revolution: the shapes, still without decorations, went from being rough and irregular to symmetrical and harmonious.

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With the discovery that etchings on ceramics were more durable than writing on papyrus, the tile (pressed earth) was created, mainly used as a support for writing.

As well as writings, there also came the first decorations on pottery first applied manually, then with cylinders engraved with decorative motifs in negative, designed in calcite, marble or ivory: a primitive form of mass production.

During the 3rd and 2nd century BC, people began to decorate terracotta tiles with pigmented vitreous paints: this is how the first glazed ceramic coverings were created, used first by the ancient Egyptians in highly prestigious buildings, then as furniture elements in homes.

From the Middle East, decorative ceramic coverings spread to Europe with the advent of Islam (in this regard, we recall the Azulejos of the Iberian peninsula and the Majolica in Italy).

With the commercial exchanges of the Renaissance period, the Iberian decorative tradition became influenced by Italian decorative art: the repetitiveness of the Arab depictions thus leaves a place open to large decorative panels depicting unique and imposing figures.

A significant reassessment of the aesthetic qualities of ceramics took place at the beginning of the twentieth century with the spread of art nouveau: think of the works of Hector Guimard or the Catalan modernism of Antoni Gaudi. At this time tiles were decorated with floral motifs and feminine figures with sinuous characters and spread throughout Europe.

With the 1900 Paris Exhibition a long season began in which the small Liberty-style tile for floor coverings became an integral part of the architectural tradition, used in balconies, hospitals, barracks, etc.

In Italy, most of the ceramic manufacturing industries in the Fascist period were born in Modena, in particular in the production district of Sassuolo (thanks to the great availability of clay hills in the area) which for a long time remained the world's leading manufacturer of ceramic tiles.

The affirmation of the ceramic production sector took place after World War II: the development of the construction sector during the years of reconstruction meant that the demand for materials for coating walls and floors increased above all in the context of the restoring the existing elements.

In the 1960s, the ceramic industry suffered its first setback due to monetary inflation. Companies reacted to the crisis by exporting abroad and innovating production technologies, managing, at least in part, to stay on track: in these years the single-fired tile was invented (up to then, double-fired had been used, in which the support was first baked and then enamelled) which became extremely successful thanks to its greater resistance to wear.

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Floor Gres factory historic photo (Fiorano Modenese - MO)


With the growth of the Spanish production sector, which was more competitive from an economic point of view, in the eighties the Italian supply chain suffered a second crisis, which, once again, was overcome thanks to a further innovative push: it is the age of porcelain stoneware.


Porcelain stoneware

Porcelain stoneware is a type of ceramic obtained by pressing a selected mixture of clay, kaolin, sand, feldspar and coloured pigments, which is finely ground, pressed and cooked at very high temperatures until it achieves vitrification. Its compact structure and its composition make it a functional material with a high technical performance; its aesthetic quality and versatility, on the other hand, transform it into a design material which is capable of uniting the ancient knowledge of ceramic processing with technological innovation.


The innovation of 2008

In the years of the economic crisis which began in Italy in 2008, the ceramic industry (and therefore the porcelain stoneware industry) once again saw a phase of decline which, as had already been experienced in the past, pushed production to renew itself by developing new machinery for pressing, firing and printing slabs which allowed the creation of a product with a unique design and in large dimensions: from the smallest sizes to large plates (from 80x80cm up to 160x320cm) , stoneware today combines lightness and beauty while maintaining its technical characteristics.

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Exhibition of large slabs 160x320 cm from the Florim brands


Finishes

Thanks to modern production technologies and digital decoration, it was possible to reinvent the simple tile by creating specific ones with special tactile effects and finishes. A marble-effect slab, thanks to the coordination between the basic structure and decoration, can reproduce the smooth finish of the original material; a slab with a wood effect will trace its nodes and veins. Furthermore, two tiles with the same graphic decoration, depending on their finish (matte, smooth, structured, etc.) suggest different uses, allowing great material uniformity within complex projects.

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Prexious of Rex
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Colours and inspirations of porcelain stoneware

The inclusion of colour into the paste - combined with the precision of the graphic design programmes and the innovative decoration techniques - make porcelain stoneware a real designer product. Until a few decades ago, in fact, ceramic was considered a mere functional product; today, the market offers products which are available in a wide range of monochrome colours, artistic decorations and inspirations for both trendy and classic materials.

The possibility of designing the graphics of the slabs a priori also guarantees the control of the natural features of the inspiring materials: through, for example, the elimination or emphasis of the knots in wood or the saturation of marble colours, porcelain stoneware reinterprets nature, perfecting it according to contemporary needs and maintaining the high performance standards of ceramic material.

The variety of colours, decorations, finishes and sizes of porcelain stoneware make it a versatile material which is adaptable to the most diverse contexts, sometimes suggesting amazing application solutions.

Policroma_Cristina_Celestino CEDIT

CEDIT - Ceramiche d’Italia: Policroma by Cristina Celestino
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Use of stoneware today

Stoneware coverings are now an integral part and protagonists of the design world. Widely used on floors, walls and external façades, in residential or large public spaces, porcelain stoneware offers designers maximum freedom of expression.

Its chromatic uniformity, its lightness and its availability in large sizes suggest an alternative use in the field of furnishing: applied as a top for kitchens, fireplaces, doors, bar counters, tables, bathroom furniture, and headboards for beds, porcelain stoneware goes beyond its main function of covering and represents a valid answer to the aesthetic needs within product design.

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Marble in Florim Stone
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Porcelain tile in interior design project