14 February 2008

It's trade show season --woo-hoo!

Every year, the tile and stone industries join forces to put on a trade show that makes my mouth water. "Coverings" is taking place in Orlando this year from April 29th through May 2nd. I cannot wait to get there. The photos littering my entry today are highlights from last year's show.

The kitchen to the left is a beautiful room on a whole lotta levels. It's open, airy and relies on the wall mosaics and floor tile patterns to add interest. This makes for a simply furnished room that's in no way Spartan or empty. Were it not for the tile work, this room would look positively bare.

There is so much to the world of tile and it's unfortunate that most peoples' ideas of what's out there comes from the tile aisle at the home center. True, most of what I'm showing here and most of what I'll see at Coverings this year is the extremely high end of the market. However, interesting needn't mean outrageously expensive automatically. Even if a lot of what I see at the show is aspirational, it's always good to see the high end of the market. An awareness of the high end helps you buy better knock offs. The styles that end up in a home center started out years before at the high end and trickled down. Sort of the same way that fashion or cars or any other consumer product does.

When I was registering this afternoon, I looked through the list of exhibitors and to call it extensive is the understatement of the century. Among the hundreds of tile manufacturers and stone importers are a fair number of Chinese businesses. I would say that the percentage of obviously Chinese concerns is approaching 10 per cent of the exhibitors. I suppose it's a reflection of the world economy and China's place in it. That China is a growing world power doesn't concern me necessarily, but I do find their presence at these trade events to be interesting.

Their emerging economies and sensibilities haven't quite figured out how to attract the eye of western designers, I think I can say that pretty safely. When you compare the booths of the Chinese manufacturers to those of the Italians, the Spainish or any other international firm who's been around for a while it's pretty jarring. The Chinese exhibitors tend to display their wares in booths that look like a grouping of folding tables. Period. The Italian booths in particular tend to look as if the muses themselves decided to go into the tile business.

More curiously still, the Italians have been making mosaics since the dawn of western civ. True, the Chinese are no strangers to ceramics, but it was the Italians who made tile into an art form. Italian mosaic tile in particular sets the standard. In my office are some samples of Sicis glass tile from Venice (http://www.sicis.com/). The families of northern Italy have been making glass tile since the Venetians figured out how to make colored glass a thousand years ago. The formulas that went into the glass sample on my desk have been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years and the result is an iridescent blue-violet that looks good enough to eat. Needless to say, the per square foot cost is pretty high.

However, in a box on the floor of my office is a new shipment of mosaic tiles in iridescent colors. There is a blue-violet in there that's a dead ringer for the pedigreed Italian stuff. Side by side, I would have to be told which one is which. But the big difference is that the new samples I have are made in China and they cost less than a third of the good stuff. Hmmm.

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