The Insider: The Evolution of Tile

Any serious trend-forecaster will attest that zeitgeisty moments in style aren’t flash-in-the-pan fashions but rather cyclical expressions of everlasting passion. In short: good trends have staying power.


Written by Sophie Donelson



The way forward is paved with tile, too — and not just in the usual-suspect rooms. Designers are bringing it all over the house and outdoors, too. Why: tile elicits experiences that other materials can’t.


“There is a very special experience that you get from a tiled room: a cool, calm, and luxurious ambiance,” says L.A. designer and Ann Sacks collaborator Martyn Lawrence Bullard who recently tiled a ceiling with one of the encaustic tiles from his Eastern Promise line. “The drama of the look juxtaposed with the sheen from the glaze made for a sensational effect. As a decorative device it is always a powerful statement. I just adore tile.”

Eastern Promise in Fez
Design: The Haven Collective; Photography: Janis Nicolay

In Seattle, Julie Massucco of Massucco Warner relies on it to bring integrity to spaces that are architecturally lacking. “There’s something about the luminosity of small tiles,” she says. “Paint doesn’t do it, wallcovering doesn’t do it. When I add small tiles to a space, it feels like a light is on. It draws you in.”

On the eve of the 40th anniversary of Ann Sacks, we took a ponder into three schools of tile with timeless allure. Consider these as feeling trend-right for today and desirable into the next millennia.

10th Century

The First Mega Trend: Zellige

Arrived on the scene: Zellige is positively medieval, credited back to the 10th century though the tiles really took hold in 11th when they paved streets (glam!) and cladded places of worship.

Why we’re still obsessed: Shimmering and glamorous and unabashedly imperfect, zellige is a bold-faced contradiction. It’s inconceivably rustic and refined. It graces mosques and the kitchens of digital influencers. See what we mean?! Impossible to replicate and uniquely memorable, this is a tile whose ascent is not yet reached.

Joined Ann Sacks: 2010 for the collaboration with Aït Manos. The Morocco-based workshop taps local artisans whose families have been making zellige for up to seven generations. Quite the legacy.

DNA: Zellige or zellij refers to the craft of making mosaic tile in Morocco, the homeland of zellige (though some folks in Southern Spain would say the same, too.) The material is terra cotta, the manufacturing is by hand — hand cut and hand-glazed. (The term itself might derive from the verb zalaja, meaning to slide, thanks to the slick surface.)

You know it from: Your travels if you’ve had the pleasure of visiting ancient palaces, mosques, and riads in Northern Africa, and Southern Europe — or the eye-candy images from the Hermés exhibit of color blocked zellige rooms at the 2018 Milan fair.


Wow factor: The very process of handmade means that color variation is all but guaranteed. A cream colorway will undoubtedly produce tiles with a cast of pale blues, greys and pinks. And that’s just color — the translucent finish brings reflection, fluidity and motion — hence a wall of a single-color field tile is a statement, and ever-changing at that. No two pieces are ever alike.

Idris by Ait Manos 4" x 4" field in White Carrare
Design: Abby Heatherington Interiors; Photography: Lucy Call

What the pro’s say: “Traditional zellige rooms, layered with many different patterns and colors are awe-inspiring,” says DeeDee Gundberg, Ann Sacks Director, Product Development and Design. “They blow your mind. But in a modern context, field tiles in a single color is all you need. Just a 4x4 on the wall is simple but so much more interesting than the alternatives. It has a quality to it that oozes craft and handmade. That’s why it’s special. I think people should put zellige everywhere.

15th Century

The Ever-Evolving Creative Workhorse: Porcelain Tile

Arrived on the scene: The first porcelain tiles were made in 15th century China. Used as wall tiles. In Europe, tile was first used as special porcelain plaques on walls.

How you know it: Easy, practical, no-brainer tile. Porcelain subway tile, an industry standard, is now joined by hex and chevron-style tile as working flawlessly in rooms with water and beyond. No one is going to tire of this surface.

DNA: Harder, tougher and finer than other ceramic tiles, porcelain tiles are fired at a higher temperature than other stoneware making them eminently versatile and super trustworthy.


Joined Ann Sacks: Ceramic tile has been in the assortment since the very beginning, though it wasn’t a glamorous start back in 1981, says Gundberg. “At the time most porcelain tile felt uniform and mass-manufactured. Let’s just say this wasn’t a luxury product,” she laughs. And indeed, the spectrum went from white to taupey to…. taupe. But my, how things change.

Ceri 10" x 24" field in White
Design: Angeline Guido Design; Photography: Costa Christ Media

How it shines today: “Porcelain has really come into its own,” says Gundberg citing examples with textures, extruded elements, metallic finishes and other hand-craft-feeling details. Think Anello with its look-twice wood relief pattern or Pambiche with an enamel surface that looks positively hand-finished. “The technology has advanced so much — I know we have a winner when I have to stop and feel it and question whether it’s porcelain!”

18th Century

The Cyclically Popular Stone Stunner: Terrazzo
*The most Instagrammable of surfaces has been turning heads for centuries

Arrived on the scene: Sometime around the 15th century, Italian craftsmen started tossing marble remnants in clay to make rustic pavers, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that pavimento alla Veneziana hit the scene.

Joined Ann Sacks: 1990s Fact: Ann Sacks partnered with an old-school Italian terrazzo workshop years before it roared back into fashion. And though the company still offers classic, true terrazzos (like Neo Terrazzo), there’s innovations aplenty. 

How you know it: “In the 1920’s, everyone had it,” says Gundberg. And in Italy, there’s nary an Italian vestibule without the hard-wearing flooring. The 1960s brought it back with terrazzo floors in jetsetters’ living rooms and patios. You can practically see Slim Aarons pointing his lens just out of frame… Terrazzo surged back into style a few years ago as both a surface and a motif — terrazzo-style iPhone cover, anyone?


Why we’re still obsessed: It’s a canvas for brilliant new ideas like artist Andy Fleishman's brand new Andy Fleishman Brass collection which uses North Carolina sands, stones, recycled glass and mother of pearl to illuminate — with subtlety — the hard-wearing surface.

Andy Fleishman Brass

How it shines today: With a wink. There’s a fluted style and two favorites that aren’t terrazzo at all—they’re porcelain. Davina and Teigen offer a more lightweight, less expensive, and still deeply alluring aesthetic. What would the Italians make of this?!

“It’s never ending what we can create with tile — the texture, medium, shape, scale, dimension... There’s still much to be done. I’m always thinking, how are we going to top this year? What’s next for us?”

- DeeDee Gundberg, Chief Designer

August 11, 2021

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