How to Choose the Right Tile For Your Next Residential or Commercial Project


Tile is a finish material nearly as old as time but full of colorful, contemporary possibility.  We like to use it for high traffic floors, bathroom and kitchen walls and even to bring color and texture to a general project. Today, a little history and some fun facts.

Caveat: At moss, we try to walk the line between taking advantage of interesting new ideas and falling into overly popular trends which will rapidly become dated and call out to be replaced in 10 years.  Perhaps the best advice we can offer about choosing tile is to follow your own tastes and impulses rather than knuckling under to the latest popular craze.

A Brief History of Ceramics

Ceramics (heat hardened clay objects) have been decorative and useful elements of building design for a very long span of human history.  The earliest known ceramic object is the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, a ceramic figurine created in the paleolithic, more than 25,000 years BCE.  That is a LONG time ago.

The materials are simple – clay from the ground and heat from a fire – and allow for great variation and for application in nearly every cultural environment.  Since fired clay is also pretty durable when protected from the elements we’ve found many extant examples of beautiful tile and glazed brick work from the past.  Examples of delicate roman mosaic tile floors and walls abound in archaeological site around the Mediterranean.

striding lion

One of my own favorite examples of striking glazed ceramics as decor are the glazed brick striding lions and dragons that decorated the Ishtar gate of ancient Babylon built by Nebuchadnezzar II.  The sculpted bricks were coated in a combination of rare blue pigment and silica to achieve the weather resistant colored finish.  This lion panel is on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art but if you ever make it Istanbul, they have an even better display in their Archaeological Museum.\

Why Tile Today?

The range of finish material options for building is nearly limitless but this ancient technology still holds up as a great choice in many situations.  The reasons haven’t really changed.  It is durable and relatively low cost.  It can be easily cleaned (not requiring harsh chemicals) and stands up to a lot of wear – with a relatively long expected life span for a building material (see the life cycle cost breakdown on page 7).  And while tile can be sourced from anywhere in the world, you can also make a sustainable choice by finding locally manufactured tile in any part of the country.  There is no aesthetic tradeoff for all these economic and environmental benefits – the variety of color and texture combinations available in tile is huge.

What Are The Options?

Ceramic Tile

Any object made from baked clay is technically a ceramic.  For clarity, tiles are generally called ceramic only if they are not any other specialized type (like porcelain).  These tiles are a work horse material – generally not the most stunning feature of a room in themselves, they can still complement an overall material pallet well.  White subway tile is a safe (if boring) bet in many situations and will stand up to the vagaries of wear and changing stiles. But when light is plentiful, its fun to go with a darker tone as we did in the guest bathroom at Melrose House, where black 3×6 subway tile lines the shower enclosure.

Porcelain Tile

The clay for these tiles is a special type of clay that is compressed before being heat hardened – this makes for a much stronger and more durable tile.  These tiles are rated with the highest wear class – PEI Class 5 – suitable for being used even in commercial and institutional spaces with heavy traffic.  They can even be created with color in the clay (rather than the glaze) so that any wear will simply expose more of the same color throughout.

An interesting sub category of this type are the new faux wood type tiles which are painted in detailed wood grain.  We specified these for the bathroom walls at the Melrose House – the color variation contrasted with the solid color surfaces of plumbing fixtures, vanity and dark tile floor. The visual realism of this product is limited by the tile size – you don’t generally see a real wood floor laid in 4′ chunks.  As always – some of these products are significantly better than others.

Most original subway tile (the kind found in New York’s subways or here along the brick walls of our own moss HQ) are porcelain which goes a far way to explain its extreme durability.

Glass Tile

Setting glass elements into mortar beds and in patterns – just as you would a traditional ceramic tile – is an interesting option which can give some lovely color and interesting translucent options.  Its as easy to clean as porcelain – spritz and wipe – but often more expensive.  Glass tile is also an option we’re a bit leery of, partly because it is so popular.  This seems like one of those trendy options that will quickly show its age.  However, its also a beautiful effect.  Choose it only if it makes your heart sing.

Cement Tile

Cement tiles are not ceramics (they’re not created by heating clay) but are pressed in molds and then allowed to cure.  Patterned tiles like the ones being made popular by Granada Tile are created by placing color in detailed molds, then pouring concrete backers and pressing them.  As the name Granada implies, these are done in the stile of Moorish Spain.  The end result is seems less machined than a lot of ceramic possibilities and the visual effect of the patterns can be mesmerizing.  We haven’t had a chance to specify these yet … but we’re looking for the opportunity.

Making Tile Sustainable

Frankly, you don’t have to do much to make tile sustainable.  Its already a long-lasting material that doesn’t require toxic chemicals to keep clean.  You can do yourself one better by choosing tile from a local source.  And/or by selecting tile with recycled content like the tile used in the floor and walls at the Saigon Sisters restaurant in Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

saigon sisters tile flooring option

So … what are you planning to tile next?