Crossville's Aurora, pictured here in Starburst, features a slate-like surface and considerable color variation between tiles to make for installations that are quite unique. Photo courtesy of Crossville Porcelain Stone/USA.

While tile and stone products used to be competitors, mixing of the two materials has become the norm. I think part of this romance began when stone and granite counter tops began to outsell solid-surface products. Even though tile lost in sales to the stone products, it made up the difference in the backsplash area of the kitchen.

In this instance, the mentality of the consumer is a) "There's not much area to cover so I can afford to put a higher-priced product on the backsplash;" b) the stone counter is usually monolithic so you can use highly decorative tiles on the backsplash (translation: higher-priced tiles); or c) "If I'm going to spend all this money on the stone counter, I NEED a more expensive tile to complement the stone!"

Whatever the thinking, the pairing of tiles and stone continues to enchant the consumer.

Stone has been used as a building material for thousands of years. While we don't usually build entire residential buildings of stone any longer, we do still continue to use stone on the exterior and the interior. With the style of natural materials continuing to grow, we increasingly see stone products being used.

Let's review the most common stone offerings. First, there's granite - a very hard igneous rock with a visibly crystalline, granular texture. Then, there's limestone - a type of sedimentary rock (chiefly calcium carbonate) that is formed from an accumulation of organic remains, such as seashells and coral. Limestone's color varies greatly from white to rose to gold.

Marble, the hardest of the many variations of limestone, is prized for its ability to maintain a high polish. It can either be veined or have a visibly granular surface. Slate, a very fine-grained metamorphic rock, is easily split into relatively thin slabs. It is favored for its many color variations which range from blue-gray, deep charcoal, rose, and olive - to name a few. And then there's travertine, a hard type of limestone that can be polished to resemble marble.

Ilva's Nevada Series, a glazed ceramic tile line with the look of ancient Jerusalem Stone, is shown here paired with natural stone accent pieces. Photo courtesy of Ilva SA.
The use of stone and tile in homes has come to be viewed as a hallmark of quality. Entryways and fireplaces are customary locations for these products. Ask a connoisseur of fine baking what she (or he) must have in her kitchen and the response will be "a marble surface for rolling out pastry dough." Few realize that, because of its strength and durability, marble makes a great chopping block as well. It's less porous than butcher block, and is safer and lower-maintenance alternative.

And just try to find a newly constructed, contemporary house that doesn't have a marble bath. Builders and Realtors agree that marble baths are the bell-ringer for new home sales.

You may think of stone in terms of durability and hardness, but limestone is a softer type of stone with a somewhat suede-like finish. Its characteristics are very subtle and formal, but by mixing various sizes it becomes more casual.

The cut of the stone can have pillowed or cushioned edges. Stones can be polished, honed, flamed, or acid-washed, or tumbled to fit specific design needs. Each of these finishes presents an opportunity to create a special, individualized installation in any location.

The industry has developed sealers and additives to allow for extensive use of tile and stonework in even the most humid of areas, such as the shower. So today, it's not uncommon to find slate, limestone or other porous materials in the shower areas. For those who want ease of maintenance, the tile industry has developed a wide range of faux marble and other stone-look products.

Mixing of stone and ceramic materials began with pre-set feature strips of tumbled marble and stone being set into tile. Generally, these strips were imported - largely to take advantage of lower labor costs to mount the stones.

It didn't take long for tile manufacturers to catch on to the growing trend. With its introduction, waterjet technology added the ability to execute intricate patterns, borders and insets. Now, we're seeing hardwood manufacturers offer the option of tile and stone insets in hardwood floors. The results are so exciting that we may see the appeal of covering floors with area carpets take a back seat to stunning stone and tile floors.

Commercial environments represent another exciting arena for the mixing of ceramic and stone products. The hospitality industry has been looking to stone and marble to dress up properties. New high-end developments have been using the products for roughly the last 10 years. Now we're seeing the use of stone and tile in the upgrade of mainstream facilities.

Facility managers have found that soft goods - like carpet and wall coverings - have a shorter lifecycle. They're looking to replace these products, as they wear out, with more durable tile and stone materials. Because of the slight color variations inherent in natural stones (and faux tiles), it's easier to blend in the product into existing color schemes. The end result is a property that is greatly enhanced by the upgrade and cost-savings associated with not having to replace or repair products as frequently.

This custom inset features waterjet-cut granite and two different shades of marble juxtaposed against a field of porcelain tile. Photo courtesy of Daily Industries.
Tile and stone products are easier to maintain than many floor covering alternatives. And before you start to think that extensive use of stone can be overwhelming, take another look. Some of the natural slate products take on an iridescent characteristic when they're polished.

Playing on that phenomenon, manufacturers have designed metallic inserts to blend with these products. Be it a true metal finish - like Crossville's Questech metal line - or the glittering sheen of glass ceramics, a touch of glitz is a real pick-me-up in a sea of Mother Nature's best stone. Crossville's new Aurora (part of the Veranda Stone Collection) has a surface like slate and coloration like the Aurora Borealis for which it was named. It's beautiful, subtle and as well suited for residential use as it is for a nightclub or casino! It takes the stone look to a new level.

The typical flooring shopper still likes neutrals, but she also likes to liven things up a bit with a touch of a mosaic border or accent. Sprucing up a field of beige tiles, they add keystones, medallions, corners, and accent stripes.

Taking a cue from commercial installations, we're starting to see lily pads, lotus flowers and historic representations enter the residential market. Also adding a bit of pizzazz to the room is the use of chair rails and cornice moldings. You can select from real stone pieces, ceramic tile ones or even light-weight composite pieces. Whatever the medium, your clients can dress up their castles to look as grand as they desire.

Years from now when students read about our current civilization, they'll not only read about how tile and stone have been around for centuries, they'll also learn that tile and stone are a perfect mix.