Glass tile is used to stunning visual effect in this private residence in Nantucket, Mass. The project was designed by Donna Elle Interior Design and installed by Allison MacDonald.

Use of glass tile has become more than a mere trend in the worlds of tile and design. In fact, the material has become highly sought after for just about any tile application.

The long history of glass as an artistic medium has united with modern manufacturing to create a product that is equally functional and beautiful. A must-have material for many designers, glass has emerged over the last decade as one of the tile industry's most exciting developments.

A decade ago, glass tile was not the ubiquitous material found in today's showrooms. It was a frequently misunderstood product that required lots of explaining to consumers ("no, it's not like glass block") even in the specialty niche of handcrafted tiles. Some 10 years later, several major distributors now carry multiple product lines that originate from all corners of the world. Glass has significantly penetrated the U.S. tile market, and it will definitely continue to substantially contribute to the growth of the industry in years to come.

Designer Eco Kimberlyn used a variety of Oceanside Glasstile products to clad the bathroom walls of the Hoban Residence in Encinitas, Calif. Photo by Christopher Ray Photography.

Glass processing

Glass is a liquid substance with tremendous strength as a tile material. It can be melted, molded, cut, formed, and fused into a huge array of functional tile products. But it is the beauty of glass that has most captivated the architectural and design communities. The gem-like quality of glass tile makes it the perfect feature for any installation of distinction. Stylistically, glass can be easily incorporated into old-world motifs and classical architecture, or utilized as a bold statement of modern design.

Glass as a material has the potential to take many forms. It can be manufactured in several different types of processes. General formats of glass tile include a full range of mosaics, field modules, decorative liners, trim, and dimensional slab agglomerates that contain crushed glass. The variety of sizes, thicknesses and surface finishes allows for glass tile to be specified in almost any possible tile application, including commercial floors (where rated) and exterior freeze/thaw environments.

In terms of manufacturing process, glass tile can be divided into two basic categories - "warm" and "hot." Both types of production can produce incredible tile, but it is important to understand the fundamental differences between them because not all glass materials are created equal, and certainly not all glass tiles are acceptable for the same applications.

Warm glass manufacturing pertains to "painted back" tiles. In this case, industrial glass is usually cut into squares, then colorized with low-fire enamels and finally heat polished in kilns.

Fused glass takes this process several steps further by firing multiple layers of glass together in a wide variety of techniques. Fused methods explore this amazing medium by combining thin sheet glass with metallic foils and other coloring elements. There are many examples of fused glass on the market, the majority of which are produced in studios as highly crafted decorative tiles. As expertise grows in this area, we anticipate that more exciting products will surface.

Hot glass manufacturing takes advantage of the ability to form the material while it is in a molten state. The color of the glass is integral to the tile, giving it great depth and optical quality. Fully melted glass can be cast into detailed relief pieces that can be used to great effect as liners and trim.

Molten glass has an intrinsic personality and character not found in opaque materials. Surface undulations and translucent texture create natural beauty in the glass. Hot glass not only benefits from the liquid state in forming, but its possibilities can be exploited with many secondary processes and surface treatments. It truly is a limitless process that drives product design endeavors to more innovative and artistic possibilities.

With the hot glass process, certain manufacturers use high percentages of recycled bottle glass as the primary raw material. The result is a green product that has strong demand in the market.

Glass tile history

The use of glass tile dates to the Roman Empire and traces its path through widespread use in Byzantine art produced in the Mediterranean region. Ultimately, glass found its way back to a primary role in the art and architecture of Renaissance Italy.

In the United States, glass tiles were first produced by Louis C. Tiffany during the late 19th century. Glass mosaics have been used in architectural applications for decades, but they've had only limited exposure in the residential markets. Today, the true advances in glass manufacturing have stemmed from a revival of the art glass traditions in the United States coupled with adaptations of modern glass technology.

Pictured is a glass tile installation designed by the author of this article, Oceanside Glasstile's John Marckx, at Risty's Retreat in Leucadia, Calif. Photo by Christopher Ray Photography.

Retail display and merchandising

One of the great features of glass is how good it looks in combination with other tile materials such as natural stone. Glass is often specified as a distinctive element of the overall tile installation. Many showroom designers realize that an easy way to up-sell a more basic project is to splash a little glass in the mix. Whether glass is simply an accent liner, a feature wall, or a border on the floor, it can really bring life to a typical job without overwhelming the customer's style or budget.

In working with high-end retail showrooms all over the world, we have continually seen an affinity for integrating glass into a more holistic merchandising presentation. So when the client has to have glass, good displays will guide her in terms of the various design possibilities. We often showcase the mosaics with larger modules of honed stone that can be finished off with glass borders and radius trim. The contrast in surface finish and texture really accentuates the beauty of both materials.

Designing with glass

Overall, a fine balance can be achieved in working with the different elements (earth, fire and water). Whether you have wood, stone or ceramic as the flooring, an essentially earthy material works in harmony with glass. As a translucent liquid, it can be watery and soothing, creating a depth that relates well to other sophisticated finishes. Some glass can also be metallic or iridescent, resulting in stunning combinations of matte and gloss surfaces. Interior designers can utilize the textures and depth of color that glass offers in order to fully manifest today's aesthetic expressions.

In terms of application, we see projects that cover the entire gamut of residential and commercial installations - but the predominant application is in the bathroom. Aside from the obvious functional benefits, glass creates an atmosphere of calm and reflection that consumers desire in the bathroom environment. The second most popular place for the material is the kitchen backsplash where glass is easily applied in one of the main visual sections of the house. Mosaic wall finishes make a fabulous complement to solid surfaces on the countertops.

On the practical side, don't forget that the impervious nature of glass allows its use in exterior freeze/thaw areas. Certain glass products (1/4-inch and thicker) have a high breaking strength. This durability, combined with a scratch-resistant finish, makes glass tile an excellent selection for floors.

Today's consumers are more highly educated and interested in new tile products than ever before. Offering the advancement of high-quality glass tile, and knowledgeably servicing these products, constitutes a definite advantage in the retail tile market. Ultimately, the end user and the designer must touch and feel the materials to ignite their passion. Inspiring these clients with inventive displays is essential to tapping into the growing popularity of glass tile.