There remains a myth that most tile—especially higher-end tile—is made outside the USA.
True, tile is indigenous to areas of the world such as the Mediterranean or Iberian regions where it was popularized first as roofing material (baked clay) and certainly as a decorative covering harkening to the days of the ancient Romans. It is interesting to note that even after 2,000 years, early Roman tile and tile unearthed at the archaeological sites at Pompeii is still intact and doing its job.
History tells us the Moorish age in the late 12th century is what brought decorative tile to Spain. Later came the iconic look of Dutch and English tile.
But we have to go further back, to the ancient Egyptians, and Babylon and Greece, and to Persia where the process of ceramic tile making is said to have been perfected.
It was the craftsmanship and cultural influences that established the Old World as the early centers for excellence in tile, which was—and is—exported throughout the world.
As the known world expanded in the Middle Ages, and Western tile met Eastern (Asian) influences, the markets had developed a de facto reputation that if tile wasn’t made in the areas where the craft was born, neither quality nor style would be anything more than pedestrian. With a 4,000-year-old legacy to draw from, it’s no wonder the concept of topnotch Made-In-America tile is sometimes an alien concept if not a downright anathema.
In the U.S., we have only to look back two generations, to the see how domestic demand would grow along with domestic production. However, the publicity and credit for world-class, American-made tile did not follow.
In 2005, the Tile Council of North America (TCNA) published an article by Robert Daniels, its then executive director emeritus, in which he discussed the history of ceramic tile in the U.S. A few generations ago, ceramic ruled, and porcelain was just finding its way to market. In the article, Daniels said North American tile-making “had its roots in Europe where tile had been manufactured for years. In the New World, tile was predominantly an accent piece around fireplaces. Tile artisans brought this craft with them in the 1800s and set up factories all over the country.”
By the end of the 19th century, tile had been discovered to be an ideal medium for hygiene, finding a welcome market for hospitals, kitchens, baths and, from a design perspective, in entries of homes of the affluent. Domestic production grew steadily. Major projects such as the famed New York City subway and its “subway tile” helped popularize tile in general.
TCNA’s Daniels reports that up to World War II, the same laborious, largely hand-made “batch firing” technique prevailed. Decorating and glazing further added to the labor-intensiveness. Production in such small batches led to fluctuations in quality. In that same time, according to census figures, more than half of American households had indoor plumbing in the form of kitchens and baths, furthering the popularity of and demand for tile as not only a décor item, but also one that lent itself to better sanitation.
To meet the growing 20th century demand, innovations such as the tunnel kiln and later the roller earth kiln, conveyors, mechanization and lately computerization to include auto-feed in and out yielded higher, more consistent quality and broader design capabilities, faster production and higher throughput, feeding into America’s appetite for industry and further building American’s tile-making foundation.
By the 1980s porcelain tile was being introduced to North America largely by importers and distributors. From a market perspective, though, American-made tile in all its iterations was often overshadowed by carpet and to a lesser extent by wood for flooring, a function of shifting design tastes.
However, with the economic booms of the late 1990s and into the mid 2000s, designers, architects, builders and customers—commercial and residential—were rediscovering the inherent quality and design strengths of tile established over the millennia, further strengthened by the introduction of porcelain.
By the early 2000s, tile was re-established as a solid business, but it really hit its stride in 2003, again according to U.S. Department of Commerce statistics, with a noteworthy “upswing in sales” yet, in that same report, still more than 75% of tile sold in the U.S. was imported.
The real awakening came in 2004 with the introductory surges in new porcelain products, especially larger formats.
About that time, major manufacturers of tile, and flooring, began to recognize the coming market for tile as an element of American décor—not only for floors, but for virtually any surface, including indoor-outdoor living, thanks again, to porcelain which can put up with the rigors of even a New England winter.
In the intervening decade, tile manufacturers from the Old World and those companies who are now in the business thanks to buyouts and expansion have staked a claim on the U.S. tile market, importing tile—unfortunately sometimes flooding the market with low-priced, low-quality goods—and coming to the conclusion that domestic, i.e., U.S., production would be an economic and marketing message boon.
The point is: Domestic manufacturing of tile is not new; it just did not get a lot of press until recently. Some that may have been due to the lopsided import figures, some to the cyclical waxing and waning of the popularity of various coverings.
There have been companies like Florida Tile, which has done just one thing, made tile in the U.S. It started with a single specialty tile manufactured out of a modest building in Lakeland, Fla. Today, Florida Tile is celebrating its 60th anniversary as one of the top five tile brands in the U.S.
This is a once-and-for-all Made-In-America company which pioneered the Monoporosa process for single-pass firing of large, glazed wall tile, becoming one of the first to use the rotocolor process, which is still in use today, for decorating tile and for establishing in 1981 the first pressed floor tile manufacturing plant in the U.S..
When Panariagroup, the Italian-based tile manufacturer, purchased Florida Tile in 2006, the plan was to take the U.S. company to the next level as a world-class designer and manufacturer of tile—comitting to the concept of it being an American-based company. A year later and a $25 million investment in a Lawrenceburg, Ky., plant brought that to fruition.
Being located in Kentucky, the company enjoys the benefits of not only a centrally located manufacturing facility which speeds delivery and smoothes out transportation and other costs, it is nearby to its source of raw materials. That also minimizes variables, such as eliminating the fluctuation of international monetary exchange rates which wreak uncertainty with business plans up and down the retail chain and serve to alienate the customer.
Regardless of what product one makes or buys here in the U.S., the flood in recent years of cheap imports and the fluctuating prices of quality imports, not to mention the political environment in which buyers operate has led to a strengthening Made in the USA movement.
It has gotten to the point where “buy American” is more than a slogan. All along our sales chain, we, through our customers, get government jobs, local contracts and specification requests based on the fact that tile products are produced here.
And let’s not forget that spec homes, even planned communities are being built entirely around made in America specified products.
Lurking behind this is another benefit: Environmentalism. For those sensitive to the issue, there is a substantial marketing point to be made that domestic products cut down on transportation and related energy/environmental costs. Furthermore, using Florida Tile as an example of a domestic brand, it easily can meet and exceed U.S. government guidelines. Take for example the company’s porcelain tiles, which are produced with a minimum 40% recycled content.
In the end, quality’s the thing. The American consumer is actually more concerned about value than price. If made in America is there but quality is not, the equation does not work, and vice versa.
The renaissance of made in America branding has just begun. We are “importing cars from Detroit.” Stores that sell just American-made products are springing up across the country. Martha Stewart promotes her “Made in America” collection. In February, TV actor John Ratzenberger (Cliff from the series “Cheers”) started promoting his new audience-funded reality show “American Made.”
So, the movement is firmly in place. Companies are coming to the tile party, some sooner than later—not because it may make an easy marketing tool, as “greenwashing” was in recent years. Made in America just makes so much business sense it is impossible to ignore.