This Tennessee tile manufacturer is closing in on its European counterparts in producing a tile product that can endure the ages. Lorie Russo molds the story.
Traditionally, Europe always has held a prominent spot in the manufacture of decorative tiles. The patterns and colors of this hard, durable material delicately embellish the walls and floors of its architectural masterpieces. In the practice of this age-old craft, the United States has remained in infancy, while Europe’s master tilers have further honed their skills.
But now the United States can begin to rival these European artisans through the design expertise of Crossville Ceramics, which has been manufacturing porcelain tile in Crossville, Tenn., since 1985. Founded by Danish engineering company Niro, it continues to be the sole U.S. producer of porcelain tile. Opting to design and make tile with the most advanced technologies available, Crossville has seen U.S. demand for tile rise steeply. Initially a niche product, porcelain tile is now set to become one of the sector’s core products, according to Crossville President Sven Hovmand.
“Porcelain tile is very strong,” says Hovmand. “It’s the strongest tile you can buy, 30 percent stronger than granite. It’s abrasive resistant – you can walk forever on it.” The porcelain tile offered by Crossville then has become the perfect solution in flooring such mammoth construction projects as supermarkets, malls and airport terminals.
A Tale of Tile
Crossville initially got its start by doing big commercial jobs, always emphasizing the tile’s dual characteristics of high durability and a level of aesthetics unmatched by alternative flooring products. Crossville has been involved in many major projects across the United States, including the American Airlines terminal at Dallas International Airport — a project that required roughly a half-million square feet of tile — as well as the flooring at Sarasota Airport in Florida.
Explains Hovmand, the 1990s saw the advent of more complicated tile mixtures that were less homogeneous. The tiles Crossville now produces still carry the company’s trademark endurance qualities, but can now offer a depth and array of colors and design that previously were unheard of in the industry. “Tile used to be more or less the same,” Hovmand says, “but then as mixing technologies became more sophisticated, we started to make products that were more natural looking. We offer tiles that have less repetition (of lines and textures). Because of modern technology, we can now produce a completely random-looking tile.”
But there is nothing random about making tile. At Crossville, the mixtures that create the dazzling colors, textures and patterns are the end result of a highly team-oriented, sophisticated process that combines the old-fashioned way of doing things with a new brand of technology that allows colors to be fired deep within the body of each tile.
No Tea Party
First, there is Crossville’s porcelain stone — a product that actually underwent some scrutiny by company officials who realized that prospective customers were confusing the tough, durable floor product with something used primarily for the drinking of tea. “We realized there was a concept in the minds of people that the porcelain tile was something that was fragile,” Hovmand comments. “We found that we weren’t getting our message across on how durable it was. That’s why we changed the name to porcelain stone.” Crossville’s porcelain stone tile is wear-resistant on even the heaviest traffic areas; it has outperformed slate, marble and even granite.
Other finely made products by Crossville include:
• Cross-Slate™: Molded from slabs of natural slate, it gives a highly realistic look. It is slip-resistant and easy to keep clean.
• Cross-Tread™: An excellent choice for wet or greasy floors, this tile offers increased slip resistance, especially for exterior walking surfaces.
• Ecocycle™: Made from reclaimed and reused, unfired raw materials, this line is a Home Magazine award winner recognized for durability and easy maintenance.
• Cross-Plus™: This line meets an industry-wide need for tiles with a high coefficient of friction, yet a smooth finish. It is extremely easy to maintain and clean; no sealers, waxes or other surface treatments are required. This tile product gives the durability of a utility surface, and looks good doing it.
• Cross-Sheen™: This is a finish that is on every tile to impart a subtle glow that enhances and lifts the color of the tile. Stains and scuff marks simply wipe off the surface, making it easy to live with.
• Cross-Tech™: This line offers designers, architects and builders the utilitarian textures for the needs of highly exposed areas.
• Cross-Grip™: This was developed in conjunction with restaurant owners as a great solution for those areas where slips and falls are of greatest concern.
• Cross-Dot™: This product consists of a raised-dot pattern that provides a “roughened” surface along each dot for an increased coefficient of friction for safer footing. It is ideal for commercial kitchens, food-preparation areas, service stations and other back-of-the-house areas.
Crossville also offers its Cross-Colors™ line of 52 colors of unsurpassed originality and color design. In addition, the company has produced a wide variety of mosaic colors, mosaic patterns and programs, including glass accents and liner bars. Its line of natural products includes white coral, red rock, black pearl, granite gray, rock crystal, beach-shell and jade-stone tiles. Crossville also has produced a Veranda stone collection, representative of “ancient earth for the floors and walls of today and tomorrow.”
Then there is the Mountain Stone series, described as an “American landscape of rugged beauty,” with names that evoke a sense of the country’s wilderness: Sierra Nevada, Teton and Ozark, Blue Ridge and Smoky. Crossville’s Empire Series mimics natural marble. The Riviera series can bring the majestic beauty of the Italian Riviera into the home. The Questech Metals product line offers new dimensions in design and color. Made from premium metals, including nickel, silver and copper, these tiles are 20 percent lighter than solid metal. They are durable and versatile, adding elegance to kitchen backsplashes, countertops, fireplace surrounds, showers, ceiling trim and accent borders.
While in the business of producing high-level tiles, Crossville remains ever mindful of the natural environment. Its waste-water policies adhere to the highest quality standards in the industry. The company maximizes the use of natural gas and employs sophisticated dust-collection systems and recycling processes to reclaim and reuse most of the unfired raw waste material generated during manufacturing. Crossville successfully pursues these initiatives without sacrificing quality.
The characteristics of porcelain allow it to be tile-cut in a water-jet cutting process. Virtually anything that can be drawn on paper, says Hovmand, can be cut into tile. “It makes for pretty exciting installations,” he says.
But manufacturing tile demands a significant amount of manufacturing space and state-of-the-art technology. The company has 30 million square feet of production capacity in its Crossville facility, and has another plant in Dickson, Tenn., with a total production capacity of 46 million square feet. In a market that saw 2,300 million square feet of tile laid last year, Crossville sold 40 million square feet.
“Up to quite recently,” Hovmand explains, “no one else produced porcelain tile in the United States. It’s considered a niche market; no one was very interested in getting involved.” This is because making porcelain tile is capital-intensive, he says. “To make tile, your plant needs to be a certain size to make it affordable. If you make it smaller, you can’t compete with the large factories in Europe. We’ve just now invested $26 million in a new plant, and we’re now able to run larger production lines with fewer people because of newer technology. This enables us to compete in the world market.”