Reviewed: Porcelanosa ceramics showroom

posted on Monday, 8th April 2013 by Simon Cavelle

lighting Design  Interior Design 

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As of 2012, the earliest pottery known to exist dates back 19,000 and 20,000 years; they were found in the Jiangxi province of China. Today, ceramics and porcelain play a larger part in our lives than ever before, and when it comes to interior design and finish are vital ingredients in the mix. But as a material they impact far beyond the obvious; we might immediately think of a cup and saucer or tiles on a bathroom floor but think again. From disc brakes to dentures, the potter has come a very long way. It's due to its durability that this often-undervalued material has played a greater part in telling the story of mankind. It would be fair to say that we have had time to perfect a manufacturing system by now, a fact bourn out by a recent visit to the factories of Spanish ceramics and tiling giant Porcelanosa, in Vila-real Spain.

The Inside CI team arrived on a warm and sunny morning outside one of the pristine buildings that houses the beating heart of perhaps the world's best tile manufacturer. The sharp grout lines and manicured planting is enhanced by the perfect grass and trimmed foliage which frames the building's frontage. It's clear that the mind-set for accuracy, cleanliness and efficiency is adopted before we even enter the buildings.

The large-scale reception desk offers a smart welcome and options to visit the showroom area or one of the on-site catering facilities, or should I say Michelin star restaurants. We are treated to fresh orange juice and pastries and fresh coffee of choice, so that we are awake and ready for our tour. The Porcelanosa showroom occupies a large space naturally lit by a central glass dome with fabric art installations. Large-scale framed photos of the global brand torchbearers of George Clooney and Nichol Kidman oversee the spaces. It's clear that the brand is focused on A1+ clientele but also affords very high quality entry-level options. The facility is home to a variety of prestigious brands, including Noken, Gamadecor and, of course, Porcelanosa. As designers, it's always good to look beyond the products at how the showrooms work, the layout, colour choices and lighting. Each of the companies operates separately and it was interesting to see how some of them had really lit their showrooms well, others had completely missed some fundamentals, which had us gasping.

Attention to detail
Back of house, the scale of the operation is only exceeded by the cleanliness and attention to detail that ensures the highest quality of product. As we enter the vast building we are instructed to walk carefully, avoiding the designated robot operations area. The huge hanger-like building houses the main production line of ceramic tile manufacture - it's difficult to maintain a grip of the scale of the place. The few workers on the shop floor are more often seen on their pedal bikes undertaking their machine visiting rights, the distances covered clearly impractical on foot.

The showroom for the Noken brand houses a complete range of bathroom suites. The slick space has a Star Wars vibe and the accent lighting is delivered in a linear style in the floor and wall panels. Bathroom design is rapidly evolving and the balance between clinical cleanliness and warm comfort is interesting to note. There are some colour combinations on offer which are clearly European and difficult to sell in a UK market. Trend wise, there seems to be a move towards integration of basin, mirror and storage and a design drive to use more curvaceous forms in the latest ranges.

Nearby is the showroom of Gamadecor, producer of cabinetry for kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms. A great deal of thought goes into the quality of the ironmongery and fittings used so that the end product is robust as well as efficient and attractive. The style is distinctly modern with clean lines and slab forms. The show space is large and as you would expect set out in different room settings, the lighting is good, with ample space between each room so that a restful atmosphere is prevalent. With so much to see, it would be easy to try and show too much and loose the shopper's attention. It's also clear that these groups of companies don't sell tiles or kitchens - they sell a lifestyle. That's the very essence of CI.

In praise of perfect porcelain
Of course, at the heart of the Porcelanosa operation is the production of porcelain. The clays used in today's perfect recipe come from the UK, Spain, Turkey and Serbia; they're mixed in dry and then in their wet forms so as to produce the most suitable raw material. The vast vats and pipes used to mix and distribute the clay would put Willy Wonka's chocolate factory to shame. 

Once mixed the clay is piped into moulds and set onto a progression line where they are anointed with an initial glaze. The molded tiles are then patterned and on their conveyer belt journey towards the oven, constantly being pecked at by small red lasers ensuring their exact dimensions are maintained. Once at the oven they travel a football pitch length distance in exactly one hour, which transforms the delicate soft earth panels into robust and elegant tiles ready for installation. Constant checks are made on the quality of each tile throughout the process, in an environment that is not only incredibly neat but also fastidiously clean.

It's no surprise that the factory is very environmentally conscious in its operations, from water recycling to the energy efficient ovens. There is sometimes a belief that when the scale of production is large, then the quality and individuality suffers, this is far from the case at the Vila-real factories. The high quality of the raw materials and the process of molding, printing and firing to the highest quality will mean that the tile will be stronger, more robust to wear and easier to install than lesser products. There are three companies within the group that market tiles: Butech, which produces porcelain tiles, for the most part commercially used, Venis and Porcelanosa, which are similar, but have slightly different market positions. 

Tour complete, I finally feel I understand what goes into the manufacture of items that we specify every day. It's been a valuable experience as a designer, looking at retail and how important it is to understanding the brand and its aspirations. I also wonder what the humble potter might have thought of the incredible development of his skills and just how far the simple earthenware bowl has come. I think he might be as surprised…

Also read:
Think small when it comes to interior design

Simon Cavelle

Simon launched London based SCARIB Ltd in early 2008 and was short-listed for the commercial section of the International FX Design awards in 2010.

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