The fine distinction between natural and man-made

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What does the porcelain stoneware “stone-effect” mean for an architect? And how can these materials be used in architecture, apart from as floor or wall coverings? We discuss this with Fabio Calvi of Calvi Brambilla, founded in Milan in 2006 and well known for its installation designs and indoor architecture projects, including homes, offices and stores.

Today, stone-effect porcelain stoneware is achieving excellent levels of performance and of imitation of the natural material. The sophisticated Sublime Sync printing processes can not only reproduce the typical veining and surfaces of the various types of stone, but also their surface textures, such as their porosity, and their distinctive tactile “feel”. And we mustn’t forget the potentials of the large sizes, which can be cut as required for unexpected applications, as well as for covering walls or floors. This opens out new architectural horizons.

Do you often use materials that resemble natural stones or do you prefer the originals?

We’re open-minded on this. We use both natural materials and stone- or wood-look alternatives, because the latter have undeniable benefits and make things easier for us as architects. They’re industrial products, with specified standards, and ensure performances that enable us to use them in many ways. For example, in a villa we’re building, we’ve installed them seamlessly indoors, outdoors and around the pool, with bespoke sizes. We’ve had the stoneware cut to create pillar bases (torus), steps, corners, swimming-pool drain grids and so on. You can do everything with just one material, and this also reduces waste.

And in terms of performance?

Porcelain stoneware is lighter, making it easier to install than natural stones, and it doesn’t expand or contract as the temperature changes. You’re unlikely to find a material with this uniformity in the natural world. In terms of shapes and finishes, nowadays manufacturers will provide you with thicknesses similar to natural stone, and even veining that continues through the depth of the tile. In retail settings, stoneware enables us to install floors suitable for heavy traffic that look like wood, which would never withstand this type of punishment, with the same warmth of appearance. The aesthetic effect is exactly the same. In the contract sector, where there are strict construction schedules to be complied with, these industrial materials, ready to use and in exactly the sizes and thicknesses required, slash installation times. In our view, natural stone and stone-effect porcelain stoneware shouldn’t be viewed as competing, because they actually complement each other. It’s up to the architect to strike the right balance.

Which alternative uses do you envisage?

Porcelain stoneware offers versatility in uses and sizes. We also use it to resolve technical architectural problems: for example, in the same home we’ve used it to create mouldings between the wall and the prefabricated ceiling, to mark the transition point. Thanks to the large sizes, we were able to cut the ceramic material to fit. We can also imagine cutting to less geometrical, more random sizes, or use of the different textures to create patterns tailored to the dimensions of the wall for covering. It’s like fitting a graphic map onto each specific wall.