Portugal: tile tradition and technology

Earlier this year Diary of a Tile Addict was invited on a four-day ceramic tile study tour of Portugal.  As a long-term admirer of Portugal’s long and influential ceramic tradition, DOATA’s founder, Joe Simpson readily accepted the invitation.

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Love Tiles

For a self-proclaimed tile addict, this wonderful tour proved to be a complete pleasure and privilege.  There were many reasons for its success.  One, was Joe’s fellow travellers: an eclectic and highly intelligent group of young journalists from all corners of Europe, from Sweden to Austria, Germany to Spain.  This made the bus journeys between factories and sites an integral part of the tour’s magic.

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte. Location: Revigres

Also adding to the wonderful atmosphere were our hosts – Albertina Sequeira, Martim Alfona Chichorro, Joana Almeida, and many others from Portugal’s ceramic tile trade association, Apicer, and their brand consultants Super-BC, notably Joao Magalhaes.

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Primus Vitoria

Together they had created an itinerary that started in Lisbon, took in the main tile hub around Aviero (a truly beautiful little city), and concluded in Porto.   We enjoyed detailed tours of factories ranging from artisanal hand-made ateliers, right through to modern high-tech fully-automated operations, and other tile factories in between.  

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte. Location: Viuva Lamego.

We also took in some suitably ceramic-heavy heritage sites, from mosaic murals and former brick factories, right through to the architectural gem that is Leixoes Cruise Terminal in Porto: one of the most impressive ceramic-clad buildings Tile Addict has ever seen.

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte. Location: Pavigres.

But this tour was about much more than tiles.  Apicer was keen to show all aspects of Portuguese life and culture, from its exquisite cuisine, with its strong seafood component, swell as the country’s impressive landscapes, and exhilarating coast.  We saw the ceramic-faced houses of Porto, the canal pathways of Aviero and, perhaps most memorable of all, enjoyed a traditional Fado concert in an enchantingly atmospheric restaurant in Lisbon.  This was a privilege of vast proportions: a dramatic introduction to what is clearly a deep rooted, and passion-provoking, aspect of Portuguese culture.  Unforgettable!

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte. Location: Aleluia Ceramicas.

This four-day tour of Portuguese tile factories was organised by Apicer as part of a new marketing initiative aimed at firmly establishing the Portugal Ceramics brand.  As Apicer represents most of the leading tile manufacturers in Portugal it is well placed to drive forward this initiative.  The purpose is crystal clear: to increase the understanding and enjoyment of Portuguese Ceramics.  It is anticipated that this will build value, and expand on Portuguese ceramic’s international reach, reputation, and impact.

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte. Location: Revigres.

Introducing the initiative, Jaoa Magalhaes stated: “This brand follows a deep repositioning project and will act as a guide for Portuguese companies, helping reach a common idea of what makes Portuguese ceramics different, what our core values are as an industry, and why architects, designers, distributors, and other interested parties should look at Portuguese ceramics as a different and value-added solution.  We are promoting a series of brand activities all across Europe and USA under the motto Portugal Ceramics – The Art of Possibility.”

Compared to Spain and Italy, the Portuguese tile manufacturing base is quite small, with only around 20 companies of any scale.  Today, unlike Spain and Italy, these Portuguese firms can still source most of their clay locally.  They also have the benefit of access to gas from North Africa.  

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte: Location: Viuva Lamego.

Portugal also has the longest ceramic heritage of any European country.  In the circular nature of trends, Portugal’s small format, decorative, and colourful wall tiles – a national speciality – are currently bang on trend.  Portugal also has a handful of technically-advanced and design-led producers, such Revigres, who can compete with the leading manufacturers from Italy, Spain, Turkey, or South America in many product categories and formats.

Overall, the Portuguese ceramics industry, while small, offers a broad and differentiated product portfolio.  Exports have long been a key to growth, notwithstanding the unprecedented per-capita use of tiles in Portugal, around nine times that of the UK.  

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Pavigres

While Portugal’s presence in international markets is decades-old, recent years have seen an acceleration in the evolution of the Portuguese tile manufacturing base that has strengthened their competitiveness.  Currently the UK is Portugal’s fifth largest export market after France, Spain, the USA, and Germany.  In 2021, sales to the UK reached Euro 71.7 million.  This grew by 6.4% over the next 12 months, to Euro 76.3 million in 2022.  This strong performance, says Apicer, is mainly due to Portuguese companies’ ability to blur the lines between contemporary design, art, and tradition.

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte: Location: Aleluia.

Portugal’s tile factories also place great emphasis on customer service.  As Apicer puts it: “We love the idea of ‘mastering possibility’ because it highlights our unparalleled attitude to stay focused on the client’s real needs and constantly fight to deliver the demanding, the unconventional, and the tailor-made.  We are proud to be selected by architects world-wide to cover and embellish their buildings’ walls and floors. They seek our companies because they are looking for solutions that add value to their projects, regardless of whether they are looking for aesthetics, specific technical characteristics, or a solution that always goes in fashion.”

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte. Location: Aleluia.

One thing this trip really drove home was the historical heritage that underpins the tile sector in Portugal.  Ceramics can be traced back thousands of years, when humans first discovered that clay could mixed with water, moulded, and then fired.   Portugal, with its deep reserves of high quality clay, is well placed, and can also draw on the legacy left by earlier generations of Moorish invaders, who came with their own ceramic heritage.

Tile offers a distinctive artistic expression of Portuguese culture world-wide; one that has been aesthetically adapted to different global markets.  The past two decades has seen the development of many fresh tile formats, and ceramics solutions that leverage purposeful details, high-quality materials, and human ingenuity.

In Portugal, as this tour illustrated, ceramic tradition, culture, technology, and innovation have come together in a fascinating fusion of style, art, and elegance.

“We aim to empower architects, designers, distributors, and end-users to understand the beauty and value of Portuguese ceramics, and all the emotional value it brings,” says Apicer.  “We strongly believe that our industry’s success lies in our pride in designing and manufacturing to the highest possible quality standards.  What Portuguese companies do, they do well: since attention to detail and precision are essential in delivering exceptional quality and service each and every day.”

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte. Location: Aleluia Keratec.

The team driving the re-branding programme has even created a Portugal Ceramics Manifesto.  “We are the pursuers of authenticity.  A unique blend of heritage, culture and imagination which is emphasised by will and passion. We seek it. We long for it. And we make it part of everything we do.   Our DNA is creative, our skill is refined, our dedication is unquestionable, and this is what makes us extraordinary.  We believe that, for every single challenge, there is a very specific answer. And herein lies the cornerstone of our quest — to work on solutions until there are no more problems.”

The manifesto notes: “This is why we emphasise simplicity and function through emotion and creativity.  This is why we bring together contemporary design and art, legacy and technology — these balanced dichotomies are at the core of our ability to create singular, distinctive, well-made objects.   We say that how and where products are designed and made matters; now, more than ever before.” 

Sustainability is an important plank of the philosophy.  “And because there’s no living without life, we are actively committed to creating a better planet for everyone.  We put all our talent and efforts into creating products that respect our natural resources, last for generations, and stand the test of time. Products that are born from nature and designed for every purpose and use.” 

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte. Location: Revigres.

“We believe that blurring the lines between design and art is what makes genuine connections that know no limits,” the manifesto concludes.  “We want our ceramics to bring emotions to life, and to bring people and spaces together. We want to help people celebrate stories, preserve memories and express their dreams. Because as we dream, we shape our future.  As we nurture a world of infinite possibilities, we fight to deliver the exceptional every day.  We are Portugal Ceramics, and this is the art of possibility.”

Back to the tour: and day one took in one of the most innovative and craft-led factories; Viúva Lamego.  Day two took in two the better known local tile brands: Dominó and Recer; while the final factory stops, on day three, were Primus Vitoria, and Cinca. 

Other standouts included a walking tour followed by a wonderful seafood meal at a bustling restaurant in Aveiro.   This compact city is famed for its canals, Art Nouveau architecture, and colourful traditional boats known as Moliceiro.  It lies at the edge of an extensive saltwater lagoon and is famed for ceramics tiles and tableware.  Indeed, the most prestigious Portuguese tableware brand, Vista Alegre, is located here.

Tile production dates back to the 19th century, and shared the local resources with other clay industries.  This is clear today as the City Hall occupies what was formerly one of the largest brick, clay pipe, and roof tile factories in the city: Jerónymo Pereira Campos.

The city is articulated around a central canal, and – even here – tiles take centre stage.  On the wall adjacent to the canal, there is a new tiled panel measuring 57metres by 3metres, that comprises 5,616 hand-painted tiles.  These were created, over an intensive three month period, at Aleluia Ceramics to a design by a renowned local artist, Fatinha Ramos.  Her work features unique textures and a very bright colour palette. 

It seems a very suitable piece of urban art for a city at the centre of Portugal’s ceramic cluster in ceramics production.  Not surprisingly, it is but one example’s of the use of artistic ceramic installation in Aviero’s public spaces.

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte: Luis Pedro Silva.

Another of the tour’s highlights came when we moved to our final destination, Porto.  We were treated to an extensive private tour of the stunning Leixões Cruise Terminal in Matosinhosby.  The project’s architect, Luís Pedro Silva, gave us a fascinating introduction to this symbolic and impressive work of architecture whose façade is covered in three-dimensional white glazed Portuguese ceramic tiles. 

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte: Location: Porto Cruise Terminal.

Porto Cruise Terminal is an integrated complex that houses several diverse entities and functions: cruise ship terminal, marina facilities, The Science and Technology Park of the Sea (part of the University of Porto), event rooms, and restaurant.  It has a wonderful curved plan, articulated around a generous helical walkway: a bit like being inside a spiral sea shell.

The terminal can berth cruise ships up to 300 metres in length; while at the same time offering many community-based functions and spaces.  The design amplifies the setting’s social inclusivity dynamic, and also provides a living testament to relationship between the city and nautical activities such as fishing.

The organic structure, which many liken to a octopus, features four curved blades in the form of three exterior tentacles and a fourth that falls inwards, forming the helical ramp that connects the different internal functions within this four-storey space. 

A central skylight suffuses the building with natural light, emphasising the geometric spontaneity of the organic interior arches that characterise the interior.  

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte: Location: Porto Cruise Terminal.

The ceramic tile carapace offers weather resistance, visual complexity, and a dialogue with both sun and water.  Each ceramic piece was inspired by the small format tiles that are traditionally used to cover the façades of Porto’s seafront houses.  They were made with a very subtle white pearlescent tone; a sublime contrast to the granite of the seawall.

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte:  Location: Porto Cruise Terminal.

Granite, abundant material in Northern Portugal, was used extensively for the interior and exterior pavements, and as walling in the service areas.  Precast white concrete elements were used for the majority of the building’s accessible exterior areas.

In many way, the cruise terminal served as a fitting symbol for this wonderful tour.  Dairy of a Tile Addict was proud to be one of a handful of media outlets chosen to experience the Portugal Ceramics brand at first hand.  It is great to see one of the UK’s staunchest allies, and most established trading partners, develop an initiative that should really help to promote the value of Portuguese ceramics in international markets.

Photo credit: Portugal Ceramics: Vasco Duarte:  Location: Aleluia.

Full recognition of Portugal’s pivotal role in today’s vibrant tile culture is long overdue.  Given the sad demise of tile manufacturing in Stoke-on-Trent, another area with an huge ceramic legacy, now seems like the perfect time to deepen the world’s understanding of Portuguese ceramics’ value and uniqueness.

In coming weeks, Tile Addict will delve deeper into Portugal’s best known tile brands – those visited on the tour and a few more besides – so that our readers can get to know some of Portugal’s most innovative and authentic tile producers.

More at: www.portugal-ceramics.com

Portuguese Tile Manufacturers

Aleluia https://www.aleluia.pt 

Ceragni https://www.ceragni.com

Cinca https://www.cinca.pt

Cliper Cerâmica https://www.cliper.pt 

Dominó https://www.domino.pt 

Gres Panaria Portugal https://www.grespanaria.com 

Gresart https://www.gresart.pt

Gresco: Grés de Coimbra https://www.gresco.pt

Grestejo https://www.grestejo.com

Kerion https://www.kerion.pt 

Love Tiles: Gres Panaria https://www.lovetiles.com 

Margres: Gres Panaria https://www.margres.com 

Molde Ceramics https://www.molde.pt

Moma Tiles https://www.momatiles.com

New Terracotta https://www.newterracotta.com 

Pavigrés https://www.pavigres.com

Primus Ceramics https://www.primusvitoria.com 

Recer https://www.recer.pt

Revigrés https://www.revigres.pt

Soladrilho: Sociedade Cerâmica de Ladrilhos https://www.soladrilho.pt

Topcer https://www.topcer.com 

Viúva Lamego: Cerâmicas de Sintra https://www.viuvalamego.com

A new post by Joe Simpson, Diary of a Tile Addict, September 2023.

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