Almost 35,000 tile and stone industry professionals and 1,200 manufacturers, dealers, installers have descended on the Windy City to get an interactive glimpse of all the latest product and technology developments associated with tile. Coverings--essentially, Fashion Week for the tile set--is where attendees come for one reason: to see and touch the merchandise.

Even though attendees attend education and installation seminars, it's all about the tile. "First and foremost, the product introductions take center stage," says Tamara Christian, CEO of National Trade Productions, which produces the show.

It's no accident that the tile is the (hot) thing. According to the Anderson, S.C.-based Tile Council of North America, the U.S. ceramic tile industry consumed a record-setting 3.36 billion square feet of tiles in 2006--a 3 percent increase over 2005. Domestic tile production also increased to 692 million square feet, the council says.

But like all other industries associated with housing, the tile industry has been affected. As evidence, the 3 percent increase over 2005 is smaller than 2005's 3.8 percent increase over 2004. This lower increase is due to the slow down in the housing market. Fortunately for the industry, the remodeling and commercial markets remain strong and continue to drive sales.

"Remodeling especially impacts the tile industry, as the two rooms most frequently remodeled are kitchens and bathrooms, which also happen to be the two rooms where tile is most often used," the council says in a press release.

Though the United States tile production increased last year, most of the tile consumed in this country comes from places such as Italy, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, and China. In recent years, tile imports from Italy and Spain--higher-cost producing countries--have decreased: 4.1 percent for Italy, 5 percent for Spain, and 4.8 percent for Brazil, the council says. At the same time, imports from lower-cost producing countries--Mexico and China--have increased. China, in particular, saw a whopping 53.9 percent increase over 2005, while Mexican imports increased 10.6 percent.

Nevertheless, it is generally believed that design-oriented Italy and Spain are on the cutting edge of the tile industry. They lead, while the world follows. Much of the trends have now trickled down to the North American market. So what's new this year? Large format tiles, rectilinear shapes such as 2 by 18 inches, retro looks, circles, tiles that mimic wall paper and fabric, and mixed medium products.