Texas loves excellence
Thorntree Slate was established in Houston in 1980 and for the first 20 years carried only natural stone. In 2000 the company shifted to promoting the latest ceramic tile technology and evolved into a large importer and distributor of the finest Italian porcelain. “Italian porcelain had the charm and excellence in production and performance that made the introduction successful for us. Our porcelain sales have grown from year to year and now eclipse sales of our natural stone,” the company’s President Stuart Rae told us.
Mr Rae, the story of Thorntree began in 1980 in Texas. Could you tell us about those early years?
Thorntree Slate and Marble was founded by my parents Clive and Berenice Rae and myself back in 1980. Headquartered in Houston, the company carried only natural stone for the first 20 years but has now evolved into a large importer and distributor of the finest Italian porcelain. Growing up in South Africa, surrounded by acacia trees, it seemed fitting for us to name our business Thorntree. A deep-rooted, slow-growing tree with thorns and flowers, it protects birds and wildlife and in addition provides a shade canopy from the African sun. Our family, along with a handful of employees, helped build up the company in the early years and our team has now grown to 45 employees.
Your company began by selling natural stone. When did you introduce ceramic tiles?
Around 2000 we shifted to promoting porcelain, when the new technology began producing material that closely resembled natural stone, with multiple faces and large sizes. Italian porcelain had the charm and excellence in production and performance that made the introduction successful for us. Our porcelain sales have grown from year to year and now eclipse the sales of our natural stone.
What role has ceramic tile played historically in your regions?
In the 1980s in Texas, Saltillo tile (a type of terracotta from Mexico) was used extensively for homes. Commercially, natural stone and ceramic tile was used. The advent of porcelain tile, which resembled limestone and marble and was available in larger sizes, changed the market drastically. In addition, the use of porcelain for exterior applications in heavy-traffic non-slip installations also improved the product choices. The low absorptive rate and ease of maintenance was a big plus.
Thorntree now has three locations.
That’s right. An industrial showroom, which we opened in 2005 at our warehouse in Houston, shows porcelain indoors and outdoors and is complemented by our large selection of 6 mm and 12 mm porcelain slabs. Our award-winning studio in the Houston Design Center, opened in 2010 and remodelled in 2020, exemplifies the culture of our company. It is adorned with contemporary elements, the floor is covered with 4’x 8’ porcelain panels, a full display of porcelain slabs and tiles line the walls, and the exterior park-like setting has all colours and textures showing our 2 cm porcelain pavers. Our showroom in the Dallas Design District, opened in 2018, encourages designers and architects to create concept layouts and vignettes for entire projects, usually suited for hospitality, multifamily or restaurant projects.
Who are your clients and what are the intended uses of the ceramic tiles you distribute?
We have actively called on architects, designers, and developers for over 40 years in Texas. We have been fortunate enough to be included in some spectacular projects ranging from 50-storey multifamily projects to stadiums, hotels and the Exxon World headquarters. In addition, we work with home builders on mostly contemporary, one-of-a-kind residences.
What is the current economic state of the construction industry in Texas?
Texas continues to surprise. We would describe the market as vibrant, but cautious. Houston is a port city with growth potential and populated with a workforce that can achieve anything.
What are the main ceramic tile trends for interior design projects?
Large format tiles and slabs are now standard and sought after. The newest generation of technology produces Italian porcelain that is identical to natural products like limestone, marble and wood. With the carbon neutral and B Corp philosophy playing a major role in the manufacturing process, there are numerous advantages to exclusive use of porcelain. With the introduction of the 2 cm pavers for exterior applications and with the improved setting materials, porcelain has emerged with strength into the market.
Why do Americans choose Italian products?
Italian porcelain is of the finest quality. Years of experience coupled with passion and the newest technology helps Italy surpass other manufacturers. The tenacity shown by enormous investment into factories, production and distribution, coupled with the quest to utilize as much recycled material as possible, encourages us to promote Italian-made porcelain. The Italian factories set a high standard for customer service, a quality we appreciate and strive to duplicate.
How could the Italian porcelain distribution system be improved in your country?
The Italian investment in factories and machinery in the United States helps us tremendously with distribution. The build-up of ready to ship inventory in warehouses strategically placed across the country continues to grow, which is a big advantage for us. The addition of brand-forward showrooms located in key cities in America promotes the use of Italian porcelain, showing the newest colours and textures.
List of Italian brands distributed: