Two experts talk sense and sensibilities for kitchen tile.
Tile for a backsplash can make or break the look of a kitchen. And even with the support of a good designer and knowledgeable showroom associate, it’s a big commitment to decide which color, size and material you will love forever on your kitchen walls. That’s why many home owners leave this choice for last, then wind up paralyzed with indecision about picking the perfect tile to go with colors and textures already in place on counters, floors, walls, cabinets and appliances. No one understands this better than DeeDee Gundberg [right], Product Development Portfolio Manager for tile industry trend-setter Ann Sacks Tile & Stone. “You should be working on the whole thing together, not wait until last,” she says. “A backsplash should pull everything together and harmonize.” As a tile designer who was mentored by Ann Sacks herself, DeeDee is responsible for finding the company’s new products and shaping the influential collections. I recently took an opportunity to speak with her about her thoughts on the latest trends, color and tile styles for kitchens.
In addition, I consulted Charlie Duncanson, General Manager of Country Floors, a classic go-to source for hand-painted, traditional decorative tile since the 1964.
What’s New Now?
Tiles with “rich, artisan glazes,” top DeeDee’s list. With machine-made tile flooding the market, she says high end clients are looking for “something unique, that won’t be seen everywhere.” An artisan glaze, she explains “breaks over the edge and lets the body of the tile come through.” Ann Sacks Nottingham honeycomb tile [top and above], is a prime example since the stoneware body shows through areas of the glaze to create the webbed design. Coincidentally, I featured this tile (a huge favorite) in my Pattern on the Backsplash post last June. The kitchen that shows it best [top] also has been a popular “Pin.”
“Dimensional tile is another category that’s “extremely popular now,” DeeDee says, referring particularly to her Ogassian line [geo weave in Cola, above]. “It’s actually three dimensional and I always think it’s a great way to bring in pattern and texture.” This is tile that tempts you to touch it.
Another three-dimensional Ann Sacks tile is the Andy Blick Discus, in matte, which is particularly effective in creating pattern and texture on a the wall of this architectural HammerSmith kitchen.
Additionally, Country Floor’s Charlie Duncanson sees long, rectangular glass tiles (4-by-16” for example) trending because they are so well suited to modern kitchens and require minimal grout. “This run on contemporary is the longest I’ve ever seen since 1984,” Charlie says. “There’s enough going on in the workday. At home, they want clear, simpler and more sophisticated looks, especially if it’s the first home.”
Is Color Hot or Not?
After more than a decade of seeing white subway tiles in all-white kitchens I wanted to know how much longer that look can last and what might replace it. According to DeeDee, clients say they want color but when you look at the numbers, “it’s white, cream, beige and gray. When people buy, they buy non-colors,” she says. The reason is that “a kitchen backsplash is both an investment and a semi-permanent installation. People tend to go monochromatic. It’s more comfortable.”
However, she points to tile formats her Basics collection – priced from $4 to $14 per square foot – as one place to look. “Our Basics collection includes Savoy [pennyrounds in cornflower blue, above], made in Japan with traditional Japanese glazes. We have some great things in Context, also made in Japan. These are very simple and come in white and a gorgeous metallic black. The format is a bit different – longer and thinner – and it doesn’t look like standard machine made tile. The glazes are beautiful and these are great for the person who wants something other than 3-by-6” subways.
“White is the new white,” Charlie says emphatically. “Five or six years ago we were selling ivory travertine, beige mochaccino, and crema marfil. That has swung to cooler white, gray and combinations of mediums – stone and glass, and stone, glass and metals.”
However, Country Floors remains a basic source for tile that has defied every trend: European blue and white hand painted Dutch Royal Makkum tile “produced in the same environment as 500 years ago.”
Miraduro Portuguese tiles, which Charlie views as more contemporary, “look fabulous with calacatta marble countertops, glass or stainless steel.”
Shape and Scale
“If you’re not going to tie yourself into a color,” DeeDee says, “distinguish yourself with a shape. Arabesque [Nottingham blue mist, above] is so popular. It’s such a lovely shape and a perfect scale for a kitchen backsplash. It allows a design element without being too risky.”
Big format tiles are another possibility. Instead of doing 3-by-6” subway tiles, DeeDee suggests enlarging the format to 6-by-12” or even 6-by-18.” At the opposite end of the spectrum are mosaics, which are a great scale for backsplashes and especially appropriate for small kitchens with limited backsplash areas. “You can’t have 12-by-24” tile in a small kitchen,” she advises.
Developing Your Tile Intelligence
Like many other major brands, Ann Sacks and Country Floors sell directly to retail customers as well as to designers and architects. To make the most of a visit to those or any tile showrooms, the mantra is “know thyself.”
Charlie feels it’s essential to:
1. Know your budget.
2. Understand expectations about what you require of materials in terms of stains and wear.
3. Decide what you’re willing to accept in terms of your needs, then fill in color and style from there.
DeeDee explains that the suites and vignettes in her showrooms are installed to “show the Ann Sacks point of view. We just try to put the most beautiful product on the wall. We try to put innovative products that people haven’t seen before on the wall.” But, she has wise words on a variety of tile styles and strategies:
• “Don’t worry about what the trends are. You need to be able to live with it. Do your research. If you don’t know what you like, go through magazines and walk into a showroom with a folder of designs you’re attracted to. One could be totally modern and the other traditional. But traditional means a million things. Make sure the person you’re working with understands your aesthetic.”
• If you want to mix field tile with decorative elements “be very careful. I see people mixing glass with stone, or metal with ceramic and it’s not really an Ann Sacks look. We tend to be more purist. I would not recommend mixing mediums as they tend to fight more than harmonize in my experience. There are ways to do it but it tends to distract the eye.”
• Cement tiles are popular but “not good for a backsplash because they are very porous. They are fantastic for floors and need to be waxed. But I would not recommend encaustic-type tiles for a kitchen backsplash.”
• Porcelain tile is stronger than ceramic. For a high traffic situation (like a floor) you are better off with porcelain. Either is suitable for a backsplash.
• And finally, if you are considering a swath of unique color for a backsplash: “Does it have any relevance to the rest of the kitchen and the whole kitchen-family/great room? If you want to create something different or bring in a color it should work with everything else. If you have white cabinets and counters you can bring in anything. But what does the color do? Would you pick throw pillows that don’t have color relevance to anything else?”