Kitchen & Bath: Tile Backsplash
If your clients are like me, they're not looking for any
extra places to clean. So why suggest that they install a 3- or
4-inch-tall backsplash on their kitchen countertop? Besides
collecting crumbs and dust, this narrow ledge creates the
illusion that the wall cabinets have been hung too low. A fully
tiled backsplash is a lot more practical and offers more design
Because this wall area is quite limited in the typical kitchen,
finishing it in ceramic tile shouldn't break the bank. For
example, while handmade 4-inch-square ceramic tile can cost as
much as $24 per square foot, commercially made tile in the same
size is available for as little as $2 per square foot. And
although tumbled stone and glass tile can range anywhere from
$10 to $30 — or more — per square foot, a single
square-foot sheet can yield 11 lineal feet of 1-inch tiles.
This is a lot of decorative bang for your buck, since running
two or three rows of stone or glass around a backsplash would
probably require only 2 or 3 square feet of material.
Here are some of the guidelines I follow to design beautiful,
durable, easy-to-clean backsplashes.
The first thing I discuss with my clients is what's likely to
remain in view on the countertops. Daily-use items — the
coffee maker, a toaster, perhaps a utensil container near the
stove, even a bowl of fruit — are typically kept right
where they're used. These items become part of the
décor, and there's no point in placing a favorite
decorative tile where it will be hidden (see Figure 1).
Figure 1.Less can be more in an expansive space.
This simple backsplash of solid white glazed tiles provides a
clean, maintainable surface behind the reflective cooktop and
lets other elements — such as the view through the
windows — define the kitchen's atmosphere.
Consider the upper cabinets, too. If they have glass doors or
extensive open shelving, whatever they hold becomes a
decorative element in the kitchen. Your tile design should
create a canvas or backdrop that complements all of the
kitchen's other features (Figure 2).
Figure 2.In kitchens with glass cabinet doors or
open shelving, items on display can serve as focal points, so
the backsplash should be designed as a complementary "canvas."
These natural stone tiles form a subdued backdrop while
injecting warmth and texture into a fairly monotone
Lighting is another important factor to consider. Make sure
your clients view prospective tile samples in natural daylight
and with the lights on at night, to make sure the tile looks
good in both conditions. Keep in mind that, depending on the
reflective properties of its glazing, tile can help color and
brighten a room.
Be sure to consider negative spaces, where no decorative tile
should be placed. For instance, look for outlets, which
indicate likely locations for countertop appliances that might
block the view of a decorative tile insert.
Decorative inlays can be too busy in a kitchen with a
greater-than-average amount of counter space. A simple backdrop
of texture and color, created with a stone or crackle tile or
by changing the size or direction of the tile, can bring more
balance to the design (Figure 3).
Figure 3.In this elongated kitchen, small diagonal
insets in the backsplash highlight the room's orderly
informality. Above the cooktop, glossy black mosaic tiles add
depth and texture, relieving the austerity of the stainless
When looking at the space over the stove, remember that home
decorating magazines often show vast expanses of wall area
there. But in the real world, most kitchens have a slide-in
range with a riser back and a hood or microwave oven above,
which leaves little room in which to work a design. In this
case, options might include using random decorative tiles in an
otherwise uniform field of blanks, installing a decorative
border tile, or just turning the field tile on the diagonal to
create a different texture.
If the kitchen is part of a great room or is open to an
adjacent space, decorative tiles that feature fruits or
vegetables tend to visually separate the two areas rather than
pull them together. Instead, work with a more neutral look,
using either colors found elsewhere in the house, or shapes and
designs that are more general in theme. Glass tile inserts can
also be used to add just a spark of color (Figure 4).
Figure 4.Though these metallic tiles take their
cues from the stainless steel appliances, their diagonal layout
and the whimsical glass-tile inserts keep them from feeling
formal or cold.
Since playing cards provide the same approximate quantity of
color as a painted decorative tile, you can use them to help
determine the "random" distribution of decorative tiles in a
backsplash. Take the face cards — jacks, queens, and
kings — from the deck and stick them to the wall in the
likely locations. Or, if the client has already selected a
specific decorative tile, I simply make color photocopies and
tape them to the wall. This is a good way to experiment with
the layout and get an idea of what the backsplash will look
like before the tile is permanently installed.
For a listello, or decorative band, a good rule of thumb is to
run it across the backsplash at about two-thirds the total
height up from the countertop. This is similar to the way the
horizon appears in nature and gives a balanced appearance,
rather than cutting the scene abruptly in half; it also allows
the band to clear objects placed on the countertop (Figure 5).
When a backsplash is interrupted by appliances and windows, a
listello that looks good in the showroom may end up looking
like Morse code — lots of dots and dashes — on the
Figure 5.Placing a decorative listello high enough
above the countertop ensures that it will not be interrupted by
wall outlets or display items. This backsplash signals a change
in height and function at the stove with a diagonal field
inlay; the colored insets turn grout lines into decorative
elements and supply a subtle "wow" factor — without
adding much to the installed cost.
Before your clients commit to a particular design and order the
tile, borrow a few from your local supplier and stand them up
on the countertop. Again, make sure the homeowners view them at
night with their task lighting and in the morning under natural
lighting conditions (Figure 6). This will help them decide
whether the tile they think they like in the showroom is
actually the tile they'll enjoy seeing day and night over the
coming years in their kitchen.
Figure 6.A hand-painted tile scene brightens up a
compact kitchen and compensates for the lack of a window with a
view. Encourage your clients to view potential tile choices
under a kitchen's actual natural and artificial lighting
conditions before making a final selection.
Lane Meehanowns and manages Cape
Cod Tile Works with her husband, Tom, in Harwich,