Today's Use of Tile in Classic Kitchens

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Two colors of subway tile from Tile Source create a commercial or contemporary effect.

Two colors of subway tile from Tile Source create a commercial or contemporary effect.

Choose the plainest white tile for wainscot or backsplash, or opt for brilliant color, mosaics and multi-tile murals, deco tiles to punch up a field, or handmade Arts & Crafts tiles that become the focal point of the kitchen. Different tiles suggest different moods, and are associated with different eras.

Tile is a durable finishing material that approaches a true art form. Perhaps that's why tiles old and new have become collectibles today. But wouldn't you like to see these beautiful works of artistry in such everyday places as your kitchen backsplash, or as a focal point in a breakfast nook or over the stove?

Handmade art tiles are among the hottest decorative finishes in homes today, whatever their style or era. Choices include glossy tiles in every color palette under the sun (with or without special effects like crackle glazes or aged patinas); matte, slip-glazed tiles in diverse and earthy field colors; and decorative (called "deco") relief tiles that depict a motif. Revival tiles include De Morgan and Low style Victorian tiles, accurate reproductions of Arts & Crafts Batchelder tiles from California, boldly colored Moorish Revival decos, and cuerda seca and tube-lined tiles.

Manufactured ceramic tile has gone far beyond the 4x4 square. Choose from hexes, octagons, oblongs, diamonds, and rhomboids in sizes that range from ½" and 1" dots to field and deco tiles of up to 6" or 8". Mesh-mounted basket-weave and herringbone tiles update early 20th-century tile patterns in a host of fresh colors.

Composed of tiny pieces of stone or glass called tesserae, mosaics can be laid in almost any pattern, from a simple border to a full-blown mural with many nuances of color and depiction. Metal tiles make another cool accent, perfect in the kitchen or as a decorative effect on walls anywhere in the house.

Geometric and Encaustic Tiles

Geometric and encaustic tiles, those Victorian favorites for floors, are durable, matte-finish tiles that can be designed into colorful, kaleidoscopic patterns. Although these floors were most often used in public and commercial spaces, and in vestibules and conservatories, they are a good choice for kitchens; they're wet-proof and they camouflage dirt and spills.

Hexagon-shaped tiles have become a classic, suitable for houses from Colonial Revival to Victorian and Beaux Arts, especially with accents or a border. Courtesy American Restoration Tile.

Hexagon-shaped tiles have become a classic, suitable for houses from Colonial Revival to Victorian. These are from American Restoration Tile.

The traditional encaustic method (developed during the Middle Ages and revived during the Victorian period in England) builds up the pattern by pouring different-colored slips into molds. That means the colors don’t fade away as the pattern wears down. Recently introduced "faux encaustic" tiles, and companion geometrics, allow this extraordinary look for one-quarter to one-tenth the price of the original, square-edged tiles.

White Hexes

White hexes, often associated with the bath, are made kitchen-worthy when you use 2" tiles with the addition of a border and perhaps black accents in the field.

You can get a historical or old-fashioned look even with inexpensive production tiles. Carefully choose a classic color, outline a breakfast area with a narrow stripe or add a border, and a DIY floor of 4x4 tiles will look custom.

5 Steps for Artful Tile on a Budget

Art tile is just that—art for the home. The price tag can be steep if your project calls for many square feet of tile. There are ways, however, to combine a Home Depot budget (and affordable production tile) with handcrafted tile for a custom look.

1. Get Bang for your Buck
Art tile is a beautiful accent in kitchens and bathrooms. But if you don’t have the budget to do a full kitchen’s worth of backsplash, "find a panel or a deco tile you like, and 'picture frame' it," says Selene Seltzer, the ceramic artist behind the California company Designs in Tile. Around the focus, "use less expensive liners, plain tile, more liners, and some molded trim to fill the space."

Gorgeous art tiles (Handcraft Tile Co.) create an Arts & Crafts focal point over the modern range-top in a revival kitchen.

Art tiles by Handcraft Tile Co. create an Arts & Crafts focal point over the range-top in a revival kitchen. Photo: William Wright

Consider purchasing fewer of a manufacturer's premium decorated pieces to surround them with plain field tiles. Randomly "float" the fancier tiles in the field, or create a repeating pattern. Another option is to use a bordered panel or tile mural assembled and sold as a set, and again use plain tiles around it.
You may be in love with a particular tile, but consider its impact once it's installed. In the kitchen, "use decos and borders where you’ll really see them," Seltzer advises—"right behind the sink or cooktop. Use undecorated tile as the backsplash in areas that will be hidden by kitchen appliances."

2. Buy at a Reduced Price

Every tile showroom, and even the small-scale custom makers, offer sales on discontinued tile and custom orders that were not picked up. If you’ve got time and can keep an open mind, a beautiful and appropriate set may fall into your hands at an affordable price.

3. Use Production Tile

The big manufacturers make wall, floor, and decorative tile in sizes and styles that simulate historical tile. With some imagination, you can give installations of such tile a custom look—making big tile projects affordable. Plan out a border for an otherwise plain tile floor. Or create the look of a wainscot with subway tile and a bullnose molding.

Be careful: mixing production tile with handcrafted decos gets tricky, because the tiles’ actual sizes (whatever the dimensions given), depths, and edge characteristics will be different. It can be done, but it’s wise to have an expert tiler in on the project from the beginning, approving purchases and the design. (Same goes for mixing tile from more than one studio.)

4. Go South of the Border

Mexican tile is handcrafted and colorful, the product of a long history of craft. It’s also much less expensive that American-made art tile, at about $9–12 per square foot. If a Southwestern or Arts & Crafts rustic look appeals to you, consider Saltillo floor tiles, or Talvera and Azulegos decorative tiles, which are brightly colored and feature geometric and floral motifs (perhaps to augment plain terra-cotta tiles).

5. Do It Yourself

The pricetag for a tile project is materials plus labor; if you do the work yourself, you’ve got more to spend on the tile. Even if you don’t set the tile and grout it, you can do the prep: hang the cement board and mortar the seams. Tiling is taught at in-store weekend seminars at Home Depot; Taunton Press has good books and videos for DIY tilers. Still, it’s not quite as easy as it looks, and you may be risking expensive tile. If you have no experience, start with a small project.

Artful Tile on a Budget was produced by Dan Cooper.