As the hub of a home, a kitchen’s design is paramount. Cabinets, hardware, countertops, appliances, flooring, lighting — more decisions go into creating a kitchen than any other room.
But ask designers who specialize in kitchens and many will point to just one seemingly mundane element with the power to make or break a whole room: the backsplash. Who knew?
Whether you are gut-renovating, building a new home or simply want to upgrade your kitchen from a B to an A-plus, putting in the perfect backsplash is the starting point for a beautiful result. “It’s a kitchen’s most important segment,” said Deborah Osburn, founder of the Marin County-based artisan tile company Clé. “When you walk in, your backsplash is exactly at eye level. It is the true horizon line of your home.”
Choosing the right material
Traditionally, the purpose of a kitchen backsplash was purely utilitarian. Wipeable materials like tile were designated to protect small areas from sprays of grease or dishwater. Over time, though, the role and footprint of backsplashes expanded, becoming as much about form as function. Nowadays, in many cases, “backsplash” is synonymous with kitchen walls writ large.
When offering materials for clients to consider for a backsplash, Heidi Caillier, an interior designer in Seattle, leans toward earthy substances like terracotta and marble. “You can never go wrong selecting something natural,” she said, cautioning against trends like printed cement tiles and multicolored glass mosaics. “What looks great forever is any material that’s visually interesting but relies on texture more than a print or color.”
Zellige, a type of Moroccan terracotta tile coveted for backsplashes by every designer I spoke to, epitomizes the timeless, organic look that is the goal. Handmade and irregular — no two tiles are the same — zellige feels like a new old idea. “With every dent, crack and tonal change, it’s as if you’re looking into centuries of craft,” said Osburn, whose company, founded in 2012, popularized zellige in the U.S. “I get why it is so beloved right now. We all yearn for something that looks timeworn and touched by humans. It’s the antithesis of our digital screens.”
Equally important to the visual allure of a backsplash is its durability. Caillier, who loves the look of painted wood paneling for its rich, nonutilitarian feel, says it is not for everyone. “People who cook heavily should not have wood at their sink or stove, so we’ll pick something that can deal with more wear and tear.”
Another understated approach is to not cover the wall at all. Tara Mangini, one half of the influential design firm Jersey Ice Cream Co., says she particularly likes the weathered look of textured plaster. “It’s an unconventional solution, but sometimes everything else feels too contemporary,” she explained. “When we use plaster, we apply a water-based polyurethane as a layer of protection.”
Jean Stoffer of Jean Stoffer Design in Grand Rapids, Mich., favors single slabs of marble behind busy cooking areas. “If a pot of sauce splatters on the stove, a solid piece of stone is easiest to clean. There’s no grout to scour or maintain; you just wipe the whole surface down.”
Marble slab is, of course, the priciest option at about $40 to $180 per square foot, excluding labor costs. If the look of marble is desired but the price of running it around the whole kitchen is prohibitive, Stoffer suggests using a piece of slab over the stove, paired with another material on surrounding walls. “Never fear mixing and matching stone with tile for a gorgeous layered look,” she says. “In fact, if you use one thing everywhere, instead of being a great feature, it can be overkill.”
Recent projects have opened Stoffer’s eyes to the beauty and practicality of porcelain slab, another cost-saving backsplash approach. Large sheets of porcelain engineered with veining that closely resembles natural stone cost about 25 percent less than top-of-the-market Calacatta marble. Also, “Porcelain is more durable than natural stone given that it’s not porous,” Stoffer pointed out.
Caillier said 3-by-6-inch subway tile, a backsplash classic, is her go-to economical pick. A few of her favorites are Daltile’s Rittenhouse Square in arctic white, which is $2.87 per square foot, and various subway styles produced by Heath Ceramics and Fireclay Tile.
To give a subway-tiled backsplash extra oomph, Caillier likes to run it all the way from the counter to the ceiling. “So much of good design is about getting the visual starts and stops right,” she explained. The conventional approach, where backsplash tiles start at the countertop and end somewhere below the cabinets, is not ideal in Caillier’s view. “I want my eye to be interested but relaxed. In kitchens there’s lots of cabinetry and many vertical and horizontal lines, so I’m eager to eliminate some of that. Tiling to the ceiling looks much more clean and finished.”
Emulating the English kitchen
One way to orient yourself to the current moment in backsplash and overall kitchen design is to look to the classic English kitchen. Whether it is the influence of Downton Abbey (that kitchen!) or a revolt against the sleek vibe of stainless steel appliances that has dominated American kitchens for years, the subtler, simpler English kitchen, with its patinated hardware and muted colors, has been having a big moment.
British design, Caillier said, is a look many people can embrace. “It feels interesting and eclectic at the same time as being crisp and restrained. It’s not modern and it’s not traditional; it’s right on the line.”
Helen Parker, the creative director of deVOL Kitchens — which, after 33 years solely in England, opened a Manhattan showroom this year — described the central idea of the English kitchen this way: “A kitchen that shouts, ‘I’m here!’ with lots of shiny gadgets and twiddly bits, has faded from fashion. Instead of thinking of a kitchen as a separate entity from the rest of the house, homeowners want the design of every room to flow seamlessly.”
Sometimes, Parker explained, that means bringing in elements you might find in other rooms: a cozy seating area, a wallpapered desk niche or an antique rug. Or sometimes it means stripping back some of the obvious signifiers of a kitchen. “In the last few years we’ve actively encouraged clients to move away from backsplashes for backsplashes’ sake,” she said. “We’ll present initial drawings showing a different notion entirely, and I think the message has gotten out.”