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Making a Splash with Tile

(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)

One of the most consequential decisions homeowners make during the construction of their homes is choosing their tile. It can define, support, or sabotage an entire design concept. Opting for something low-keyed is just as statement-making as something wild with pattern or bold with color.

In recent years, the tile industry has been on production overdrive. Even when I’m not looking for tile, I’ll stop in to a store just to see the latest and greatest ideas. I admit I was a stone snob not that long ago. But in the past five years or so, porcelain has really won me over. And, it is more user and cost-friendly than natural materials.

Let me back up a little to talk about the different types of tile. Most of us grew up with ceramic tile with limited shapes and colors. Ceramic is fired clay, and today, most ceramic is decorative and used on walls or low-traffic floors. It comes in hundreds of colors, many shapes and sizes, and can have a patterned or crackled-glaze finish. Here’s a tip: if you choose a crackled finish, seal the individual tiles before installation. The crackling is created by breaking the glaze. When tile is set and then grouted, the grout will creep into these cracks and will be impossible to completely remove. Otherwise, all other ceramic tile is not sealed, however, it’s grout should be sealed at least twice.

Porcelain is like ceramic but denser, stronger and virtually bullet-proof which makes it an excellent choice for floors. The most common size today, and for past few years, is twelve by twenty-four inches. It’s a nice proportion, manageable and more interesting than the older twelve or eighteen-inch squares. Porcelain comes in many colors and textures that suit almost any design style. I’ve been using the tile that looks like wood slats from the day it hit the market. It was excellent then, and continues to be so, with new and distinctive styles. I like this look so much that I even install it on walls.

Here are a few more tips: if you choose wood-looking porcelain, use a grout color darker than the color of the tile, make the grout line one-eighth inch or less, and stagger the tile either randomly or no more than a third its length. This will make your floors look more like wood and less like tile.

Natural stone tiles are usually made of travertine, limestone, marble, granite, or slate. No two tiles are identical. They all require sealing and maintenance. They are also susceptible to heat, scratching, etching, chipping, cracking, and staining. But, there’s no denying that some of these natural materials are inherently beautiful. Last tip: if you have well water, and don’t want to use porcelain tile (your best option), then consider slate. The minerals in the water will dissipate into the slate.

There are some scenarios where glass tile is the best design option. I especially like it in bathrooms. But even glass is not straight-forward. There are several colors, multiple shapes, and even different finishes from polished, matte, and smoky to distressed and recycled. Most glass is best used on walls although there are a few that can be installed on floors.

There are many more considerations to make when choosing tile. Once you’ve done so, you also have to decide how to use it, which direction to orient it, how high to take it on a wall, and what grout color and size will yield the best effect. These were just some of the questions I answered for Napa resident, Holly Quate.

Like most clients, Holly liked oh-so many tiles on display. But she had the advantage of having something in mind when it came to color for her new kitchen. “I wanted the colors of the sunset and flame – marigold, goldenrod, mango,” she described. Having worked with Holly on new additions to her 1940s home, I’d learned that she embraces color and pattern. So, once she chose the backsplash tile for her kitchen, I knew I wanted to take it all the way to the ceiling on the two walls that were to tiled.

Why take it to the ceiling? Because it was important to Holly that her kitchen have pizzazz. I had another reason for specifying this height. Her tile was variegated and needed to be shown on a grand scale in order to do justice to the variation.

We also gave considerable thought to the countertop and cabinets. Given her desire for a dramatic effect, we entertained black granite but it looked too much like Halloween. We also looked at soapstone and, although striking, would have been too powerful. In the end, we chose a creamy quartz. We also chose creamy cabinets although medium-toned, olive-green cabinets came in at a close second.

The walls were the same creamy color, too, and you might be wondering why my colorful client would agree to all this cream. It will make sense when the dining room, living room, master bedroom and bath are complete. We are adding deep brown ceiling beams and painting her windows and doors the same brown color. The cream and brown combination will create a stunning contrast and a background for the orange tile – and for the large, banana-leaf wallpaper we’ll hang in select areas.

Until then, what is Holly’s reaction to her kitchen tile? “I love it more than I can say. It’s really the only color I wanted. It’s so cheerful and happy and it’s just the right proportion of dramatic color and neutral ivory.”

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