Wall Tile Design: Tips from an Expert

Making a (Back)Splash with Your Next Wall Tile Project

This week I had lunch with my friend Tracey Gulli. Lunches with her are a mix between a mom support group, a design workshop, and a gossip session rolled into one. She has worked in the tile industry for years, so she is a wealth of knowledge on tile. She also is the boss at designing wall tile applications. I’d been planning to do a tile blog and while I didn’t plan on interviewing her at lunch when I told her about my planned post a quasi-interview commenced. So, I decided to incorporate her thoughts and our discussion into the blog. Without further ado…

The Interview

Julie: So what is your approach to designing a backsplash?

Tracey: Well, you know wall tile is like jewelry. It can really pull a kitchen or bathroom together, but it can also be overkill. Especially when it’s the last finish selected in the kitchen. Which is often the case with [backsplashes]. They’re an afterthought. The tile can compete with the other elements in the kitchen. Especially in really big kitchens with a lot of specialty cabinets and decorative appliances.

bathroom wall tile glass mosaic
Transitional bathroom backsplash with mixed material mosaic and 4×4 white ceramic in a straight lay pattern photo: Hannah Glogower

Me: Yeah, especially when the counter surface has a lot of movement or a strong pattern.

Tracey: Right. In cases like that, you really want a backsplash that just blend in and is a workhorse. People will spend $1500-2000 on high end, decorative tiles that just make cleaning more difficult.

Me: Right, uneven surfaces behind the sink and range can be really hard to clean. Particularly when the colors are very light or very uneven.

Tracey: Like with stacked stone backsplashes. Sometimes I think people meet with the builder and just want to et everything selected and see something like stacked stone, which is popular and looks nice, but it doesn’t perform well. Especially when you plan to cook a lot. Sometimes you just need something that is in the background and is a workhorse.

Me: Yeah, I think of red sauce caught all in the little crevices. I think if you want a great backsplash, you almost have to design to it, rather than the other way around. If a client really wants a gorgeous backsplash, if that’s their priority, then I am starting the design with it because the client wants to invest there.

Tracey: Or, I always tell people to live in the space for a little bit. Figure out what’s going to work for you. If you keep a ton of stuff on your counter, you probably shouldn’t have a design that runs along the bottom or through the middle of the tile. Also, electrical outlets can be an issue. Since code requires an outlet every 4 feet in a kitchen, they can interfere with the lines and any decorative design that goes through the middle of the tile.

bathroom nook with hex mother of pearl tile
A bathroom nook with a simple mother of pearl hex tile. photo: afimaging

Me: Right, kitchen backsplash design can get dicey that way.

Tracey: The good thing is you’re not limited to the positioning of the outlet. So it can be turned horizontally, moved closer to the counter or even higher, closer to the cabinets to keep the tile design continuous. I always tell people, if your working with a builder, leave the backsplash alone until you’ve lived in the space a while. Figure out how much stuff you keep on the counter or how much you’re going to cook, know your space before you make the investment.

Me: Speaking of investment… Backsplashes can be pricey.

Tracey: Compared to counter surfaces and cabinets, they aren’t as expensive and add a lot of personality to the space, even when they’re simple. The tile can be a cheap as $1.25/square foot. Cheap, white field tile can be turned on an angle or made into a pattern and look like a million bucks. I did this for my sister. [shows me the image of a tub surround] The least expensive off-white field tile and a glass mosaic from Home Cheap-oh.

shower surround wall tile
Tracey’s shower surround with the “Home Cheap-oh” tiles. Such a simple design and practical materials, but a really great look.

Me: Wow! That looks amazing!

Tracey: It can be a big investment, but it doesn’t have to be. Keep in mind that installation is going to cost at least as much as the tile. Mosaics and small pieces can be hard to position correctly and are time intensive for installers. Glass tiles have to be applied using a certain method or you’ll see trowel marks.

Me: And it’s so easy to take it off the wall and switch it out later.  So, any pet peeves? Mine is the little 4″ counter surface backsplash with a random mosaic stacked on top. It really shortens the are between the cabinets and counter surface and a lot of times it’s too busy.

Tracey: Oh my gosh that the worst! I hate that. People think its cheaper, but it’s not. Really its about the same price. A lot of builders don’t want to do tile from the top of the counter because they have to cut the counter so that it’s flush with the wall.

If you have a tile backsplash, don’t opt for the 4″ counter “backsplash” that comes with most counter surfaces. photo: hannah glogower

Me: And tile is cheaper that counter surface anyway. Counters can be upwards of $75/sf.

We rambled on about tile a little longer and some projects that we’re working on. But those are the most salient points:

  1. Incorporate the wall tile as part of the design. Don’t make it an after thought. Plan ahead OR live in the space a while. If you know you want a beautiful wall tile design, own it and make it your centerpiece.  Or, live in your home and then figure out what you need and want from a backsplash.
  2. You don’t have to spend a ton of money for wall tile, but you can. If you’re very budget conscious, you can create a great design with white field tile by using pattern instead of color.
  3. Don’t have your counter dealer or your builder install the 4″ counter backsplash. It breaks up the line of the tile and shortens the area between your cabinets and counter surface.
  4. If you select a counter surface that is busy, let your tile rest in the background or use the counter surface on the walls. If you want a beautiful, colorful, highly patterned backsplash, select a counter surface that is more homogenous in its coloration, like solid surface, recycled lass, or quartz.
Simple hex tile, but the bold color gives the space character! photo: afimaging

Hope you all enjoyed this installation. Let me know if you like the interview. I’m thinking of doing a few more of these with some of my designer friends. If you want a fantastic backsplash and need a designer to help you, Tracey “the tile guru” Gulli is the master! Contact me or leave a comment and I’ll put you in touch! You can follow her on Instagram @summerhousetile

If you love what you see here, you’re going to love being on our mailing list! Download your copy of the “Good, Better, Best” workbook. You will learn how to create a realistic budget for your next decorating project and you will have access to the latest and greatest on all things interior design and decorating!

Next Up – Happy St Patrick’s Day: Green Tile!

Share or pin:

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.