Hardworking kitchens can be messy places where food, water and grease can readily splatter onto walls near the cooktop and sink. If left unprotected, those walls can be difficult, if not impossible, to keep clean.
Historically, a relatively diminutive 4″ to 6″ strip of countertop material has served as a backsplash to protect against many kitchen mishaps. However, backsplashes have evolved from those minimalist roots, emerging as design elements that do so much more.
These days, bare walls are rarely seen, having been replaced by more stately and elegant backsplashes that reach from the top of the countertop to the bottom of the upper cabinets, or even cover entire walls. Sometimes, they are relatively ‘quiet’ and monochromatic, blending into their surroundings to play a supportive role. Other times, they are the focal point – dramatic and bold – making a statement that can’t be overlooked.
This month, KBDN asked several kitchen designers to discuss backsplash design and trends as well as share some creative projects that spotlight unique, eye-catching backsplashes.
DESIGNER: HEATHER MCKINNEY, FAIA
McKinney York Architects; Austin, TX
Many of Heather McKinney’s clients have been choosing neutral backsplashes, oftentimes selecting a material that matches the wall color to provide a monochromatic look. Sometimes that means a glass tile composition, other times it means entire slabs of stone that will be repeated as the countertop.
However, for clients who want to make a bold statement, the backsplash affords the opportunity to create a dramatic focal point. “It really depends on where we want to put the focus visually…and how ‘quiet’ we want the kitchen to be,” she says with regard to material selection.
And, while the principal function of a backsplash is to protect the walls from water and food spatters, backsplashes can also bring character into the room. Such was the case for this glass ‘wave’ design, crafted by the client’s artist friend, Laura Garanzuay.
“This client is vivacious and outgoing, and is very integrated into the art world,” says McKinney, noting that she has curated collections for institutions and sits on the board of The Contemporary Austin art museum. “This backsplash gave her an opportunity to commission a glass piece. And, as she has done throughout the rest of the home, she wanted it to represent a creative thrust.”
Once the colors for the backsplash were in place, the designer brought pops of several hues into the banquette area, adding them to pillows and chairs as well as the table leg, which is sheathed in a Mini Cooper yellow. “She is of Cuban and Hispanic descent and loves those warm, spicy colors,” mentions McKinney.
The colorful backsplash can grab attention thanks to the more neutral and ‘quiet’ Silestone by Cosentino quartz countertops in Blanco Maple. Figured maple base cabinetry is complemented with upper cabinetry in aluminum and wavy glass, “to make the room a little more transparent,” adds McKinney, who collaborated with Brian Carlson, AIA for the room’s design.
She further customized the kitchen by creating ‘his’ and ‘her’ spaces that feature different countertop heights. “He is very tall and cleans up the kitchen, so we raised his countertops two inches,” she says. “We also included a dishwasher and sink in his cleanup zone.”
DESIGNER: TERRI CRITTENDEN, AIA, IIDA
Fredman Design Group; Chicago, IL
When designing kitchens, Terri Crittenden always looks at function first. “It goes without saying…function is where we start and what has to work,” she says. “But aesthetics keep you in the space. They add warmth, and that intangible experience is what we’re always trying to implement in our designs.”
Backsplashes are an important consideration for fulfilling both. When selecting materials, Crittenden focuses on client feedback regarding cleanability and durability. “If a client wants no maintenance, we’ll steer clear of certain materials,” she notes. “But if a client enjoys patina and the possibility of living materials, it opens the playing field to materials such as limestone and marble, which wear and react to other things. They can be pristine, but they require extra care.”
Aesthetically, backsplashes add personality and ‘dress’ the space. Often, they trend toward full-height designs of stone or tile, especially hand-painted patterned tiles. When possible, she also uses the backsplash as shallow storage, grabbing 2″-3″ of shelf space for spices or oils in designs with extra-deep walls.
Currently, the designer is working on a project with a mirrored backsplash. “We’re writing a story – lightly and delicately – on the back of it to use in the cabinets with glass doors,” she says. “We also recently did a backsplash with the look of troweled plaster. We’re always trying to think outside the box to find new and different materials to use so kitchens feel more unique.”
For this particular kitchen, Crittenden utilized two contrasting backsplash materials: Calcutta marble for the cooking niche and leathered limestone for the perimeter walls and countertops. “They are opposites,” she explains. “The marble is smooth and light, and the limestone is textured and dark. My belief is that when you mix contrasting materials, they complement each other. Also, if the entire kitchen was marble, I think the eye would stop seeing it.
“Additionally, the island and cooktop area are the stars of the show,” she continues. “They are more ‘foreground’ – more of the focus, and the lighter material highlights them. The perimeter is darker and quieted the space so the design flashlight could shine on the island and cooktop, which are the centerpieces of the whole kitchen.”
Repeating the marble as the island countertop helps tie the two together. “Using the marble around the hood area, then repeating it at the island, brings your eye into the center of the space, visually tying the two together,” she says. “It makes the statement even more dramatic. We spent a great deal of time designing functionality into this space, making sure prep, cleaning and storage needs were fulfilled. But the countertops and backsplashes, in my opinion, are some of the most important elements to dress the kitchen because they are the surfaces you see the most.”
DESIGNER: VINCE WINTEREGG
Kitchen Style; Largo, FL
For many of Vince Winteregg’s clients, less is often more when it comes to backsplashes. “I’ve been seeing a trend toward a more neutral backsplash with less variation and a more even color palette, especially when clients want the island or countertops to be the focal point,” he says, referencing marble and subway tile as particularly popular material choices. “Then the backsplash can be a complement – something that will give the space an extra touch without taking away from anything else.”
If clients want a plain island or countertop, Winteregg suggests a show-stopping backsplash. “But it’s still neutral,” he states, “maybe one or two colors, nothing overly intricate. Even if a client wants something drastic and bold, it’s more along the lines of gray painted cabinets paired with white subway tile for contrast. My advice to clients is that they can bring in color with accessories that are easy to change, such as glassware, towels or even paint that can be easily changed down the road. I’ve had clients come in thinking they need to have a lot of pattern in the backsplash. Then they end up going with a 3″x6″ marble that contrasts with the cabinets.”
Winteregg references a current project as an example where the kitchen features a gray stained island, white Shaker perimeter cabinets and white subway tile with gray grout as the backsplash. Rustic wood beams and columns reclaimed from a local historic hotel add interest. “There is a lot going on, so the backsplash will complement, and not take away from anything in the design,” he says. “It’s the icing on the cake.”
Winteregg also kept the backsplash design neutral in this kitchen, where he collaborated with Rochefort Construction. To create a larger footprint, they bumped out the kitchen about three feet and removed two walls to open up the previously tiny space to make room for the island. At the cooking niche, he added tumbled travertine contrasted with polished Diana Royal marble in a brick joint pattern, all set behind the custom copper hood.
The juxtaposition of rough and smooth is a popular trend, the designer notes. “People seem to want a mix of textures now,” he says. “The dichotomy of these two is intriguing. It breaks up the monotony and gives visual interest.”
The designer admits that a textured backsplash behind a range can be more difficult to keep clean, but his client was willing to compromise for the look, which is a trend he sees more. “Certain materials, such as marble, for example, are becoming popular again,” he states. “They can be finicky and can require more maintenance, but they provide a look people want, and they are willing to do more to get that look.”
Winteregg completed this design with exotic Vienna granite. “This particular slab had some busy and quiet sections,” he says, noting that the chunky quartz areas were a great choice for turning the island into a focal point. “We played with the thought of doing a different stone for the island to set it apart, but then we found this slab. The variation between the busy and consistent sections gives it the look of two stones that look great together.”
DESIGNER: COURTNEY ZANELLI
Courtney Zanelli, LLC; Summit, NJ
For clients who seek guidance when selecting backsplash materials, Courtney Zanelli creates an assortment of options – some that fall into the realm of what they think they want, others that bring them out of their comfort zone, and some the designer thinks will work best, chosen with the overall design aesthetic of the kitchen and home in mind as well as cues taken from conversations with the client.
“Some clients can get tired by the time decisions need to be made for the backsplash…experiencing project fatigue,” she says. “They simply can’t make one more decision and will settle on sheetrock or a 4″ backsplash of countertop material. In my opinion, that’s a tremendous missed opportunity to add an important design element that enhances both the form and function of the space.”
Over time, the backsplash has evolved and has become an important design element, she notes, so she is always looking for interesting backsplash materials, exploring both color and texture. “Something more interesting and unique ultimately makes it more special,” she adds. “I believe that you can have a beautiful kitchen that is also hardworking.”
In the case of this kitchen, located in a weekend/summer retreat home where every room has a view of the pond it overlooks, Zanelli’s client brought her an image featuring a dark blue backsplash. “A white kitchen with dark blue tile can be ordinary,” she explains. “So I used her image as inspiration, checking the box that she wanted something blue. It served as a jumping-off point in my search for finding the right backsplash material. When I found this tile, I knew instantly that it would be perfect. Its watery blue color was quite literally an extension of the view outside, giving an almost seamless integration between the inside and outside…and she loved it from the first time I showed it to her.”
The 3″x12″ Water Gloss handmade tile from Walker Zanger’s Café line is particularly interesting, given the way the glaze pools in different places, producing imperfections that add to its beauty, she offers. “It creates areas of dark and light blue, which result in a beautiful depth of color,” she observes. “I find tile such as this so much more interesting than flat, solid colors that are too consistent and lack any character. This tile has gravitas!”
Zanelli paired the backsplash with Carrara marble countertops. “I wanted something that would be quiet, something that wouldn’t compete with the backsplash,” she says, noting the importance of making sure all components of the kitchen (cabinet color and hardware, backsplash, countertop, etc.) are considered together to create a story. “The marble’s elegance and subtle veining was a ‘no brainer.’ The softer blue tile and light shades of gray and white in the marble work so well together.”
DESIGNER: BRONWYN REICE, AKBD
Buckminster Green; Philadelphia, PA
Given the nearly infinite number of choices available for backsplashes, Bronwyn Reice’s clients often start a design project by selecting cabinets and countertops, followed by the backsplash. “Backsplashes are usually one of the later choices,” she says. “But when you walk into a kitchen, it’s at eye level and stands out, so it isn’t unusual for clients to bring us something they love.”
Regardless of when it is selected, choosing a backsplash material can add a subtle touch of handmade character or a burst of color, pattern or texture into the room, she notes. Trending choices are primarily tile, especially ceramic, porcelain, glass and cement, although she says uniform looks provided by slabs of stone, quartz or other countertop material are popular now, too. Backsplashes can also be a way to tie together different elements into the design, most often counters to upper cabinets. Material selection can further the goal of the kitchen design as well, such as with this historic Victorian home in the Northern Liberties neighborhood just north of Philadelphia.
The previous 1950s-era design featured metal cabinets, a sink and little else, recalls the designer, who opened up the kitchen by combining two rooms. “The new kitchen used to be the breakfast room and a 100-plus-year-old addition,” she says.
While the past played a role in material selection, the home was not intended to be historical, she stresses. “We used materials like soapstone and cement tile that would have been used in that era, along with salvaged wood, to relate the kitchen to the rest of the house, while creating what is clearly a modern kitchen, and not a period piece,” she explains.
The Cuban Heritage encaustic cement tile boasts a bold pattern in more subtle colorways. “It’s a classic pattern,” she states. “It really wouldn’t have been out of place on a vestibule floor in a home like this, so it isn’t necessarily out of place historically. By using it on the backsplash, we played with the tradition – that is the twist – to take a tile that has some historic place in the home and do something more modern with it, like covering an entire wall.”
Reice combined the tile with soapstone perimeter countertops, which pick up the black and blue colors in the backsplash tile. She further enhanced the design by adding warm gray cabinetry and a salvaged wood island top made by combining floor joists she found when remodeling another home in the area.
DESIGNER: ROBYN SCOTT
Robyn Scott Interiors, Ltd.; Aspen, CO
The architecture of the home often guides Robyn Scott as she helps clients choose backsplash materials and designs. For more traditional homes, it might be stacked glass or tile, or in the case of a log cabin remodel she is currently designing, it is teal green Moroccan tile in an Arabesque shape.
For contemporary homes, stone slabs that match the countertops are often a go-to design choice. “There are so many beautiful countertops now,” she says. “When doing contemporary kitchens, you don’t want too many materials, so it’s nice to repeat the countertop material as the backsplash. A single slab of granite or quartz that looks like marble is often a first choice. The veining is so beautiful.”
Backsplashes in reflective materials can also offer a nice touch, she adds. “Sometimes kitchens can feel closed in,” she mentions. “Using a reflective material, such as stainless steel, glass or mirrors – or my favorite is an actual window – can open them up.”
Scott chose reflective back-painted glass for this contemporary home in Aspen that overlooks the mountains, offering a stunning view of the landscape. “Our design goal was to create a clean, contemporary look,” she says, noting the collaboration of the home’s design with David Johnston Architects. “We didn’t want anything too decorative.”
As such, the custom glass backsplash is back-painted creamy white. “The theme of the home is to be monochromatic,” she offers. “We added a ton of windows to capture the amazing views so we didn’t want anything that would compete. All of the furniture, materials, etc. needed to be in the background. When someone walks into the kitchen, we want them to see the view.”
Scott complemented the backsplash with quartz countertops in a taupe-y beige hue that picks up the floor tones, wall color and wood ceiling. “There is a lot of tone-on-tone in this kitchen – for example, the backsplash, countertops and patinaed steel bar top and skirting,” she says. “All three are different shades of gray and beige that bring warmth into the space.”
Rounding out the design, Scott added dark walnut cabinetry with stainless steel edge bands that help define its geometric shape. A sculptural light fixture created by local artist Travis Fulton hovers above the island and adds softness. “That piece is very important to the design,” she concludes. “It brings an organic shape to the kitchen. Everything else is very linear and hard edged, but this piece adds softness and gives balance to the space.”