inding the perfect backsplash and countertop can be one of the more enjoyable aspects of designing a stunning and functional kitchen. Given the virtually limitless number of choices, backsplashes, in particular, can help set the tone for the space or express the personality of a client. While countertops are often perceived as having a more utilitarian role, these workhorses can, nonetheless, accomplish that responsibility beautifully. When they work in tandem, they elevate the overall design of the space.
This month, KBDN asked designers to share kitchen projects where backsplashes and countertops work together to create aesthetically pleasing and functionally exceptional spaces.
Genevieve Trousdale, principal designer
Circa Genevieve, Rancho Palos Verde, CA
When designers want to bring a feeling of nature into a space, they often incorporate elements such as natural stone and stained wood.
Genevieve Trousdale did just that in this kitchen renovation, where nature’s jewels of choice include Elegant Brown Leather quartzite countertops and stained oak cabinetry.
“The quartzite looks like wood,” she relates, adding that she considers herself a classicist and often uses natural stone in her designs, even for young families who want a premium product and are accepting of any patina that comes with time. “This particular stone moves in and out of shades of brown, from chocolate to taupe and even deep-sea green. It has a grounding feeling, and although it seems relatively quiet as a horizontal surface, it’s very seductive. It pulls you in. Once you’re standing over it and looking down it has such interest and movement that is low contrast, yet still includes a lot of color.”
The custom oak cabinetry also offers a nod to nature, with mullions that are designed to mimic a mountain range.
“I was inspired by what is outside their home,” Trousdale explains. “The clients’ home feels like a treehouse since it is cantilevered over a cliff. It’s a very special property with a lot of mountains, trees and vegetation, as well as a rose garden. We wanted to continue to see that mountain range…inside the house, so that’s why we have the mullions that trail unevenly from one side to the next, without breaking.”
For the upper cabinetry, she used frosted glass above the mullions and clear glass below.
“The frosted glass emulates the sky, which usually has fog rolling in,” she says. “We included lights in the cabinetry, which my clients like to turn on at night. Using clear glass below the mullions makes that section appear darker when the lights are turned on, so it feels like the mountains and the sky. It’s a strong visual element.”
Trousdale continued the nature theme with the backsplash, which showcases an olive tree that represents those growing within their landscape. Hand-painted by a local artist, the tree’s delicate branches and leaves meander across 6″x6″ glossy white ceramic tiles that are sealed to protect the one-of-a-kind piece of art.
“These clients really didn’t want a straightforward kitchen,” she says. “They wanted something unique…something to bring the outdoors in and make it feel less like a kitchen and more like outdoor living.”
To further showcase the olive trees, the artist hand-painted a single branch of the fruit tree, accented with a bird in flight, on an adjacent wall that is clad floor-to-ceiling with the white tile. Trousdale included a metal pot rack for her client’s copper pot collection.
“There isn’t a lot of storage in the kitchen, so we felt that this was a way to not only store her pots but also display them,” she explains. “Cladding the wall with tile protects it from any divots or paint loss that could happen with drywall.”
Trousdale also appreciates the simplicity and flexibility of the white tile, which she can transform into a variety of looks.
“I am using this same tile as the backsplash in their home in Utah,” she relates. “However, I’m using metal as accents between the tiles. It’s a great staple tile and I can do a lot of different things to dress it up.”
Lauren DeBello, interior designer
Lauren DeBello Interiors, Nashville, TN
Zellige tile seems to be the new ‘it’ backsplash finish for many of Lauren DeBello’s clients.
“Everyone wants zellige,” she relates. “We went from subway tile to zellige tile. Whether it’s squares or rectangles, it’s pretty much all anyone wants right now.”
The designer attributes its appeal to its handmade composition where every tile, even within its own color range, is unique.
“It’s gorgeous,” she continues. “When you put them all together, none look the same. And even though it’s trending, it’s still timeless. It’s very reminiscent of subway tile, but is an updated version that is extra special.”
While clients often request shades of white and ivory, DeBello was excited to be able to incorporate Riad Tile’s zellige tile in Blush for this bachelorette who wanted to completely gut and reconfigure the layout of her home.
“White always looks beautiful, but color is fun, too,” she says. “This client’s favorite color is pink and I knew she wanted a touch of it in her kitchen. The backsplash felt like the perfect place for it.”
“She wanted her kitchen to be a ‘wow’ space,” DeBello continues. “She entertains a lot and she loves to cook. And, the way her home is laid out, the kitchen is really at its center.”
To further highlight the tile and play up the height of the ceiling, the designer clad most of the focal-point wall from countertop to ceiling and a portion of it from floor to ceiling. Adding floating shelves, rather than additional wall cabinetry, creates a greater expanse for it to shine. As well, stacking the tile vertically visually adds height.
“Before the renovation, one of the main issues of the home was that it felt dark and cavernous,” she recalls. “There just wasn’t enough light, so we wanted to include elements that would draw the eye up towards the ceiling and make the room feel bigger.”
White cabinetry and white quartz countertops – which top the perimeter cabinets and the island that is custom crafted by Broken Compass Woodworking – also help to make the space feel open and airy. The quartz, Vadara’s Carrara, offers the slightest touches of diffused gray veining.
“We wanted something that was lightly colored and lightly veined…nothing that would compete,” she explains. “Instead, the quartz allows the tile to take center stage.”
This client, as well as many of DeBello’s clients, want countertop surfaces that are durable and easy to clean. As such, quartz is a popular request. The designer also loves to use natural stone, even marble, when clients choose to be bold. For either choice, she will often use it on both the horizontal and vertical plane.
“I love to bring a slab of quartz or stone up from the countertop and extend it to the backsplash,” she relates. “It offers a sophisticated look that is easy to clean.
“Overall, I love helping clients select countertops and backsplashes,” she continues. “They are one of the elements that people notice most.”
Rebekah Zaveloff, design director/co-founder
KitchenLab Interiors, Chicago, IL
When Rebekah Zaveloff began her design career 20 years ago, kitchen design firms often completed finish selections in a sequence…first cabinets, then countertops, then backsplashes, etc. However, given her background in fine arts education and collage creation, she has always taken a much more wholistic approach to the selection process where she considers the finishes of a kitchen as a whole, rather than
as piecemeal parts.
“We look at the overall inspiration of our clients,” she relates. “What is their vibe? Is it modern or traditional, light and bright, or dark and moody? We analyze the distribution of light and dark tones, and colors. With cabinets, you can pretty much do any color or finish, but with countertops there are more limited options available. For example, there are tons of natural stone, which we love to use, but there might only be a few that a client likes. When we think about backsplashes, the sky is the limit. There are a million different tiles and a million different ways we can create something different and interesting.”
Currently, zellige and hand-painted terracotta tiles are popular. She has also seen more interest in marble with brass inlays and mosaics made up of three or four different stones.
“We do a fair amount of antiqued mirror in a butler’s pantry or nook, too,” she adds. “It’s a classic look that reflects light and brings in another element, without being a pattern. Full-height quartzite or marble backsplashes are still in the forefront as well for modern projects.”
Considerations throughout the process also take into account allocation and balance between materials, i.e., pattern, sheen, texture and light versus dark.
“We need to think about the ‘language’ that each material has,” she relates. “Is it veiny and dramatic with a lot of movement? If so, other materials need to be quieter. You can’t have everything screaming, ‘look at me, look at me’…otherwise there is too much visual clutter. It’s important to pick the moment with a few statement pieces combined with places where the eye can rest. It’s about how you put together different materials to make each one ‘sing’.”
As well, Zaveloff focuses on honest conversations about material composition and characteristics.
“Some people are very driven by aesthetics, others more by function,” she relates. “When you consider a material like marble, everybody loves it, but they need to know what they’re getting into with it. It’s about self-awareness…drilling down to expectations and being honest with clients so you can steer them down the right path. It’s important to have those hard conversations so people can make educated decisions.”
Because Zaveloff usually works in older homes, creating a layered look with a classic vibe is a shared aesthetic. Oftentimes that means she’s mixing materials and finishes. Sometimes it might be a full-height natural stone backsplash and shelf complemented with ceramic tile above. Other times it could be stone and tile mixed with beadboard. Mixing countertop materials is also popular, such as in one recent renovation of an 1890’s home where she combined Carrara marble on the perimeters with butcher block on the island.
“They were looking for vintage authenticity,” she says. “The home has some amazing architectural details that we wanted to build upon as well.”
One original element is the countertop-to-ceiling brick wall that surrounds the ventilation hood.
“We painted the brick white and added subway tile next to it, carrying it around to the adjacent walls,” she relates, adding that backsplashes often extend to a ceiling and sidewalls, in addition to serving as wall protection behind a range or cooktop. “We ended up with two different brick patterns, but they work together because it’s a vintage kitchen. The materials we chose make it feel like they have always been there.”
Mel McDaniel, founder
Mel McDaniel Design, Philadelphia, PA
Mel McDaniel is more than content to work outside of the confines of trends when it comes to guiding clients about finish selections, including those related to backsplashes and countertops. As such, she encourages them to focus on making decisions that make them happy.
“Other people don’t live in your kitchen,” she says. “Sometimes people are too worried about how something will look to others. I encourage them to avoid making any design decisions based on the loudest person in their book club, or their mother-in-law. If there is any place to resist the opinions of others, it should be in the most expensive renovation in the house.”
With that being said, this client was more than happy to go with vibrant colors and patterns throughout their kitchen. Black painted cabinets complement the black and white checkered floor, and the rich blue hue of the True refrigerator matches that of the darkest ‘fronds’ within the New Ravenna Kelp Forest Alexandrite mosaic tile backsplash and the veining within the Cambria Portrush quartz countertop.
“They wanted their kitchen to look like an eclectic French kitchen, mixing old and new elements,” she relates, noting a collaboration with Graham Feralio General Contractors. “They spend a lot of time in their kitchen, and they wanted it to be interesting. To them, it feels more like a room for cooking.”
One of their more personal design choices is the backsplash, comprised of waterjet mosaic alabaster jewel glass tile in rich blues and greens.
“A backsplash is one place where people can do something really special, such as with this glass tile that is dyed in a beautiful color palette,” McDaniel says. “The colors and pattern are like no other. I am not typically drawn to glass for backsplashes, but this is one of my favorites. It’s so unusual.”
When a backsplash makes a bold statement, such as in this kitchen, the designer suggests something ‘quieter’ for the countertop. Oftentimes, it will be quartz or natural stone. In this case, her clients went with quartz, in part because they love to cook and the material is easy to clean and maintain. They also love its soft white foundation brushed with navy veins that coordinate with the backsplash and refrigerator.
In this case, McDaniel selected the backsplash first, but sometimes the countertop takes precedence and sets the tone for the space.
“If the nature or function of a countertop is very important to the client, we will start by selecting it first,” she explains. “But when they are open to different countertop options, then I always start with the backsplash because it is where a lot of a kitchen’s vibe comes from, and I want to be completely free during its selection.”
Regardless of which comes first, both materials need to work together.
“The backsplash/countertop connection is at the heart of any kitchen I design,” she relates. “If you think about them on the same plane, I compare them to art and a wall…and there are a lot of possibilities considering the many colors of paint and the endless variety and beauty of art.”
Erin Judge, studio director/senior designer
Kelle Contine Interior Design, Austin, TX
A desire for authenticity via the use of raw, organic materials showcased within an exposed architectural design was an overriding consideration for this new-construction home. As interpretation in the great room, Erin Judge collaborated with LaRue Architects and Elev8 Builders to include visible horizontal and vertical steel beams that become figurative ‘ribs’ throughout the space. Wood columnar accents match the window framing and concrete floors run underfoot, extending into the kitchen where they are complemented with a blackened steel ventilation hood and a ceramic tile backsplash that serve as a dramatic backdrop for the walnut cabinetry and white quartz countertops.
“The blackened steel offers a different take on metal protection for the vent hood compared to a typical stainless look,” Judge explains.
The hood’s heft is furthered by the addition of flanking ‘hidden’ cabinets clad to match. As well, the backsplash, comprised of small stack mosaic tile from Ann Sack’s Savoy Collection, extends the look while adding just the right amount of shimmer from its metallic glaze and Graphite colorway.
“The smaller scale of the backsplash tile offsets the mass of the blackened steel so you get a lot of contrast and textural details,” she explains.
The tile’s single-color hue also fulfills her clients desire for finishes with relative consistency to minimize visual confusion and ‘clutter.’
“They were averse to materials with a lot of veining and movement,” Judge indicates. “Instead, they preferred those with more solid efforts, i.e., different tones and textures rather than patterns, that would offer contrast. It was more about bigger moves that work well together.”
Continuing that theme, Judge selected Caesarstone’s Organic White quartz for the countertop surfaces, showcasing it with a waterfall edge on the island.
“We knew we wanted something in a soft white,” she says. “Luckily, with the backsplash being a dark gray, we knew we would have some flexibility within that range.”
The quartz also offered additional benefits of being available as a jumbo slab.
“The island is almost 11′ long,” the designer relates. “We didn’t want any seams so we needed a material that was available in a larger slab size.”
Quartz, in general, is a popular finish selection for many of Judge’s clients who value its durability and low maintenance. Similarly, they also appreciate natural stone, especially quartzite since it offers a subdued look that marble sometimes offers, yet is more durable and suitable for a kitchen application, she indicates.
For either situation, the designer often uses the same material for both the countertop and backsplash, extending the latter full height to the ceiling.
“This is especially beautiful when there is bold veining or texture,” the designer notes. “It has also become popular because it’s a clean, consistent and contemporary look without any grout to clean.”
Porcelain slabs as a backsplash and countertop surface are also gaining interest, especially in patterns that go beyond natural stone.
“Like quartz, porcelain started as an option that resembled marble and other natural stones, but was more durable and less costly,” Judge says. “Those are still great patterns, but what has become so wonderful about porcelain is its textural and varied looks and finishes, for example, patterns that resemble sandstone or metal…something other than a solid white or natural stone look…in honed and semi-polished finishes that maintain durability and stain resistance. As a thin slab, porcelain also offers greater flexibility in design and detailing that a typical 3 cm material may not allow for. It has opened up a whole other look that, so far, hasn’t been quite as available.” ▪