Tile Takes Over
authors Kim Berndtson | March 1, 2019
Tile has been a staple in bathrooms for decades, routinely serving as a highly functional, durable and waterproof covering, particularly in showers and on floors. While that role isn’t necessarily changing or diminishing, tile is trending toward grander purposes as designers use it to make a more elevated statement in today’s master bathrooms.
“Tile has always been a popular choice for bathrooms because of its waterproof nature and cleanability,” says Kristine Tyler, owner/designer, Tree Frog Design in Clinton, WA. “But it also offers an opportunity to add a sense of personal style. You can do fun things with paint, but you can use tile to really personalize a space in ways that you can’t with other materials.”
Jason Vanderhovel, lead designer, Dream Kitchens in Brighton, MI, agrees. “A lot of people are looking for a more unique space and ways to make it their own, so different types of wallcoverings, like tile, are definitely expanding in popularity,” he says. “In fact, we’ve recently started to up tile allowances for master bath projects, nearly doubling what it was five years ago. Part of that is due to normal price increases, but some of it is also due to more tile being used, and more expensive tile being used.”
Tyler and Sandra Diaz-Velasco, R.A., AIA, ASID, LEED BD+C, principal architect, Eolo A&I Design in Miami, FL, like that tile can be used in many different ways. “It can be used as a background to serve as a canvas, or as a focal piece to draw attention,” says Tyler.
Diaz-Velasco, adds, “Tile can function in an accent role, or be used as field tile…or both. Geometric layouts, metal inserts and three-dimensional forms are best suited for an accent wall. However, large, thin slabs of porcelain tile that emulate natural stones or metal textures can form the floors and walls to set a cohesive and dramatic backdrop for the rest of the design.”
Manuel Hernandez, owner/designer, Troo Designs in Austin, TX, notes that tile helps set the tone for a master bath. “It’s the background for everything used within the space,” he says.
Many designers, including Sarah Steinberg and Jenika Kurtz Cuadra, love working with the virtually limitless array of patterns, colors, textures, shapes and sizes.
“There are so many tile options out there right now,” says Steinberg, principal/owner, Steinberg Custom Designs in Cumberland, ME. “And there are a million ways to put all of them together. Tile is such a great creative outlet for everyone right now.”
Cuadra, of J. Kurtz Design in Los Angeles, CA, agrees. “Tile is a great material,” she says. “There are a lot of options and price points, and it can make so many statements. One thing I love about working with tile is putting all the pieces together, including the finish details such as trim pieces and corner boards, and seeing how everything fits. It’s like putting together a puzzle.”
Tile is often considered standard in showers and on floors; Steinberg notes that her clients won’t even consider a remodel unless it has a tiled shower.
“Tiled showers are the number one thing clients ask for,” she says. “Absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, regardless of budget, people want a tiled shower. They have accepted that a shower is part of their morning routine, and they really want it to be easy, beautiful and fun.”
Designers also routinely extend the tile beyond the shower and onto other walls, either completely covering them with a monochromatic palette or creating focal-point or accent walls with tile in a contrasting color or texture.
“Doing an accent wall or nook with a different tile pattern keeps the bathroom from looking too monotonous,” says Tyler. “It brings a spark of life to the room and makes it feel more like a spa.”
Tyler has designed some spaces with enough wall tile to be considered borderline wet rooms, such as one bath where she sheathed all the walls with a neutral gray tile, highlighting them with blue tile behind the vanity. In another master bathroom, white field tile was contrasted with a vibrant turquoise blue Moroccan tile that serves as a focal point and grabs attention behind the vanity. The designer repeated the colorful tile in the shower and water closet.
“When my client hired me, she already had the tile,” she relates. “She loved it, but she wasn’t sure how to use it. As we talked through the project, we focused on the vanity wall, which is what you see when you first walk in. We thought it would be a great place to make a statement. The tile, which runs from the vanity top to the ceiling, certainly grabs your attention. Sometimes, all that is necessary is some tile to set it off. It isn’t always necessary to do the whole wall.”
Cuadra and Vanderhovel also like to use tile on the wall. “There was a time when tile was used on almost whole walls as a wainscot,” says Cuadra. “I feel like that went away for a while, but now tile is back and people are doing full accent walls again.”
“I’ve been doing more floating countertops made completely out of quartz with a shelf below,” adds Vanderhovel. “Then I’ll add tile behind it that runs vertically to each side of a mirror that goes to the ceiling. It adds a lot of texture to the space.”
He also sees more architectural uses for tile, such as shower niches for toiletries and ledges for shaving legs. “I almost always also do a tiled ledge behind a freestanding tub so there is a place to set candles and wine,” he adds.
One of the hottest trends in tile right now is designing with highly patterned encaustic cement tile. Several designers note increased attention being placed on the graphic tile, including Hernandez, who is currently working on three bathrooms that will feature the graphic tile, one of which that extends it from the top of the vanity to the top of the 12′-tall ceiling.
“They offer both a retro and a modern look, as well as a gesture to the Spanish style, with contrasting colors and geometric patterns being used on walls and floors,” says Diaz-Velasco.
Vanderhovel chose to showcase cement tile on the floor of a master bath he recently designed where its blue, gray and white palette helped his clients gain enough confidence to design with color, which can admittedly be difficult, he notes. “Committing to a color is hard for anyone,” he says. “But with a floor like this, my clients could more easily commit to that blue gray hue, which was then repeated in the shiplap on the wall.”
Cement tiles are popular with Cuadra’s clients as well, although she acknowledges she has recently become more hesitant to use them because they have become so trendy. “I have a lot of clients who are interested in using them on floors or as a floor-to-ceiling accent on a vanity wall…really, everywhere,” she says. “People love them because they can get such a dramatic look from just one material.”
As such, the designer used the tiles in a striking color combination of black, white and mustard in one recent project where they cover the floor. “They were a great choice for this home because we hadn’t seen them being used in the region,” she says, noting the home’s northern Wisconsin locale. “The home’s recurring color palette is black and white with touches of mustard, which reflects the various seasons. And we definitely had the seasons in mind because the windows are so large, specifically the one behind the tub. For much of the year, the landscape can be brown and white so to have that pop of yellow really warms up the space, brightening it to add some sunshine on a dark, snowy day.”
Like Cuadra, Steinberg wonders about the longevity of this style. “They are fun for clients who want to be super on-trend,” she says, adding that she has scheduled a visit to a tile showroom with a client who will likely go the graphic route. “They are beautiful accents and they create a wonderful effect that people love. But I’m a little worried about them holding up to the test of time. Will they still be as well liked five years from now? I’m a little concerned. Yes, it’s just the nature of the tile, whereas something like a penny round, which we sometimes use on shower floors, has its roots in a historical look, which is less likely to go out of style.”
Sizes AND shapes
Large-format tiles continue to be the ‘it’ size for many designers, in part because of their minimization of grout lines, which simplifies cleaning and promotes a sleek, modern look that so many clients gravitate toward.
Diaz-Velasco sees slabs as large as 48″x96″, or larger, being placed on walls and floors. So does Cuadra, who adds that full slabs, of white marble in particular, can provide a lot of drama. “It’s beautiful and timeless,” she says.
Tyler’s clients gravitate towards 12″x24″ tiles – which can offer a directional design – or even 24″x24″ tile if the space is large enough.
For Vanderhovel, the go-to size for floor tile is 12″x24″, although small hexagons are trending for those who want to step a bit outside the box. “Just this morning I ordered some hexagons for a client,” he says, adding that mosaics are also becoming more popular for smaller spaces.
Hernandez adds that while most smaller tile has gone out of favor in his area, penny rounds are trending. “I think people want to be a bit more playful,” he says. And classic subway tile, which he often mixes with colorful geometric patterns, has remained popular as well, although the designer notes a modernization of its dimensions to a larger 4″x10″ format.
Vanderhovel has noticed interest in elongated subway tile as well, such as the 3″x12″ tile he used in a shower where he stacked it on thirds to offset the grout lines.
Texture and dimension
Texture can often be a way to add interest to a space, and the increased availability of three-dimensional tile and tile that resembles natural materials – especially wood and natural stone – can offer a unique way to accomplish that goal.
“You almost wouldn’t be able to tell the difference because these tiles are so realistic and elegant,” says Diaz-Velasco, in reference to natural stone lookalikes.
The designer has also seen more interest in tile that emulates metals such as copper, silver and oxidized platinum as well as fiberglass ‘wallpaper,’ the latter of which can be printed with any color or image and installed on any surface, including floors, ceilings or even shower walls. “This type of surface reimagines the role of tile and allows designers to truly explore their creativity,” she says.
In addition, Diaz-Velasco has noticed a growing trend of incorporating metal inserts, either those that are flat or those that offer a three-dimensional effect. “They give a special character to the space, almost like a sculptural feature,” she says, adding that she used gold mosaic in a recent master bath vanity area. “These types of tiles, along with stone hues, geometric figures, retro colors and 3D textured tile, have a playful, retro aesthetic and ultimately contribute to a compelling modern look.”
Tile that resembles stone has generated interest from Steinberg’s clients. Recently the designer created a focal-point wall of texture via porcelain tile that resembles rough-hewn stone in the shower of a bathroom where she complemented it with a pebble floor and juxtaposed them both against smooth, large-format tile on the walls. “It looks and feels like a naturally occurring stone wall in nature, but it’s all manmade,” she explains. “I also have clients who like marble and quartzite. A lot of times I am able to achieve the look and feel of those materials with manmade products as well.”
Steinberg is currently designing a bathroom where wood-look tile will sheath one wall of the shower as well as serve as an accent behind the vanity and around the toilet. “The tile resembles reclaimed barn boards,” she says. “It’s really interesting to mix something like these tiles that look and feel like distressed, hand-scraped wood with sleek, modern 12″x24″ tiles that are super crisp and clean. Texture can be a really fun thing to add to a bath, and I think people are enjoying mixing it into their space.”
Tyler notes an interest in wood-look plank tile as well as tile that resembles concrete. “When the plank tile first came out, I wasn’t a huge fan,” she admits. “But the technology has gotten better and there are now so many options that look just beautiful that I don’t hesitate to use it. I’ve put it in several homes and it’s a great way to create a rustic or wood look with a durable product.”
Like Tyler, Hernandez has seen interest in ‘concrete’ tile, especially in large-format sizes that he’ll use on the floor. “I’ll play with how it’s laid out to create a pattern that makes it stand out,” he says.
Hernandez has noticed increased interest in handmade tile, too. “What I find really cool about these tiles is that they aren’t perfect,” he remarks. “They are very organic, with imperfections that are visible and become part of the design.”
Neutrals + color
A discussion about trends wouldn’t be complete without addressing color. Neutrals are popular with Steinberg’s clients, however, they don’t want their spaces to be too stark, or too modern. “They like the idea of a clean palette, but they want it to feel warm and inviting,” she says. “They want to add a fun feature that keeps the space playful and friendly. Maybe everything is super clean and crisp except one wall of the shower that might feature a bright blue tile. We also see a lot of people mixing modern with organic, for example, a large-format tile mixed with a pebble tile shower floor.”
Vanderhovel’s clients lean toward spaces with a palette of cool tones…whites and grays as well as dark hues, which lend themselves to the sleek, more modern styling his clients prefer. Taupe gray, or greige, is especially popular.
Gray is also having an on-trend moment with Tyler’s clients. “We are experiencing a current love of gray,” she says, admitting that it’s a little surprising given her Pacific Northwest location. “It is a nice neutral but I try to be careful to mix it with other elements to keep it from being too cold.”
Oftentimes, her clients will offset it with blue – in every shade from dark navy to turquoise to baby blue – or green, frequently sea green.
“But there is no wrong color,” she stresses. “Each room should be as unique as the person who resides within it. There is always a way to take a unique color or tile and make it look wonderful in a space.”
Steinberg and Hernandez have also seen preferences towards shades of blues and greens.
“I think the oversaturation of white that we’ve had for the past few years is driving the trend toward color,” says Hernandez.
However, white isn’t necessarily going anywhere. “It never goes out of style,” Tyler maintains.
Cuadra has taken notice on social media and in publications where white subway tile is being used in various patterns, such as chevrons, to provide a different look. In fact, the designer redid her own master bathroom in white subway tile.
Cuadra and Vanderhovel have also seen people mix it up with different colors of grout to contrast the white tile.
“Darker grout on white tile helps make each tile stand out a little more,” he says.
“If you’re using white subway tile with white grout, it looks more uniform,” adds Cuadra. “But if you use gray grout, the pattern will be more noticeable. I recently saw some images of bathrooms in a smaller, bungalow-style house where they used subway tile with colored grout. The theme of the house was black and white and gray, and each bath had a different color…one was teal, one was red. It sounds like it could be garish, but it was a very small grout line and it looked so smart. I thought it was genius.”▪