When renovating his Society Hill townhouse, Winston Clement wanted to make a subtle yet unique statement. So in the kitchen, he and his wife, Elizabeth, focused on the backsplash.
"It was really important because it's a statement piece," Clement said. "It's one of the first things you see when you walk into the kitchen and a way for us to express our own unique interests."
The Clements wanted a subway tile, "but we thought it would be a good opportunity to go with a slightly higher-end material, and we liked the natural, slightly imperfect finish of a handmade tile," he said. They chose a gray, glazed ceramic tile.
The panel behind a sink or stove that protects the wall is taking a central role in home decor these days as homeowners like the Clements turn to creative materials such as embossed concrete, stainless steel, metals, slabs, river rocks, stone, glass, marble, and antique mirrors. Costs range from a basic tile as low as $1 a square foot to slabs as high as $75 a square foot — with an additional $20 to $25 a square foot for installation.
Backsplashes got international attention at September's ceramic tile exhibition in Bologna, Italy. They can add an art-like quality to kitchens and bathrooms, especially when accentuated by under-cabinet lighting.
"We're seeing an expansion on graphic pattern backsplashes that are morphing into something you'd see with wallpaper," said Mitchell Parker, a Houzz editor and writer based in Palo Alto, Calif. With the popularity of white kitchen cabinets, backsplashes add personality and color.
Ceramic tiles that look like cement, fabric, or wood are a result of advancing technology. "The printing process is getting a lot easier for these complex patterns to carry over onto tile," Parker said.
Instead of a standard running bond pattern, the Clements opted for a Flemish bond, which alternates square and rectangular tiles "to emulate the Flemish bond brick pattern on the front of our house," Winston said. "It's a subtle architectural motif that we wanted to carry from the outside of the building into the interior."
Choosing something distinctive that wouldn't look dated was also part of the appeal. At $56 a square foot installed, the backsplash filling the space between the counter tops and the upper cabinets on three walls cost about $4,500.
Customary subway tile now comes in larger formats in more modern and appealing shapes and colors, and matte or satin surfaces have replaced gloss.
"Instead of a traditional 3-inch by 6-inch, we might be doing a 6-inch by 9 or 23 inches," said Kenny Grono, president of Buckminster Green in Northern Liberties, the contractor that designed the Clements' renovations. "A handmade tile or crackle glaze gives it more character."
For his own kitchen backsplash in his Northern Liberties home, Grono chose cement tile with a matte surface purely for the look — blue, brown and tan in an interesting pattern.
Slab backsplashes, which extend the stone, quartz or marble used on the counter, also have gained popularity over the last few years.
"It's all about aesthetics, looking for something fresh," Grono said. "You don't really need 18 inches of this durable surface going up the wall, but it looks good."
Margarita Korneyeva, sales and design associate at Colonial Marble and Granite in South Philadelphia, is seeing more metal, antique mirrors, and fiberglass wallpaper backsplashes.
"People use metal to match their appliances, especially behind the stove, for a glossy, reflective surface and a dramatic look," she said.
For do-it-yourselfers, peel-and-stick backsplashes offer a less expensive and less time-consuming option. "No wet saw, grout, mortar, buckets, water, sponges, or trowels," said Jason Williams, Lowe's merchandising manager, based in Mooresville, N.C. "All you need is a pair of good scissors or a utility knife."
First introduced at Lowe's in 2014, more than a dozen peel-and-stick products are now available in metal, stone, linear and mosaic patterns. Sold in four packs for $23.96 and $27.96 ($5.54 to $11.44 a square foot), they are designed to last as long as the more traditional backsplashes applied with mortar, though they're not recommended for inside showers.
When choosing a backsplash, homeowners should first consider the look of the rest of the house. "If you have a traditional house with flowers and warm wood, you can't use a metal backsplash because it's a more contemporary look," Korneyeva said.
She also suggested using epoxy rather than cement grout. It's more durable, stays cleaner, and doesn't absorb water, she said. And be sure to include electrical outlets in your plan so they match the backsplash and fit into the design.
In bathrooms, tile can add a pop of color on an accent wall or on the shower walls and shower and bathroom floors.
"With frameless glass doors, the shower is like a showpiece," said Nick Walker, owner of Cottage Industries, a design and construction company in Wayne. "You're looking directly into the shower, and the tile pattern on the wall becomes pretty substantial."
The niche – the built-in shelf that holds the soap and shampoo – also has become a focal point among a wall of plain tile.
When Zach Gursky and Alison Chew began renovating their 100-year-old Merion Station home two years ago, their bathrooms needed to be reconfigured and updated. Cottage Industries helped them create a spacious master bathroom plus two other bathrooms.
"We have an aesthetic that is contemporary leaning toward minimalist, but we live in a great old house, and we love the character of it," Gursky said.
Taking advantage of the light from large windows in the master bath, they chose light-gray ceramic tile ($6.48 a square foot) for the floor-to-ceiling backsplash that "embraces the brightness but adds some texture. You can see the rough surface."
Visible through glass shower doors, dark gray natural stone tile ($9.95 a square foot) has "a lot of organic swirliness to it from the components of the stone," Gursky said. Stone mosaic tile ($30.39 a square foot) forms the shower floor.
In their son's bathroom, floor-to-ceiling modern geometric earth-toned tiles ($25.04 a square foot) form the backsplash behind the vanity, and white porcelain stone tiles ($6.96 a square foot) are used in the shower walls and floor.
Their overall tile budget was about $20,000.
"I don't like spending more than I have to, but those accent walls are a place you can invest a little extra money and it carries the whole room," Gursky said.