/ Backsplashes

Mosaic Tiles for Your Kitchen

Personalization is king in today's kitchen, with homeowners wanting not just a beautiful but also a unique space. As a result, many people are trading the uninspired tile backsplash or countertop for one that doubles as a piece of art-the mosaic.

"It's a permanent functional piece of art in a highly functional living space," says Eric May, a partner and designer at Sublime Surfaces, a custom mosaic design company located in Chicago, Ill. "You can't hang a painting in your kitchen because of the mess and traffic. A mosaic is a great way to have a cleanable piece of art."

Cutting-edge design has never been so classical. Though your thoroughly contemporary "piece of art" will match your 21st-century tastes, delight in that fact that you're celebrating one of art's most time-honored traditions. The history of mosaics goes back more than 4,000 years; what started in Greece around 4 B.C. later became a vital component of the artistic histories of the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic peoples. But don't be too quick to label mosaics as stuffy and traditional. Vibrant colors, beautiful materials and limitless design options have brought them back into the spotlight in recent days.

And design options truly are limitless. Sublime Surfaces has created a sunflower-filled backsplash inspired by Van Gogh's depiction of the flower; Persian-rug inspired designs and a four elements glass mosaic frieze that personifies the earth, wind, fire and water gods.

Choosing Custom or Fabricated

Ready to reincorporate a classical style into your modern environment? When you decide to go the mosaic route, know that there are two choices: custom design firms like Sublime Surfaces offer fully personalized mosaics, made to your specifications in terms of size, subject and colors. The mosaics are designed, fabricated and installed by the company, which stays in frequent contact with the homeowner. Those looking for a less time-intensive route can opt for pre-fabricated mosaics, which offer the mosaic look without the same labor and customization, as you'll choose from a range of designs, rather than create your own.

Typically available in 12" by 12" mesh-back sections that fasten multiple tiles together via netting, which make for an easier install; you can also find single tiles that look as if they're composed of many. Companies like Artistic Tile and Ann Sacks offer pre-fabricated mosaics.

Regardless of the route you take, your choice of material is an important one, in terms of both style and maintenance. "Glazed ceramic would be best in many cases," says Eric May of Sublime Surfaces. "It's durable, cleans well and doesn't stain." Ceramic certainly isn't the only option, however.

Mosaic Materials

Ceramic and porcelain come in a vast array of colors. Though ceramic is glazed, porcelain is stained and requires factory pre-sealing or on-site sealing.

Marble and granite work well if sealed. Glass, while beautiful as a backsplash, shouldn't be used on a horizontal surface like countertops, due to its delicate nature.

Looking for something even more unique? Sublime Surfaces (and other custom companies) can create mosaics from experimental materials like river stones, beer bottle glass, dominos, marbles, keys and more.

Consider a less romantic element as well: grout. Epoxy and latex-modified grouts are available in a variety of colors as well; your choice can dramatically enhance or deepen your mosaic. Inquire about the possibility of custom colors as well.

Maintenance is fairly minimal, but a smart preventative move. Sublime Surfaces recommends resealing each year to protect the tile and prevent grout staining.

Installation and Cost

When selecting a custom design firm, use the same approach as you would when selecting a kitchen designer. Be sure to ask to see the company's portfolio, phone references and visit its studio to see samples. Expect to begin with a consultation period, in which you meet with your designer to discuss ideas, materials, artistic concerns and pricing. Your designer will then work on a more realized concept, and present you with a variety of drawings. You'll be able to tweak, and will then select colors according to your decor and preferences.


The majority of tile manufacturers that offer pre-fabricated mosaics do not offer installation. If you don't feel handy enough to take on the mastic and grout yourself, be sure to ask for recommended installers in your area.

Expect a fairly clean installation process, regardless of whether you're going custom or pre-fabbed; fabrication is typically done in the manufacturer's factory or the designer's studio. Depending on the size of your mosaic, installation should only take one to two days.

Expect to pay $5-60 per square foot for materials, and a final cost of $65-$350 per square foot with design, fabrication and installation.



More in this category:« Tile

Explore the Variety of BacksplashTile

Decorative tiles are often used for trim or backsplashes. They may feature raised, recessed or painted designs, and can be made from ceramic, porcelain, quarry, glass and natural stone. Unglazed tiles (which generally have a matte finish) must be sealed; glazed tiles are impervious to water.

The spaces between the tiles are filled in by grout, ideally an epoxy grout to help resist stains. A palette of grout colors looks like a palette of paint colors-there are that many to choose from. One that is similar in color to the tile creates a more unified look. Remember that lighter colors aren't as effective at hiding dirt, and that grout should be sealed to prevent bacteria from setting up camp between your tiles.

Using tile on your backsplash gives a range of stylistic choices-whether you want to create a traditional look with ceramic white tile or go for something more artistic with colorful glass tile. Hand-painted artisanal tile also provides an inspired space, while stone tile creates a natural look.

More in this category:« Backsplash BasicsMosaics »

Should a backsplash match: the kitchen countertop, cabinets, flooring, or something else?

Squart Travertine Backsplash Tile

Anna Marie Fanelli, Showroom Owner: When I design a kitchen backsplash, I like to see a blending of color. The splash should complement the floor, cabinets and countertop. I do not feel the backsplash should be a separate entity to the space. It can be dramatic but it should not be an eyesore.


Lori Kirk-Rolley, Tile Industry Professional: The backsplash needs to complement the other materials in the kitchen. It doesn't necessarily have to match, but colors and style should complement the other design elements in the space. As an example, if a homeowner chooses a granite countertop that has a lot of visual movement (veining, color variation) they may want to design a backsplash that is more subdued, without as much visual activity. But at the end of the day, the homeowner needs to make choices that she or he will like today as well as in the future.


Verdict: Have fun with your backsplash, but be aware of its surroundings.


Do you prefer a uniform backsplash consisting of the same tiles, or do you like to mix and match tile shapes and colors?

Backsplash with Mixed Tile
Courtesy of Oceanside Glasstile and DIY-Do It Yourself Network's Kitchen Renovations series

This photo is a good example of using two different tile colors and sizes within a backsplash to create a stunning look.

David Portales, Spanish Tile Association: Both are options and really depend on the design goals of the homeowner. For a simpler, cleaner look, a uniform tile will serve well. For a more intimate, personable space, create some variation with size, color and orientation of the tile.


Lori Kirk-Rolley, Tile Industry Professional: I like a backsplash that uses the same tiles, but introduces other elements in the backsplash or over the stove cooktop. Examples could include a border of glass [tiles] framed by a metal or glass decorative rail. The stove cooktop represents an opportunity to create a focal point in the kitchen that can pull in various elements.


Verdict: Both varied and uniform backsplashes can work well, as long the design fits with your kitchen's overall style.


White subway tiles: a classic that can never go wrong, or an overused look that leads to dull backsplashes?

White Subway Tile Backsplash
Photo courtesy of Kohler

White subway tile has been a classic element of design for many years, but is it stylish enough to stand alone in a backsplash?

Lisa Elkins, Architect: If you have a very classic looking kitchen it could be a good fit, but if everything else in the kitchen is sort of dull, then it could look very plain and basic.


David Portales, Spanish Tile Association: It still has legs. The appeal of subway tile started the move toward rectangular-format tile several years ago. The classic white subway tile in 3-inch x 6-inch continues to be a favorite in both traditional and contemporary kitchen design.


Verdict: You don't have to worry about white subway tile going out style, but if your kitchen lacks pizazz, white subway tile probably won't change that.


If a backsplash is placed in an area without wall cabinets, should the backsplash go all the way to the ceiling?

Backsplash Tile to the Ceiling
Courtesy of Tile of Spain

Without the barrier of wall cabinets, this backsplash is able to extend all the way to the ceiling.

Anna Marie Fanelli, Showroom Owner:It depends on the kitchen design. I believe it is acceptable to show some wall or go all the way up to the ceiling [with tile], especially if the kitchen is contemporary in design. I have done both.


David Portales, Spanish Tile Association:Considering that tile is one of the most hygienic surfaces, why not take it to the ceiling in one of the rooms that you would most like to keep clean?


Verdict: A backsplash that extends all the way up to the ceiling can create a bold, contemporary look. Of course, extending tile all the way to the ceiling will cost more than stopping your backsplash at a shorter height.


Is it dated to have the backsplash be the counter extending up 4 inches and then have a painted wall?

4-Inch Backsplash
Many backsplashes consist of countertop material that only rises a few inches high.

Anna Marie Fanelli, Showroom Owner: Yes, it is very dated! Why would you want to have a painted backsplash when it is so hard to clean and you can add color, design and texture with tile? With the right tile design, it can make your space so interesting.


David Portales, Spanish Tile Association: Definitely! Tile has gone so far beyond pink and powder blue 4-inch x 4-inch tiles like the kind you used to see in grandma's powder room. There are so many sizes, colors, shapes and finishes available; the possibilities are only as endless as one's creativity.


Verdict: We realize that not everyone can afford to install a brand-new backsplash, but our experts all agreed that if your backsplash design is simply a 4-inch countertop extension, an upgrade would serve your kitchen well.


How do you select grout? Do you like grout with color? Do you try to match it to tile?

Light Tile Grout
Photo Courtesy of Kohler

This backsplash uses a very light grout that doesn't detract from the tiles.

Lisa Elkins, Architect: The epoxy grouts are best when using glass tiles. We generally go with a similar color to the tiles, so you don't get really dark pattern lines in there.


Anna Marie Fanelli, Showroom Owner: I do not like grout lines so I try to match the grout as close to the tile as possible. I use monochromatic grout colors-no wild colors for me. The tile should talk, not the grout lines.


Lori Kirk-Rolley, Tile Industry Professional: I prefer that the beauty of the tile shine through, instead of being visually "broken up" by grout joints. I suggest that the homeowner selects grout that matches with the tile. Especially when using smaller tiles.

Verdict: The experts advise using grout that doesn't distract from the tile. So they generally prefer a grout color that is similar to the backsplash tiles.


What backsplash and kitchen trends from Europe and Spain can people in the States use?

Backsplash to Ceiling
Photo Courtesy of Tiles of Spain

European design doesn't always incorporate wall cabinets, which allows the wall tile to be the focal point in the room.

David Portales, Spanish Tile Association: Cabinets and countertops used to be the main focal point or star of the kitchen. More and more designers are limiting the use of upper cabinets. Instead one entire wall of the kitchen is dedicated to a floor to ceiling cabinet similar to a wall unit. This full height unit easily replaces the lost storage and often houses one or two wall ovens. The remaining three walls have either no upper cabinets or have completely open shelving units. The open wall surface from the countertop to the ceiling becomes a blank canvas and can provide a new major focal point in kitchen design and ceramic tile is at the top of the list of preferred finish material. Therefore, it makes sense to design that space as a wide focal point rather than a supporting design element.


Verdict: If you want a backsplash to be the main attraction in your kitchen, try limiting the amount of wall cabinets in your room.


Why do some European kitchens use tile on the entire wall, not just the backsplash?

Red Kitchen Wall Tile
Photo Courtesy of Tiles of Spain

This modern kitchen eschews wall paint for a mix of cherry red and white wall tiles.

David Portales, Spanish Tile Association: Greatly influenced by this European design, ceramic tile is typically installed on floors and all walls to ceiling height prior to cabinet installation. The reasons are practical: ceramic tile is the most hygienic surface; it is a natural fire retardant; it doesn't absorb odors; is easily cleaned and sanitized and is a permanent aesthetic finish with no introduction of VOC's from glues, paints etc.

Verdict: If you're looking for an alternative to painted kitchen walls, wall tile can provide a European look as well as hygienic surface.