Tile Trends - A Brief History Of The Kitchen Backsplash

Everywhere I look, I see small rectangular tile used on backsplashes and upper walls in the kitchen. It's getting a little bit worrisome to me. It's worrisome because, having been a kitchen designer since the very late 80s, I have perspective. Perspective helps my clients, and I hope it helps you too.

It started (my professional association with tile) with 4x4 ceramic glazed tiles and pretty fruit and vegetable or flower designs, often seen with corner motifs, sort of that Country Floors look. Definitely gorgeous. Funny, I'm seeing it more and more frequently again and it's still every bit as beautiful. Like Terracotta flooring, it was very popular, then went away. Now it is returning, at least on the periphery, to fashion again.

Then came 4x4 tumbled marble tile or matte, earthy, or light shades with fancy border tile. Tile was laid on the diagonal as a lower border against the countertop with a thin border tile above with square 4x4s above that (not on the diagonal), all over the backsplash on the diagonal with a square border at the countertop level, or maybe just in the cooktop area.

Later, probably near the start of the 2000s or a bit later, we began seeing 3x5 subway tile, which we still see, although not nearly as often as a few years back in terms of the "big trend". A very popular trend, subway tile harkened back to a more simple time, a period look, yet removed from the olde world look of tumbled marble 4x4s from the 90s and early 2000s. Mosaic tile in every possible color and material came on the scene first as an accent, then later on the entire backsplash.

Glass tile, too, in aqua/blue shades, emerged as a very popular option some years back for the modern kitchen, especially in the mosaic form but was/is also seen in subway sizes large and small.

In the past couple of years, maybe a year earlier, we saw a strong trend toward very small rectangular, then longer rectangular subway tile shapes. These shapes are seen in matte finishes, iridescent and/or glass finishes and in typical glazed ceramics, and of course, marble, travertine, etc. It seems that at this moment, everyone LOVES small rectangular tile.

It occurs to me that I should not show full kitchen shots of my clients' kitchens to emphasize my point because in a sense, it certainly could be construed that I am encouraging the point of view that their kitchens be perceived as dated or "in waiting" to become dated. Classic or dated? That seems to be the question. 

The inspiration of this post came to me as Kelly and I recently looked at images of my work going back close to 20 years. When I viewed simple kitchen cabinetry, meaning UNadorned with the old world moldings, etc. of the 90s/early 2000s, which usually included a 4x4 tumbled marble backsplash, the kitchen looks dated due to the tile backsplash, and the cabinetry does not. That holds true for other tile motifs that I mentioned above, seen in other kitchens. Granite countertops? Yes, they played a role to a certain point, but this post is about tile.

These tile images except for the top image, are from Home Depot....probably a pretty good barometer for what is on trend for the unwashed masses. I shop at Home Depot too on a (rare) occasion, or in a pinch but hopefully with a designer's eye, so put me in that category too.

We all think that a tile type or shape is classic and in one sense, it is. When you see that particular shape nearly everywhere you look, especially in a very high end kitchen in a crazy expensive home, it may be amazingly beautiful, both dream worthy and swoon worthy, but it's still a trend. Possibly, it is a huge trend and from my perspective, probably a tile trend that will last 10 years or less (kitchen trends last much longer than fashion, but alas, they then trend downward fast.) Therefore, your kitchen will look dated to most of the world at large as a new shape and material has made its debut to the masses, washed and unwashed.

What is the answer then to deal with trend cycles? Next post, I will share my thoughts on how to think through the backsplash tile issue. I will talk about what is classic, what is trendy, if you should or shouldn't care about all this because "I love my kitchen anyway", and we will figure it out. I have several solutions for you to deal with this issue.

I already knew my responses to much of my work in terms of what is dated and what isn't, but when Kelly sat with me and said, as only a family member or very close friend would say: "that's dated, this is dated, that's dated too, you can't add that/submit that/show that" it told me what a young, design savvy woman thinks and sees right away, NOT being fully immersed in the kitchen world as I am-she is more general interior design focused. She knew immediately from her perspective what "felt" dated as I knew from my different perspective. I thought that was interesting, which was the inspiration for this post. Talk soon....


Posted on March 13, 2012 and filed under Kitchen Styles & Decoration.