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The Art of the Backsplash

Backsplashes have always been a great way for home buyers to express their personal taste in the kitchen and that's especially true today, as costs in every selection category undergo increased scrutiny. Backsplashes are an effective and affordable way to let buyers showcase their personal style in any kitchen - even the most basic kitchen with standard cabinets and laminate countertops.

New Flooring OptionsPhoto Credit: ShowHouse® by Moen®
Even stone can provide an interesting backsplash option.

"To me, a kitchen is a blank canvas," says Eli Mechlovitz, president and CEO of GlassTileStore.com. "The cabinets are the frame and the backsplash is the painting." He says that the typically small total backsplash area - just 20 to 30 square feet in most kitchens - makes it a great place to add some artistic detail. With relatively little material to pay for, buyers can afford to make more-expensive selections, including intricate mosaics and handcrafted accent pieces. "You can even go with an expensive tile like glass or metal, which can be upwards of $100 a square foot, without putting a large ding in the wallet," says Stephanie Bullwinkel, a designer with Imperial Kitchens and Baths in Brookfield, Ill.

To reduce costs even further, designers suggest that builders offer an inexpensive tile for the bulk of the backsplash, then add detail with narrow but intricate borders or randomly placed accent pieces. Of course, there's no rule that says a backsplash has to be tile. In areas away from open flames, adhesive cork board tiles can add a natural, organic look. And inexpensive finishes such as chalkboard or magnetic paint can transform the backsplash into a constantly changing art gallery, says Bullwinkel.

Despite these choices, most customers stick with tile because of its durability and because of the infinite number of options it provides. Recently, Mechlovitz has seen customers shy away from 1" x 1" and 1" x 2" tiles, instead choosing "random sizes, circles and sticks." He's also seeing a lot of fusion - the mixing of elements, such as glass, stone and metal, or the blending of tumbled and polished tiles.

Mechlovitz says that glass tiles are particularly popular for backsplashes because they're so easy to maintain. "You just clean them with Windex. It's like having a window behind your stove."

Lauren Corbyn, owner of Oklahoma City-based Echo Design, has been working a lot lately with 3" x 6" tile for backsplashes, including a recent job that used marble tile. "Marble is a sleek material, but the stone's organic quality adds some softness," she says. "It's not too shiny, but it doesn't suck up all the light in the room, either."

She's also a big fan of white subway tile in part because of its staggered setting, which she prefers to lining up all the grout lines. She particularly likes Walker Zanger's beveled subway tile from its Soho collection. "A simple white subway tile could go in just about any kitchen," she says. "It naturally fits into a traditional kitchen and adds a warm classic feeling to a more modern design."

Corbyn's attraction to white tile for kitchens is part of a larger trend that Mechlovitz has researched. While beige is always in style for backsplashes, he says that black, white and gray have traditionally been popular choices during tough economic times. "People can't seem to handle a lot of color," he says. "A lot of blacks and whites are back in style."