Josef Albers—an influential mid-century artist, educator, and author of the color theory tome Interactions of Color—is something of a household name in design savvy spheres. It’s another Albers, though, that’s captured my affection. Josef’s wife Anni Albers reluctantly turned her creative eye to textiles when the Bauhaus school barred her from enrolling in a glass blowing class. Women were meant to weave, Weimer’s (male) leadership believed in 1922. So, weave Anni did, becoming one of the most celebrated textile artists of the 20th century.
Fast forward to earlier this year, when I visited Fajalauza Ceramics on the outskirts of Granada, Spain. Founded in 1640, the tile shop has been family-owned for over 375 years. Browsing the stacks of ceramics on their floor (and mulling over the mess of tomato flecks on the drywall behind my Brooklyn rental apartments’ cooktop), I spotted a stack of navy and white diagonal tiles, haphazardly organized and teetering.
Anni Albers’ iconic éclat weave instantly sprung to mind.
At $0.50 a pop I bought as many as I could carry, and bundled them into newspaper, sweaters, socks for their trans-Atlantic journey in my carry on-bag.
In a traditional backsplash installation, you would secure tile directly to the wall, spacing the tiles evenly and filling the spaces with grout. This is not a traditional backsplash installation! Rather, it’s an attempt to offer renters—or homeowners wary of commitment—a simple, quick and temporary solution to stovetop splatter.
No grouting required, no permanent wall damage… just a few tiny screw holes that can be concealed with a swipe of spackle. Here's how to make it:
Lay the plywood on a flat surface. Place the tiles on the plywood in your desired arrangement, butting them up next to each other. Be sure to begin in a corner to ensure that your backsplash has true 90-degree angles. (See my note above on grout! If you choose to grout, use plastic spacers to achieve the right distance apart.)
Stop your rows when you reach the approximate width of your range. Stop your columns when you reach the approximate height of the space between your countertop and upper cabinets. Because your tile size will determine the overall dimensions of your backsplash, it may not be perfect. That’s okay! The goal here is not perfection, but simplicity. My backsplash is about 2 inches short of my upper cabinets and 3 inches short of my cooktop width; it still looks (and works) great!
For an Anni Albers effect, start by placing each tile in the same orientation. Once you’ve established the overall dimensions, randomly rotate individual tiles until you’re happy with the effect.
This step’s important! You want to remember your layout, particularly if you are using handmade tile, which can vary slightly in dimension. I documented my layout with a pencil, marking the back of each tile with:
I recommend snapping a photo as a backup, especially if you’re following along with the Anni Albers look, or otherwise risk mixing up the tile orientation.
Use your pencil to trace around the edges of your tile on the plywood piece. Remove the tile from the plywood, recreating the grid pattern on the floor next to the plywood—far enough away to be out of danger, but close enough that you can easily reach it once your mastic is ready for tile application. (Mastic has a quick dry time, so you’ll want to have the tile ready to go!)
Use your circular saw to cut the plywood along your pencil border. (If you don’t have access to a circular saw, you may be able to have your plywood cut at a local hardware or home improvement store when you purchase it! If you take this route, swap out the plywood in step for a large sheet of paper to determine your dimensions. Bring this paper with you to the store, to use as a template.)
Using the notched trowel, spread mastic over the surface of the plywood. Make sure the channels are running in many different directions to enhance grip; the more textured the mastic, the stronger the hold! Quickly place your tile in the desired pattern and press into the mastic, giving each tile a small wriggle to settle into the mastic.
If your backsplash is particularly large (ten-burner range, anyone?) and you’re nervous about the mastic drying, you can apply it in stages. Check the back of the container for your window to place the tile.
Lay flat to dry 24 hours, or as directed on the mastic container.
As the mastic dries, you might notice the plywood warping. It’s okay! The wood is responding to the presence of moisture on only one side.
I recommend waiting until the mastic is fully dry before painting the edges of your plywood, but if you’re in a time crunch, you can you can paint the edges while the mastic dries—just be very cautious not to disturb the tiles.
Once your mastic is fully dry and your tiles secure, you’re ready to install the French cleat you’ll use to secure the backsplash to your wall.
Follow the instructions on the French cleat packaging to install, being careful to preserve a parallel line with your countertop. (Pro tip: A paper template can be helpful here to make sure the backsplash is mounted at the appropriate height!) Be sure, too, to use the appropriate wall fasteners for the wall behind your stovetop.
Congrats! You’ve got yourself a renter-friendly, temporary backsplash. And, if you mimicked our pattern, an homage to a brilliant woman in design history.
Have you ever tried your hand at backsplash installation? Let us know in the comments below!
This post was originally published in October 2016.