Editors' Picks

The New Tile Trend We Just Can't Get Enough Of

Move over, subway tile.

February  5, 2020
Photo by Cle Tile

For the last three months, I have spent every single weekend trawling through thousands of images of wall tiles on Pinterest and Instagram. To be fair, it’s research: My husband and I are buying an apartment, and although any renovations will have to wait until we win the lottery, we’re allowing ourselves one small—but high-impact—change: the kitchen backsplash.

A backsplash is technically a practical feature, but especially in an open-plan kitchen, it becomes such a focal point that it can totally transform your space. Choosing the right tile for the job can be tricky, because you want one that feels special but not so trendy that it feels dated in two years.

In my hunt for this transformative change agent, Instagram—ever quick on the uptake—has thrown every kind of option at my feed: ceramic tiles, mosaic, porcelain, and yes, the much-loved subway tile in every color and size. But there’s been another kind of tile, on floors and walls, that keeps catching my eye: A rough hewn, irregular handmade tile called zellige.

I first saw zellige tiles pop up mid-last year, favored by Emily Henderson and Sarah Sherman who used it to update their bathrooms, and Joanna Gaines who did this very cool thing with hers, but while I instantly loved them, I could never have predicted the speed with which they went from cool alternative to major trend.

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Top Comment:
“The whole photo gives me pause, not just because it's shot from a bit below so that it's easy to see the unfinished bottom of the cabinets, but the holes that are perfect for critters, the seeming unsealed edge between the backsplash and counter, the slanting floor leaving a big gap under the corner cabinet just asking to suck up spills... The more you live with kitchens and deal with issues, the more these things scream out. If I could give any new homeowner one tip, it's to go practical first and consider what they want to spend time cleaning, and whether the problems are worth it. Picking based on look is great until you discover you need to get on your hands and knees and scrub the textured floor tile clean, or struggle with wide-grout tile placement, or water spots and stains on countertops and backsplash...”
— M
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The art of making zellige (also known as zilij) goes back much, much further than this. It is a centuries-old, and very laborious Moroccan artistic tradition, in which a natural clay is mixed with water, hand-shaped, dried, and fired in kilns stoked with olive pits—all done by master craftsmen. Enamel glazing is then applied to the fronts of the tiles by hand—although you can also buy them unglazed, which gives them a lovely weathered quality.

California-based Cle Tile has been championing zellige for over six years, and founder and artist Deborah Osborn—who first came across it 25 years ago—says the sudden popularity of the tile points to our yearning for things that look timeworn and are touched by humans. “It’s the antithesis of our digital screens,” she adds.

For every bit of charm it exudes, though, there are concerns about choosing a zellige tile: like whether its unevenness makes it more susceptible to collecting dust and grime. (Cle's response is that it's pretty easy to clean, but that you should only use a mild soap or neutral pH cleaner for the job.) Others wonder about it being yet another passing trend, but if the last year is any indication, it’s going nowhere.

Here are 5 reasons why I love the zellige:

  1. It embraces the magic of wabi-sabi. No two tiles are exactly alike and that slightly imperfect goodness really appeals to me (although I can just as easily see a perfectionist thinking otherwise).
  2. Designer Dee Murphy loves it for the texture it adds to a space because of the variegation in color and surface consistency—I have to agree. "You can grout it for a cleaner, more classic look, or leave it ungrouted for an aesthetic that feels more antiquated," she advises.
  3. It gives the air of an aged tile, without, as Caroline Mullen, assistant editor at Food52, says, “actually being an old, dated tile.”
  4. Because of the enamel glazing, the colors are almost jewel-like. Add to that the subtle differences in color, and you have a beautiful tonal spectrum.
  5. They're fun—perfect, for instance, even for just an accent wall in a half-bath. A friend of mine says the tiles remind her of a wall of sticky notes. They kinda do. In the best way.

Zellige backsplash: yay or nay? Tell us in the comments below!

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Arati Menon

Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor. Formerly at GQ and Architectural Digest, she's now based in Brooklyn.

9 Comments

Caroline M. February 10, 2020
OBSESSED with this trend. Would buy a gentle scrub brush specifically to clean it because it looks that good.
 
M February 5, 2020
Sounds much more practical for outdoor and general spaces that aren't dealing with daily humidity/smoke/grime from showers and cooking. Not to mention suggesting that people not grout it.

I'd like to see what the top picture looks like after 6 months of cooking.
 
AntoniaJames February 6, 2020
Me, too. I cannot imagine keeping that clean. When I first saw the photo, it looked like the work of a sloppy, inexperienced, tile setter. No thanks. ;o)

P.S. For the record, if it's a "trend," I probably don't want it anyway, as I really don't want people walking into my house in five years thinking to themselves, "Oh, how 2020" - not to mention, for the reasons noted in other comments, it seems highly unlikely that this trend is one that will last. If I were splurging on a beautiful backsplash as my one upgrade in a new apartment, this would definitely not be it. Without seeing the rest of the kitchen, it's hard to know the right alternative. I'd go to a fabulous high-end tile shop and select whatever tile really spoke to me. There are so many interesting, drop-dead beautiful artisan tiles out there . . .
 
M February 6, 2020
The whole photo gives me pause, not just because it's shot from a bit below so that it's easy to see the unfinished bottom of the cabinets, but the holes that are perfect for critters, the seeming unsealed edge between the backsplash and counter, the slanting floor leaving a big gap under the corner cabinet just asking to suck up spills... The more you live with kitchens and deal with issues, the more these things scream out.

If I could give any new homeowner one tip, it's to go practical first and consider what they want to spend time cleaning, and whether the problems are worth it. Picking based on look is great until you discover you need to get on your hands and knees and scrub the textured floor tile clean, or struggle with wide-grout tile placement, or water spots and stains on countertops and backsplash...
 
Kim February 5, 2020
I'm a Remodel Contractor with a small Design/Build business on the Oregon Coast. We have 2nd homes and beach home clients that are into the latest. I haven't seen this one just yet, still doing Black and Grey interiors....not my preference. I think the look is good, but knowing the remodel business....this will get old because of cleaning issues and will all be torn out in 10 years for next big thing. I also manage vacation rentals and the cleaning issue with these will be major especially in bathrooms and kitchen backsplash....nightmare! Cool for an access wall - not really functional though.
 
Ayn February 5, 2020
Love the look. Some concern about cleaning in the kitchen. Would it need to be sealed in some way so that you could clean it properly?
 
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Arati M. February 5, 2020
Hi Ayn! So, the unglazed version definitely needs sealing, and they recommend tight-set grout joints. They really are beautiful!
 
Gordon February 5, 2020
You asked, but no. It looks unfinished even when it is finished. To much irregularity and color variation. Another question came up when they said to use a mild soap and a neutral cleaner. Does that imply that it will stain and discolor if not cleaned correctly and you may never get it clean? And you want to put it in the kitchen. Can I get grease off of it, how do I get stains off of it? Like tomato? I recently had a friend use white marble in their kitchen. They were warned. They now have patterned stainless steel.
 
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Arati M. February 5, 2020
I hear you about having a low-maintenance kitchen. My sister, much like your friend, was warned about the all-white marble—last I heard, she's banned turmeric from the house! I do think there are ways to clean the zellige, though—there's a long history of it being used in palaces, mosques—even outdoors and in wet areas like fountains. I know that sealing is definitely recommended for the unglazed version (because it is porous). But yes, it may not be for everyone.