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.
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:
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).
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.
It gives the air of an aged tile, without, as Caroline Mullen, assistant editor at Food52, says, “actually being an old, dated tile.”
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.
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!
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.