The Insider: A Case for Colorful Tile by Sophie Donelson

There’s a reason you’re seeing more colorful tile out there. It’s livable, joyful, and not as hard as you think.   

You’ve got to admit, the very concept of “decorating with color” is a bit of a misnomer. As we know: grey is a color. So is white. If you’ve ever waded through a few dozen slabs of “white marble” you get it — and let’s not even get into the tyranny of choosing a new white paint. So let’s lay to rest the idea that going neutral is the common sense answer to shopping tile or stone. 

Elements, MADE by Ann Sacks 3"x6", 2"x4"; Fancy Liner and Flat Liner in Vert
Design by Sara Crooks Design; Photography: Stephen Karlisch

The long-term commitment to a specific color or pattern seems to add weight to the decisions design consumers face, often nudging us in direction of “safe” picks. But design professionals would argue it’s all in the execution. A tile choice never lives in a vacuum, but in a room with dozens of other factors. Even greige is a color, so, as long as you’re in the game of picking colors, shouldn’t you make it a good one?!

Elements, MADE by Ann Sacks 4"x4" Field in Barbara Barry Blossom Gloss;
Design: Max Humphrey; Photography: Christopher Dibble

Lately a spate of designers have been making arguable cases for strong color — and yes, even in stone and tile. Maybe it’s the air. Toronto designer Meredith Heron cites the post-war movement toward color exuberance (paging pink-and-black bathrooms!) as something we might echo. “In the midcentury, people went crazy with color — they were happy and prosperous, maybe we’re seeing a hint of that now.” Fellow designer Mark Eckstrom of Maison MxM in Omaha Omaha agrees. “Our clients often dress in black, white, and grey, but they want to come home to something exuberant and alive,” he says. “After this past year, they want to swing open the doors to Oz and see it all in Technicolor!”

Read on for fresh ways to think about tile and color. 

Looking Really “Done”

Anyone who has toured ancient structures can attest to the staying power of tile and stone. Hard surfaces deliver a finished-ness and a longevity that can’t be argued with. In a modern-day residential home, the one-two punch of color and tile is unequivocal — it’s a win. 

Context 1.75" x 11" Rectangle Field in Gloss Jasper;
Design by Raychel Wade; Photography by Raquel Langworthy​

Meredith Heron in Toronto is an Italy connoisseur and bold-color enthusiast who relies heavily on tile to execute her vision in houses that seems to goon and on. “There are sometimes eight bathrooms to design. So, even with a generous budget, we make choices — not every single one needs to be a Liberace moment!” she says. She cautions, though, that none of them should feel like an afterthought either.

 “So, ceramic tile does a really important job in a big house— it lets me complete a minor bathroom affordably, with impact,” she explains. Her techniques: Picking a suite of tone-on-tone tile, adding an interesting pattern in a shower floor, or installing tiles in the same hue, different finishes. “And we almost always go all the way up to the ceiling.” she says, because it feels thoughtful. “Ceramic is having a comeback because it’s available in more artisanal styles —fluted, beveled and in lots of different textures or painted finishes.”

MADE Modern Ribbed Moon Field in New Lagoon; Designer: Bidgood + Co, Photographer: Janis Nicolay

The Elegant Problem Solver

A site visit to a carriage house in the historic Brush Park neighborhood of Detroit presented designer Anahi Hollis with a particular design challenge. In the bathroom, the client expressed wanting to feature the existing brick wall, and Anahi pinpointed a lively terrazzo with colors she found coordinated perfectly. The floors needed to tie it together.

“I kept thinking about something Kelly Wearstler once said about not wanting a catfight in a design— the idea that you don’t want too many materials vying for attention,” says Hollis. 

The designer had all these elements in her head and when she visited her Ann Sacks showroom and was dumbstruck to see a new display at the time: Coloré porcelain field tiles. She immediately seized on a solution. “They’re all different shapes, sizes and colors and so I was able to perfectly put together a bolder, large-scale mosaic pattern on the floor that coordinated perfectly with the existing materials.” She pulled a large-format textured grey ceramic tile for swaths of the walls, a quiet moment. “You always need supporting members to ensure your showstopper materials can perform,” she says.

Color? What Color?

Sometimes even talking color is reductive. Few people would enter an empty house with pine floors and mention all the yellow, but it’s there. How we interpret color is highly subjective. Accepting that we read color based on its surroundings is the first step to color-wheel freedom.  

Tiempo Field Tiles in Yaffo 3; Design: Maison Inc; Photography: David Papazian

The gentlemen behind Maison MXM in Omaha, a young firm with wildly inventive, luxurious work, recently visited a site in their home city that seems to call for one thing: a nice dose of terra cotta. “I told the client, if it’s consistent throughout, it’s just a neutral,” says Mark Eckstrom, elaborating on an idea he heard Katie Ridder champion: that when a space is fully saturated, the color simply reads as a neutral. Ecktrom is currently pitching the client the idea of terra cotta floors (and potentially wainscoting), with spaces delineated with pattern. One room could have a terra cotta chevron, in another, the tile could be woven with wood planks. Call it continuity with a kick.

He’s also not opposed to more audacious color and pattern plays — and he’s confident the MxM schemes make them highly livable. “Think about a vintage rug underfoot — we never talk about that as too much color or pattern!”

New Heights With A Texture + Color Pairing

Creating a mood is a specialty of designer Fernando Rodriguez whose San Juan, Puerto Rico firm, Stewart Rodriguez, has ambitious residential projects, including on the top floors of some of the island’s most luxurious apartment towers, which are often replete with resort-like amenities. 

He’s currently finishing the façade of a rooftop bar/lounge area. The bar has a natural stone surface and fluted Terrazzo Renata on the façade. ”All these new 3D tiles truly adds another dimension to how I use color,” he says, “here, it was the perfect choice to elevate this outdoor bar.” 

Idris by Aït Manos Guercif Mosaic in custom color; Design: Tracy Hardenburg ; Photography: Pär Bengtsson

He recently tapped a shimmering zellige for an outdoor shower, “and when I’ve used the same tile indoors, the effect of light and the glaze color is totally different.”

In the toned-down en-suite bathroom of gentleman-client’s office, Rodriguez turned to a spirited mix of textures, but a low-key palette of greys in keeping with his workspace. “I don’t love a bathroom that’s a total surprise,” he says, “I wanted the experience here to be soothing, so, as you turn the corner, the aha moment is the texture and it makes for a much more relaxed feel.”

MADE by Ann Sacks Modern Peak and Valley 8”x8” in New Lagoon;
Design: Workshop/APD; Photography: Donna Dotan

Considerations — Take it From a Pro

Here’s the not-so-slight advantage that design professionals have over most design enthusiasts: The ability to envision the big picture. 

“Consider the holistic material palette,” advises Andrew Kotchen of Workshop/APD in New York City. “When we’re looking at bold tile options, we’re also looking at the millwork, fittings, light fixtures, plumbing fixtures, even glass…. how will each contrast or complement the other?” His team gathers samples for each element and looks at them together to ensure they’re happy with the mix. “We also spend a lot of time thinking about the transition from room to room—will a pop of bright blue bathroom tile viewed from the bedroom be jarring or will it enhance the space?” 

The Upshot

Let go of old tropes and embrace what people from Portugal to Persia to Puebla have enjoyed for centuries: joyful, colorful tile brightening your experience of home. 

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