LET THE TILE CLIMB THE WALLS

The Appeal Among designers' rationales for running tiles up a wall, practicality tops the list. In bathrooms and kitchens the technique guards drywall from, respectively, splashing water and errant olive oil. And when chairs are pulled back too exuberantly in dining rooms, the durable material won’t get scuffed. New York City architect Alexandra Barker defaults to tile for heavily trafficked areas, such as this Brooklyn brownstone vestibule(right). The large cement hexagons she chose not only safeguard the floor and lower wall, but their yellow-and-white pattern gives the entry its own vibe.


Why apply blandly safe, low-impact wood wainscoting when you could choose from a vast array of personable tile patterns? A tiled half wall “adds a decorative architectural detail to a space, especially welcome when you are working with a white-box room,” said interior designer Caitlin Murray of Black Lacquer Design in Los Angeles. 


The Tips You might need to commit to a scheme with just a tile or two in hand, so carefully visualize how a pattern will look when it’s repeated. “Some large or busy patterns may be too jarring and dizzying for small spaces,” warned Ms. Murray.


For the bathroom of a client’s home (right), Ms. Murray clad half a wall in small black hexagonal tiles, a low-cost designer favorite. On the floor, she set 5-inch squares of blue and white cement tiles in an elaborate pattern of octagons. If you introduce two tile designs in a space, she said, you want them to duet not duel. “While the pairing of blue and black is a bit surprising,” she said, “both patterns are geometric, so in a classic design sense they play well together.”


Encaustic cement tiles, though the rage of late, are not for everyone. “Cement takes on a worn, aged appearance over time, which some people prefer, but if you like things pristine, porcelain is a better choice,” said Ms. Murray. 


We won’t advise on glossy versus matte finishes. That’s a personal preference, as is grout color, though Ms. Murray cautions that white grout on floors will muddy and need upkeep. The transition where the material ends and wall begins requires judicious thought. Ms. Murray topped her hex-tile wainscoting with a single row of solid black, traditional bullnose subway tile for a punctuating finish, while Ms. Barker tacked simple wood trim painted the same sapphire blue as the wall above, for an edge that disappears.


The Caveats Painting the wall is a lower commitment than any wainscoting, of course. And masonry doesn’t come cheap. Ms. Barker estimates that installation will set you back$10 to $15 a square foot.


But Ms. Murray notes you can curtail the budget when it comes to tile. While Zellige tiles from Clé Tiles in San Rafael, Calif., run almost $33 a square foot, porcelain penny and hexagon designs are affordable and look great on a wall or floor, she said. In solid colors, these shapes start at $4 a square foot. And don’t tile a banquet hall: “Remember, a little tile can really make a statement, so it’s a great option for smaller spaces,” she said. — Alice Welsh Doyle 


A bathroom by Los Angeles Caitlin Murray of Black Lacquer Design illustrates that low-cost 1-inch hex tiles can be handsome. 


PEPPY PORTAL Cement tile brightens a brownstone entry by Brooklyn architect Alexandra Barker.


FRANCIS DZIKOWSKI/ OTTO ( ENTRYWAY); MARY COSTA ( BATHROOM)


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