From Ceramic to Zellige, the Best Kind of Tile for Every Project
Seven materials to know, according to the experts.
Published Jul 18, 2020 12:00 AM
A lot goes into finding the right tiling for your space. Are you going for function or fashion? Are you a once-a-month deep cleaner or do you regularly break out essential oil–infused spray bottles? Matte or shimmer? Mini mosaics or subway slabs? All those decisions could stress anyone into giving up and going with plain paint—but demystifying the different types of tile can help provide some all-important clarity. Enter the experts.
We tapped Deborah Osburn, founder of Clé, and Katie Michael-Battaglia, design director of Nemo Tile + Stone, to shed some light on the seven most popular styles. It’s time to start mapping out that backsplash.
Best for: People who love to mix and match their own custom creations.
The basics: Ceramic is the plain T-shirt of the tile world: It’s the most common material, goes with everything, and comes in a plethora of colors and shapes. “You can really make any design out of it,” offers Michael-Battaglia.
The pros: Porous ceramic is typically glazed, making upkeep a cinch. Simply spritz on whatever household cleaner you have on hand. Plus because it’s so popular, budget-friendly versions are easier to find.
The cons: Keep this type away from water: Because it’s so permeable, extra moisture can seep into the material and wreak havoc on floors or backsplashes.
Best for: Anyone in need of a low-maintenance accent.
The basics: This is a more-durable variety of ceramic, routinely used in both indoor and outdoor spaces. Unlike natural stone, porcelain won’t stain easily and doesn’t require a sealant.
The pros: It’s entirely water-resistant, and therefore works on any surface. There’s a sustainable edge, too. “Many factories are known to turn their porcelain waste back into new products, and the materials used to make this type of tile are generally from nature,” says Michael-Battaglia.
The cons: From a practical standpoint, there aren’t any downsides; though if you’re craving old-world character, this is not the style for you.
Best for: A contemporary-meets-rustic look.
The basics: Characterized by a smooth, matte surface, this material is unsurprisingly strong. Since each tile is usually made one at a time, expect some shade variation—Osburn suggests picking tiles from all the boxes you order to ensure a cohesive look.
The pros: It’s made of concrete, so this type is about as long-lasting as it gets. It also ages particularly well, creating a natural patina that only gets richer over time.
The cons: Cement’s durability is contingent upon one factor: maintenance. “It can stain easily if not properly sealed before and after grouting,” warns Osburn. Avoid using harsh chemicals and stick to neutral-pH cleaners. You also might need to occasionally refinish each square if you want to keep it looking shiny and new.
Best for: People craving a bit of shimmer to dress up a drab area.
The basics: This translucent pick adds shine and sparkle to any space. You’ll commonly see glass material used in mosaic displays, as well as backsplashes.
The pros: Rainbow Fish qualities aside, glass is great for the eco-conscious consumer, as many products in this finish use recycled content. It’s also easy to clear up splatters and stains: Wipe over the tilework with whatever you use to clean your windows.
The cons: “Glass is glass, after all—you can’t drill into it without it breaking or shattering,” points out Michael-Battaglia. That—coupled with the fact that it’s a fairly slippery substance—makes it a bad idea for use on floors.
Best for: Bringing well-traveled, old-school charm to any room.
The basics: “Zellige is the epitome of a handcrafted tile, from a tradition handed down through generations in Morocco,” explains Osburn. The imperfections, such as color variation and slight chipped edges, are part of the appeal: They’re the byproduct of truly unique little terracotta squares.
The pros: The rich hues and glossy finishes of this style are unlike anything else, which may explain its current popularity in the design world. It’s the easiest way to transform any nook, even if all you do is add a strip of backsplash behind your sink.
The cons: This tile is hypersensitive to freeze/thaw areas, and doesn’t respond well to acidic or alkaline cleaning products. Use a soft cloth or a sponge, and gently dab each piece to avoid damage.
Best for: Swathing your shower nook or kitchen wall with a hit of luxury.
The basics: This broad categorization includes everything from slate to marble to onyx, all of which are naturally occurring, millions of years in the making, and generally durable. “Stone is literally taken from the earth—because of this, there’s an inherent beauty in the variations within,” says Michael-Battaglia. “No two pieces will ever be exactly the same.” Be sure to comb through each slab before installing to ditch anything you deem too discolored.
The pros: Style-wise, this option is as timeless as it gets; if it’s opulence you’re after, a little bit of this goes a long way.
The cons: Aside from a steep price point (certain stones, like marble, can certainly hike up the budget), this material is finicky in its upkeep demands. First, be sure you’ve carefully sealed the surface. Then Osburn recommends paying close attention to any spills. “Don’t allow liquids to sit on the surface, as excess can stain, pit, and crack the tile,” she explains.
Best for: Design aficionados in search of a statement-making backdrop.
The basics: This man-made variety is a real melting pot of a material—chips of marble, granite, glass, and even shell can make up its signature flecks. It’s incredibly versatile in use (you can even try it on counters) and quite durable.
The pros: “There’s an almost limitless choice of aggregates and color combinations,” says Michael-Battaglia. Pair your dream combo with a funky grout for a truly bespoke look.
The cons: By all means, mix and match until you come up with your perfect palette—just be aware that it will take longer to get samples made. Once you’re relaxing in your tub, staring at a vibrant speckled statement wall, we bet it’ll be worth the wait.
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