Why you should care

Because whether it’s art or just plain weird, tile is no longer about the simple subway.

Tiles don’t usually draw comments for their looks. Durable, water-friendly and color neutral, they are like your most comfortable pair of shoes. Their practicality preempts their need to be pretty. But a trend has tiles moving beyond their usual straight-up functionality to serve more as an art piece or fashion statement, beyond color and texture. Sometimes to weirdness.

Like taxidermy and bugs. If perhaps you’re into pinned butterfly art and deer antlers or scarabs, there is a tile to express your fondness. These creepy crawly tiles start at around $25 per square foot. The flora and fauna line at Popham Designs in Marrakech offers everything from animal tracks to palm fronds. Food, too. You can even get thinly sliced produce pressed between glass in tomato, pear, carrot, gourd, citrus or cucumber — starting at $205 per square foot from Ann Sacks. Tiles can be used to tell a story. For example, the bathroom is where you go to look in the mirror, then leave, says Bay Area interior designer Rachel Seldin. But when tiles are used as graphic art, it can make that room a special place.

Why the shift? We stopped relying on the ubiquitous terra cotta tiles and penny whites in 2008, the year of the Great Recession — when people stopped flipping homes and no longer needed to appease the house-staging gods. This allowed our quirk to come out of the closet. “We started focusing on the nest,” says Deborah Osburn, a tile designer who owns “tile atelier” Clé, which opened in Sausalito, California, in 2013. At the same time, the fashion world started catwalking stripes, plaids and other patterns, Osburn says, and because home design typically follows fashion, tiles followed.

Artist tiles may be pretty — or pretty weird — but they’re also loud, dangerous for toddlers and maybe just a bit too personal. Which comes into play if you are selling your home. “The design-y tiles don’t have a great resale value,” says Seldin. Instead she suggests subway tile with black grout as a nice twist on the traditional. Other choices can be so personal — “almost like seeing pictures of the homeowners on the wall,” she says.

Osburn sells artist tiles, like the subversive designs of cultish Glasgow, Scotland-based Timorous Beasties. The Rorschach is a modern take on damask, turning that Middle Ages pattern into a psychological one (it’s a conversation starter). Other head-turners and imitators sold by Clé are watermark paper, steel container and end-grain wood tiles, in the $60- to $100-per-square-foot range. If you’re on a budget and looking to imitate expensive or hard-to-find materials, tile can now mimic rattan (at $5 per square foot), grass and river rocks. And there’s even Home Depot, where some ceramics sell for less than a dollar per square foot.

But if you want to flip off the house-staging gods with style? Consider some cucumber or camouflage.

Photography by Shutterstock.

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