Do’s and Don’ts for Installing Accent Tile

Thinking of installing accent tile in your kitchen or bathroom? Before you begin here are some do’s and don’ts for installing accent tile to help guide you toward best look.

If you’ve been following me for a long time, you’ll already know my take on whether you should install the trendy new accent tile. And I’m clear there are a lot of people who hit my site, see that subway tile is pretty much the only backsplash tile I recommend, and keep clicking because they’re thinking, “This decorator clearly has zero creativity.”

And then there’s the other group, who find my posts about backsplash tile and breathe a sigh of relief when they realize that they don’t have to stress about it any longer.

Keep in mind, I have been in this business for 20 years. And in all that time, it’s rare that I see accent tile where I can truly make these two statements, in the same sentence “Wow that’s beautiful and I wouldn’t get bored of that.”

I too love all (okay many) trendy new tiles that come out every 3-4 years that replace the last obsession.

And therein lies my point.

When you install the trendy, in-the-moment, fabulous tile right now, then when the next trend comes along… Well, you might just fall in love again and then have a pang of regret that you installed the wrong tile.

When you install boring = timeless tile, like the kind I recommend, you have less chance of that happening. You can watch the trends come and go, and just paint and re-decorate if you feel you need something new.

And let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with accent tile.

If you have accent tile and you love it, or you have every intention of ignoring my comments and putting it in your next renovation, in the end, it’s your house and you should do what makes you happy.

This post is for those of you who are on board with the whole “classic and timeless, keep it simple” conversation and still feel a little deflated when I say backsplash tile should be limited to the simple (and yes, some would say boring) world of subway tile.

Do’s and Don’ts for Installing Accent Tile

In other words, you’re going to install accent tile anyway and need some “Maria approved” guidelines, here they are (and I probably should have written this post years ago):

DO choose the accent tile FIRST (and then don’t limit it to a small strip)

This is the biggest and best tip.

But this is about as helpful to the decorating challenged as saying “Choose your fabrics (or art, area rug, pillows) FIRST, BEFORE you choose the paint colour”.

Just like I consider myself to be fashion challenged. Not like I’m terrible at it, but I don’t have the gift of being able to pull anything out of my wardrobe at a moments notice and make it look good. However, this is a talent I can do in YOUR living room, just not in my closet.

For example, one of the best ways to pull together a fabulous, coordinated outfit is to start with a patterned scarf. Then it’s easy to see if you have coordinating tops or bottoms to go with it.

But how many of us do that even? Not many.

Homebunch

It’s obvious this kitchen (above) started with the backsplash tile. But without the coordinating upholstered counter stools and drapery, which probably flow beautifully with the rest of the decorating in this home (not shown), it would not look as fabulous.

Using accent tile well, requires a trained eye who knows how to see the big picture.

Here’s the best test for whether you will successfully be able to pull off a classy and coordinated look with accent tile in your next renovation or new build.

Ready?

I’m serious. This is a serious question, because I already know from years of experience that for most of you the answer will be a resounding NO.

Do you know exactly how your great room will be decorated? In other words, do you have the entire room, already planned out down to the throw pillows on your sofa?

If you don’t, then your kitchen will likely not look like this (below).

Via Hi Sugarplum

Let’s just look at this blogger’s living room as well, shall we? So you can see how beautifully it coordinates with her kitchen:

Sugarplum

It’s hard to make decorating choices like which accent tile to choose in a void. So, if you are planning a new build or renovation and you DON’T have a decorating plan? You’ll need to keep your finishes more neutral (below) so that you can finalize the colours you’ll decorate with later, when the house is finished and you get started.

Decorpad

DO use the same tile in a contrasting pattern to create interest

This is a really pretty kitchen with the built-in hood fan millwork in addition to the fretwork on the cabinet doors. This kitchen (in my opinion) did not really need the detail above the range but if you feel your kitchen needs SOMETHING above the range, do it like this.

BHG

This detail above the range (below) is perfect. The tile border relates to the surrounding moulding details, just beautiful.

Mary McGee

Notice all the other pretty details in THIS magazine worthy kitchen (below) I wrote about a few months ago. It would be serious overkill to now install a rectangle of alternating tile above the range.

If you think your kitchen needs accent tile, it’s most likely because all the other design details that make a kitchen sing, are missing.

Nina Farmer

Another kitchen that does NOT need anything interesting installed above the range. That’s because all the other details make this kitchen interesting enough.

Celerie Kemble

DON’T install a strip of accent tile on your backsplash or your shower.

This bathroom floor (pictured below) had me at hello!! Beautiful.

The rest of the accent tile here was TOTALLY unnecessary and expensive, I might add.

Save the money you would otherwise use to do this kind of completely trendy moment on decorating instead. No one ever has enough lamps and you can skip recessed lighting. Literally, if you consciously take all the money that this would cost and buy strictly lamps with it for your new house, you will be so much more happier, I promise!

And can I just say one more thing about this horizontal tile? I have NEVER loved it, even when it was trending. It ALWAYS looks too busy once it’s up.

And in it’s defense, the sample alone is pretty because it picks up all the colours you’re looking for. That’s why I think it’s so popular.

If you insist on a strip of tile in your shower, DO something like this (below) instead.

Okay, now that we’re here, look again at this photo. What was the design mistake here?

Decorpad

Yes, the black plumbing fixtures. There is no other black in this bathroom so they make no sense at all.

Details, details, details, are the difference between a fabulous bathroom or kitchen and a ‘meh’ one.

DON’T try very hard to make your shower niche a focal point

I have seen so many badly done shower niches in my time that I recommend hiding it if you can or blending it in as seamlessly as possible. After all, the day it will look the best is when it’s photographed. It will be full of your shower products the rest of the time.

This niche with glass shelves is perfect, simple and timeless. No surprise, this was one of my design projects 🙂

Notice that the shower niche lines up with the window sill.

DO use coordinating tile in your shower niche

This coordinating herringbone tile in the niche (below) is also repeated on the floor. Perfection.

A shower niche can turn into a focal point but if the design of the bathroom doesn’t make it easy, don’t do it. Keep it simple instead.

This is a lovely accent tile moment and you can also easily see that a designer was involved in the execution of this shower:

Carla Aston

DO install subway tile in a pattern you like

Simo Design

Here are some ideas, note that 6 and 7 are MODERN and will not look the best in a traditional kitchen.

 

What about size? In a traditional kitchen, 3 x 6″ is still my preference for the most timeless look.

If your kitchen is modern, then a longer, more modern tile is better.

Hope this helps you plan your next bathroom or kitchen renovation, if you need help, you can purchase my Create a Classic Bathroom, Create a Classic Kitchen, renovation package, or my new build package.

Related posts:

A 10 Year Review of Accent Tile; Should You Install the Current Fad Tile?

One More Reason to Skip Accent Tiles Altogether

Why Stone and Accent Tile are NOT as Important as you Think

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  1. I’ve never seen a rectangular tile accent over a stove and liked it, even when it is coordinated. I find them jarring in the overall design.

    • As usual Maria your content is fabulous! I especially love reading your take on tile. But the flashing ads throughout the article were terrible! Is this something new that I can expect to see on your blog from now on?

      • Hi Melinda, I am traumatized by them as well but we had to cancel 10 live events this year so that took a hit on our revenues, I’d like to keep everyone who works for me employed and this is one way to add revenue. I did adjust the ads to show every 3 photos before I posted this but I see that it’s still every photo so I will work on that! Thanks for your feedback! Maria

  2. When I decided to use subway tile in a condo renovation in the late 1990s, it was difficult to find. Its current incarnation has lasted a long time and I’m glad because I love it, but it too is a trend.

  3. Very interesting post, full of great tips! I also think that colorful tile can be classic and timeless if it’s kept simple enough – what is your take on that? We recently installed olive green subway tile on the walls and (neutral, boring) green gray large format tile on the floor of one small bathroom, and I am loving it so far and think it will stand up to the test of time. Olive is a color I’ve always liked and I normally decorate in earthy colors, but I purposely chose the other tile to coordinate and just blend in. I only dared to do this after having read tons of you advice, though, and already having white tile in my main bath and kitchen 🙂 So far I feel fairly confident that I won’t tire of the look, it looks quite classic and not trendy – I think (fingers crossed). It does, of course, limit the decorating choices more than a white bathroom. Anyway, thank you for another lovely post!

  4. Thank you for this post- I could not agree more about each of the items you mentioned, from wild, busy back splashes and crazy busy floors, to over decorated oven hoods. I know for me it is a personal choice. I don’t like that they are usually too busy for my taste, but I know I would get tired of looking at it quickly and I could not afford to replace. Besides kitchens already have so much going on, large basic appliances, countertops, cabinets, usually multiple doorways or windows. It is more fun to add and change up colorful seasonal accents to me. I am drawn to the warm, serene, clean welcoming kitchen and bath; not the one screaming “look at me!”.
    Thanks.

  5. I agree with you on all points.
    We are currently looking to move and it pains me to no end to find exactly what you are warning about and worse. We’ve gutted our current apartment so we are not above doing it in places that need “updating”. But when we come across a house that proclaims it was recently done (with the price to reflect that) and hate it all, it is really frustrating. And don’t get me started on builder houses. Why not just use white tile and be done with it?

    I think people should do whatever makes them happy but they need to understand that their unique (I am being kind) taste might just be a dealbreaker when it comes to selling their home because people will most likely not be willing to pay for their poor taste and gutting a kitchen and bathrooms is expensive and disruptive.

  6. I am not a fan of subway tile for several reasons:
    1. Overused and too much of a statement
    2. Too busy in a large area
    3.. Hard to maintain with all the grout lines

    Being someone who has a thing about clean pristine bathrooms, a tile grout that is not 100% clean is a major turn off. And replacing grout every few years is expensive and a pain in the A.

    As it is, with my 12″ x 12″ white porcelain tiles I squeegee and wipe dry (esp. at grout lines) after every shower and it’s no fun but it sure looks nice.

  7. Maria, so right on! I have been reading and following you for years. I chose to use a timeless classic look in my house we built 2 1/2 years. Using a track home builder made it a little challenging at times, as Benessa touched on. Lots of questionable busy and mixed undertones options to sort through. But following your guidelines helped me tremendously, and thank you Maria! Something they DON’T teach in design school. I love to change things up and know my house allows me to do so over the years. Sadly, my master bathroom Is the only space that I was not able to really create a timeless look in with the 3 tile selections available. What was used on the floor had to also be used for the tub and shower surround. I begged to use the cheaper 6×6 white porcelain tile used in the secondary bathrooms surrounds, but they said no. Paint has helped but I know it will be a future project and I will be using your guidelines as they work.

  8. Do what you need to do to pay the bills, Maria! I’m more than happy to scan over the adds to get to the juice! 😊
    Hope to join a class in person when the world returns to normal. Thank you for all you do (especially after scanning through some more horrid real estate photos this morning).

  9. I love your subway tile shower project with the glass shelves. I also want to compliment the craftsperson who set those tiles, who did a beautiful job. That inner corner was turned perfectly. It makes such a difference and truly indicates the care and quality of the installation.

  10. The ads seem to be an evil necessity these, I don’t mind scanning over them (hey marketing people most of us don’t care about your product and an ad wouldn’t buy your product based on an ad!), but what does bother me is the amount of data mining (information about you) Google, Facebook etc.collect on you and sell to companies to barrage you with ads they think you’ll find relevant.

    Loved the post Maria, especially the information of tile pattern. Something we don’t think of often.

  11. If you are currently planning a design that involves using tile, listen to Maria! You will be so happy that you did. It is so easy to get carried away with the accent tile because it is so pretty. However, there are so many other ways to bring in pops of color and interesting patterns that are not permanent. Always love your posts Maria!

  12. Great post. We are in the process of remodeling our kitchen and I have selected subway tile for my backsplash. My kitchen designer doesn’t agree wit h the choice and keeps telling me that the tile is too small and there will be alot of grout and also that there needs to be something under the range hood to create interest. Your blog keeps me steadfast in my decisions. It is easy to lose your vision during a project. I am struggling with adding black to my all white kitchen.

  13. I can’t even comment; the ads cause the page to reload and everything I’ve written is lost. But I’m going to click on those horrid ads religiously to increase your income!

  14. Not a ‘white-white’ fan, my kitchen redo will have creamy cabinets and ivory counters. I assume in this case Maria would advise a cream/ivory subway tile? My entire house is in soft muted autumn colors.

  15. Maria, GD bless you!!! When I said I was using the same white subway tile for my backsplash that I used in the house I live in until 2005, a snobby pseudo design person said, “You did that 27 years ago and styles change but you haven’t changed”. I said I still loved it and ignored the comment. I have been reaching out to you for paint colors over and over but I am confident about the, what do you call them, hard materials I want. I am so glad I stuck with the vintage white subway tiles I still love. You have also reassured me about my shower niche because it coordinates with the floor in a similar way shown. I did hold my breath for a second when you said, “Don’t make the shower niche stand out”, then I was relieved by your pictures. Your post of the living area which coordinated with the kitchen has made me feel a tad bolder in using the color burgundy (that goes with my rug in the open family area) on the inside of the white bookshelves, and around the windows. My family room area has the same windows and the bookshelf is in the same place. You are amazing as always. You inspire, entertain, and embolden even the faint of heart such as me. Thank you thank you.

  16. Love this post Maria. I’m a total believer in the simplicity of tile – above the range hood or in a shower niche. We’re planning our white traditional kitchen Reno, and had a question on your thoughts on A solid marble backsplash matching the counter slab (could be Carrera or Callacatta) …., instead of using a subway white tile or Subway marble. Granted, it’s more expensive to use slab versus tile backsplash, but there’s a certain simplicity about it too.

  17. If you watch HGTV very often you will see the encaustic tile used everywhere. It is so overdone and no thought of repetition that it drives me crazy. These supposedly are designers who need your class. You are so right that if you use large colorful deco tile you need to choose it first and then work out the supporting actors to make itt cohesive. You have such great wissdom. I’m in total sink with your KISS mantra.

  18. Love this wisdom! I have lived long enough and renovated enough to know it’s value and timeless truth! Q: can a solid slab kitchen backsplash ever work in a non modern home??

  19. Great post Maria!
    I’m an independent designer and I work in Design Sales, selling countertops and tile. Your message of keeping things classic and simple really resonates with me because I care a great deal about sustainability in design. As designers if we are serious about how our work impacts the environment we have to have to be willing to spec material that won’t need to be ripped out in the next five years. When I first began my design career which was just a few years ago I specified those trendy glass tiles (over the range and strips in bathrooms) and now they are already out of style. I became believer in this philosophy for many reasons, but seeing how quickly materials date really solidified this way of thinking. Everyday I have customers who insist on having an accent tiles so at first I suggest skipping it all together or if they really feel they must have it, I offer they do it in the way you recommended above.

    Nearly two years ago my husband and I did a semi-custom new build. At my first design meeting I picked out all sorts of colors and trendy hard surfaces. A short while after my design session with the builder I found your blog. I set up a second design meeting and I followed your advice when it came to tile and countertops and I can’t tell you how thankful I am that I kept it simple. In many ways when we moved in I had a blank slate and when I started decorating I was free to take things wherever I wanted. Like you, I love color, but I’m much happier with adding color in fabrics, window treatments, artwork and accessories.

    I’m just starting my career and there is so much I still don’t know, so I’m so glad that I’ve connected with you through your blog. Whenever I’m searching for answer to a design dilemma, I always search your blog to see if you have written on the topic before. I read your blog every week and I always learn something new. In addition to teaching me about design your work has helped me to define who I want to be as a designer and i just wanted to say thanks for that and everything you do!

  20. In the 1990s, the New York City subway system was being renovated and it all probably was going to the miles and miles of underground tunnels. Which is why I didn’t install it in my own home.

    Maria, thank you for your comment about the ads. As a longtime reader, I also have found it very difficult to read the post, but I do appreciate you trying to keep everyone employed as best you can.

    The initial photo with the bin pulls is jarring because the pulls are not centered on the drawers. Unfortunately, this is one of the things that can go wrong in a kitchen or bath remodel, and somebody ruins brand new cabinet fronts by not measuring twice and drilling only once.

  21. Hi Maria, does white subway tile also work in more rustic, earthy homes? I do have some modern accents in my Arizona home, but overall we have rustic, southwestern vibe. I trust you when you say white subway tile is the way to go, but I’m worried it will clash with the southwestern look.