An Interior Designer Trick for Adding Architectural Pizazz To A Dull Room
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An Interior Designer Trick for Adding Architectural Pizazz To A Dull Room

Why settle for safe, predictable wood wainscoting when you can tile a half-wall and choose from a candy-store variety of hard-wearing patterns?

By Alice Welsh Doyle
Fri, Apr 8, 2022Grey Clock 3 min

WOOD WAINSCOTING, whether painted or not, inarguably adds architectural interest to a wall, but—unlike tile—rarely does it jolt a room with energy. “Tile wainscoting adds character to a space that’s a bit unexpected, and it’s stood the design test of time,” said Los Angeles designer Caitlin Murray of Black Lacquer Design, noting that the technique has been used for centuries in regions such as Portugal and Mexico. Not all tiles are created equal, however, so we’ve put together this guide.

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. 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 wainscotting 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 Ms. Murray.

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, Ms. Murray clad half a wall in small black hexagonal tiles, a low-cost designer favourite. 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 colour, 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 $13 to $20 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 $44 a square foot, porcelain penny and hexagon designs are affordable and look great on a wall or floor, she said. In solid colours, these shapes start at $45a 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.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: April 7, 2022.

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