Kitchen Backsplash – It Can Make or Break a Design

The other day I received a question from the mother of one of my Nashville clients about choosing kitchen backsplash tile, and I thought it might be helpful to share her question and my response with you.

kitchen backsplash tile

The Decorologist

“Hi Kristie,

I’d like to hear your take on kitchen backsplash. Our home is Colonial Williamsburg. We took our 1978 kitchen to the studs a couple months ago. My cabinets are a warm white inset cabinets, soapstone counters, and hardwood floors. It’s an open space with our family room that I am painting Benjamin Moore Richmond Gray. The ceilings have dark beams.

Much to my chagrin, I am holding up the process with the kitchen backsplash. I’ve been to the tile store five times and have brought a number of pieces home to audition. Shiny vs matte, stone, tile—you name it I have had it here. I’ve looked at many pictures. White backsplash is shown a lot. What are your thoughts? Do you prefer matching the cabinets or taking on some color.

I look forward to hearing from you. I know your opinion will help me move forward with confidence. I know it’s personal preference as the tile clerks have said; nevertheless, I need direction on color that makes sense and is put together with style.

Thanks a million.
Libby in Dublin, Ohio”


Kitchen backsplash tile seems to be the place where many decide to “make a statement.” Tile manufacturers come out with new product all the time, so the stores are pushing the newest and hottest. But tile trends come and go pretty quickly, and can be the number one thing that dates a kitchen to a certain year it was popular. Tile installation is too costly and messy to redo as quickly as the trends change.

In most cases the backsplash tile should play a supporting role to entirety of the kitchen, and that it shouldn’t have the starring role. In order for it to enhance your kitchen, backsplash needs to tie in to other elements in regard to color. Sometimes that’s in the countertop, sometimes that’s in the wall color, sometimes that’s in the cabinet or island color. Like she mentioned, white subway tile backsplashes are popular – but this won’t work in the case of a kitchen with creamy cabinets.

Based on the info she provided, the kitchen backsplash needs to tie into either the cabinet or wall color. I’m hoping/assuming her trim is also warm white in this room and not stark white (as that would stand out too much).

Here are some options:

1) Ivory or cream subway tile with dark gray grout to tie into the soapstone countertop:

cream backsplash dark grout
 kitchen from Decor and the Dog

2) Creamy tumbled stone travertine subway tile – just make sure it’s more yellow than pink:

travertine backsplash tile
 The Decorologist


3) Classic beadboard applied to the wall (rather than tile) painted out the same color as the cabinets and/or trim:

beadboard backsplash via


4) Muted green glass subway tiles. Choose a muted, earthy green with some yellow in it to work with Richmond Gray -perhaps a darker version of it. Here are two options I found online as examples:

backsplash tile mashup
 cream glass subway


I think any of these options would work beautifully as the kitchen backsplash with what she described. The worst thing she could do is go with the uber-trendy stuff the tile salesperson is currently pushing in the store, right? Nothing that looks inappropriately modern with her Williamsburg-style kitchen. Can you see how the WRONG choice in kitchen backsplash tile could make or break your whole design?

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17 thoughts on “Kitchen Backsplash – It Can Make or Break a Design

  1. Elizabeth says:

    We built our dream house 20 years ago on 70 acres on a mountainside in PA. We used granite for the countertops and picked out a lovely small vine printed wallpaper for the backsplash. It was easy to clean and did not break the bank. When we sold the house 10 years later, the new owners liked it so much that they kept it, although they changed some other decorating choices to their taste.

  2. Angela says:

    Great recommendations! I too feel a backsplash should be more timeless than trendy. I found this post interesting as I am currently tiling my own backsplash. I wanted a timeless backsplash, but not the same as everyone else and chose a crema marfil polished marble tile in an arabesque pattern (sometimes called lantern or baroque). When a friend saw it, her first comment was “how trendy!” Which gave me pause. Just curious, do you see this as a trendy tile? I can’t change it at this point, but I was wondering if I was a little off in my assessment of the style of the tile 😉

    • Kristie Barnett says:

      That shape is definitely on-trend, no doubt. But because it is one color (not multiple colors), I think it will be a classic. Kinda like a greek key pattern that never goes out of style 🙂

  3. Phyllis E says:

    I can relate to the difficulty of picking out backsplash tile when facing the myriad of choices out there! Although my first instinct was to get a simple subway tile for my backsplash, when I went shopping and saw all the gorgeous mosaics and other fancy tiles out there, I was overwhelmed and felt like I should take advantage of all that beauty and at least find a mosaic tile for a border, if not the whole backsplash. Or maybe intersperse a deco tile throughout! I spent about 3 years bringing home samples and propping them up on my new granite countertops! Nothing really went well with my busy, light-colored granite and cabinets–fortunately! (This was before I started following various design blogs, like yours, and learned more about interior design!) Out of desperation, I started looking at photos of backsplashes on HOUZZ and realized that most of the current, professionally designed kitchens on HOUZZ, all had rather “simple” , but elegant, backsplashes; mainly using subway tiles of various sizes and materials (handmade, glass, stone, etc.) I was surprised to realize that out of the literally hundreds of photos I had looked at, only one or two even had a border of any kind–and none had decos! The only time I saw professionally designed kitchens on HOUZZ with very busy mosaic tile backsplashes was in ultra-modern kitchens where everything else was very, very simple and clean lined.
    However, looking at real-estate listing photos now, as I frequently do, I too often see ordinary kitchens, with traditional style cabinets, “defaced” by an ugly, busy mosaic backsplash! They look horrible in the photos and just scream, “Look at me! My homeowner thought they would try to update their kitchen but they didn’t realize how gaudy I would turn out!” It would be the first thing I’d want to rip- out if I bought that house! And the kitchens with interspersed, contrasting “deco” tiles do look so dated, as well. You are so right about tile trends going in and out so quickly! Kristie, from a home-staging point of view, do you find that these busy backsplashes are a turn-off to most potential buyers? Is anyone ever “turned off” by a simple subway tile backsplash and say, “Gee, I wish the backsplash was more interesting?”

    Last year I worked in the tile section of a big box store, and we sold LOTS of very busy mosaic tiles, along with some nicer, not so busy ones. People would pick up a busy mosaic, with high contrast colors, and a mix of, say, metal, glass and stone, and say, “This is so pretty”. I would say, ” Think of it like a piece of jewelry–it is pretty to look at it in your hand in small amounts, but would you want a whole dress made out of it?”

    Once, a lady came in to our dept. and picked out a very busy glass mosaic tile in greens, oranges, browns and purples, and she showed me a photo of a busy fabric pattern with which she was trying to match the colors for her tile. I asked her if that was her drapery or upholstery material. She said, “No, it’s my realtor’s coat! She told me to get a mosaic tile in those colors to update my kitchen!” So perhaps some well-intentioned, but design-challenged, real-estate agents are contributing to the “busy backsplash” epidemic!

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Kristie Barnett says:

      Wow, Phyllis. That “match it to my Realtor’s coat” is a new one on me!!! This is why you shouldn’t DIY something as expensive and long-lasting as a kitchen design, right? As for your questions about home staging, I have NEVER seen a subway tile backsplash hinder a sale, but I’ve certainly seen a busy, taste-specific backsplash make a buyer mark a home off their list!!!

  4. Paula Van Hoogen says:

    Kristie– your 1st statement, that backsplash should play ( not more than) a supporting role Is so very key here. With all that happens in a kitchen– ESPECIALLY ON THE COUNTERS– there is enough! If some kitchens had musical notes or sounds to express all the elements, the result would be cacaphony ( sp?) ! Or, simply, the noise would make us want to hold our ears. Or our eyes. Clean & simple ALWAYS will be beautiful! Tha’s my 2 cents:-)

  5. Carey says:

    Oh my goodness, the second one (tumbled travertine subway tile) could almost be my kitchen!! My cabinets are that color, and my counter is brown quartz that looks exactly like that. Along with matching 2″x2″ backsplash quartz tile. I’ve hated it for years! I don’t hate that kitchen though! I wanted to see more of the kitchen, but there’s no link to it?? I would like to know if the cabinets are glazed? Mine are pickled ash, and the finish has yellowed over the years to make mine look like the color of the ones in the pic. My husband has mentioned glazing them, but I’ve resisted because I didn’t want to make them worse and hate them more! Besides, I thought glazing was outdated?? Maybe I should rethink? And I really like the subway tile they used. I’ve only seen the pink versions. Hmmm…..I can see a kitchen update coming on that perhaps I can live with. 🙂

    • Kristie Barnett says:

      This is a client’s kitchen who asked for help after she bought this home – it had a horrible dark and busy backsplash previously. Changing that tile was the most cost effective way to improve this kitchen in a hurry. We changed the wall color and the tile – that’s all.

      Yes, the cabinets are glazed, and that is a trend that is already starting to die out, so I wouldn’t recommend you do that on yours. Plus, the result is a bit unpredictable given you have pickled cabinets. There’s no go back once you start!

      Here’s a “before” of the kitchen:

      • Carey says:

        Thank you for the before pic. That is such a huge difference! Great job! You confirmed my worries about glazing. Unfortunately, my dh just can’t stand the thought of painting the cabinets. He worries that they’ll show wear too quickly, and he really dislikes white cabinets. Sigh. This is my forever home. I wanted white cabinets and got talked out of them all those years ago (before design blogs!). We compromised by pickling. Ugh. Bad choice that I’m still living with and will be for a while longer, I guess.

  6. Kathy says:

    If you are really unsure, why not just go with painted drywall and ponder the decision awhile? I think many kitchens go wrong with the backsplash, and paint was standard until fairly recently. That is always easy to change.

  7. Dolores says:

    I second Kathy’s advice..I have soapstone counters and went with just matte BM paint- I find it works perfectly, even behind the stove where I have an old oil painting, and that too seems impervious to anything .Quick wipe and all is clean.
    I just didn’t want to do tiles, soapstone or beadboard.I wanted ultra simple..

  8. Donna says:

    I’m so glad I never tiled my backsplash! I did put in a large granite island but in a dark green with cream cabinets and went with cream Corian for counters. I have not regretted it and doesn’ t look dated after 15 years. I had dark cabinets before that but couldn’t get my spouse to paint them. We went to Parade of Homes and he saw light cabinets and a few months later I had a brand new larger kitchen with cream cabinets!! By the way,I have painted backsplash but I may consider bead board after reading all these posts!!

  9. louise says:

    We moved into our home just a little over a year ago and have been doing some minor updates. Now I am ready to tackle the kitchen…I despise the mosaic glass tile backsplash. It’s just to busy with the granite countertops. Instead of removing the tile and Sheetrock do you think I could glue beadboard to the tile?

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