Towards a unified theory of tile. (Many pics)
Okay, grandiose title for a thread. What I am actually trying to figure out is what are some of the "tells" (or markers) of upscale ceramic tile (useful to me as I try to select my backsplash). I have a few thoughts, but hope you can check my ideas and lend your own.
By the way, I am only talking about ceramic field tiles. I am not trying to cover glass or natural stone. I also am excluding trim, decos, and tiles that are meant to look like other substances (wood, natural stone, etc.).
What strikes me (a bit) odd is that the lowliest ceramic tile is the familiar, perfect, glossy, white 4.25"x4.25" tile, like this:
It is so perfect, what could be wrong with it? But perfection is boring… My theory is that a number of steps away from this "perfect" tile in several different dimensions results in a move upscale. (However, I believe too many steps away from this ideal starts to bring you back downmarket.)
The first dimension we will change is color. Colored tiles seem richer than white. Agree?
Another attribute is color uniformity (i.e., shade variation). For some reason, it seems that completely uniform tiles are at the base, and tiles with color variation are more desirable. Although I feel that way, too, this strikes me a bit funny. I imagine it stems from favoring handmade or vintage goods over machine-made or modern goods:
There is actually an ANSI standard for shade variation in ceramic tile, ranging from V0 (Very Uniform Appearance) to V4 (Substantial Variation). I think either V2 (Slight Variation) or V3 (Moderate Variation) looks the most rich.
Another dimension is sheen. This one does not seem as absolute to me, but matte or eggshell glazes seem like a move upmarket, other things being equal:
Closely related to the sheen is a crackled finish.
This does not appeal to me personally, but I think it looks richer than uncrackled.
Also, it seems to me that not just the shininess matters, but also how "wavy" the surface is. I have 1929 subways in my bathroom; they are quite glossy, but somewhat wavy, so reflections are not mirror-like. This also seems like a richer look to me. I think you can see what I mean in this picture of Circuspeanut's lovely tile (mid-construction shot):
This is closely related to uniformity of the tile's shape, i.e., hand-molded vs. machine molded. It seems to me that a little shape non-uniformity makes a tile look richer:
Of course, how much is "too much" is a matter of taste. These next two still seem on the correct side of tasteful to me, but getting near the edge of my comfort zone:
It seems to me that this is the dimension where it is easy to get to the wrong side of the curve, and go downmarket as you get more nonuniform, heading towards rustic and then on to sloppy.
Next, there is size and shape of the tile to be considered. Size is a tough one. I have opined elsewhere that smaller tile sizes look richer to me, as I think about the labor of installing them. However, I also understand that there is beauty and richness in larger tile formats, too.
Shape matters, I believe. It seems to me that many deviations from simple square or rectangular represent a move upmarket. Here is a nice harlequin pattern:
Bee's famous and lovely arabesque:
You can also have multiple shapes in the same installation:
Perhaps the apotheosis of richly shaped tile is an installation with multiple custom shapes, such as this favorite of mine:
Of course, these dimensions interact and compete. A handmade, multiple-shaped, wavy tile with variegated matte colors and crackle finish may be unattractive. (Or, it just may set you back $140/sq. ft. at Ann Sacks! ;-) Obviously, context matters, too. You likely wouldn't want to install handmade tiles in an ultra-modern loft kitchen.
If you have made it this far, I would like to know your thoughts. What makes a tile look richer to you? What do you attribute that to? (I.e., do you agree with me that we may be reacting against machine-made goods?) Where is the best bang for one's buck in choosing "perfectly imperfect" tile?