I recently completed my modern country kitchen renovation with a touch of English style charm. I am completely over the moon with the results and obsessed with how it turned out. As anyone who has ever renovated an old house knows, you can look forward too many challenges. First, you will likely deal with structural changes if you reconfigure and open the space, then unforeseeable repairs, long backorder delays due to COVID and surprises I can’t tell you about or they wouldn’t be surprises.
I want to take a moment to visit the backsplash selection process. I was on a mission to recreate a look from the past with an organic, earthy feel with lots of movement and texture to flow with the house. Selecting cabinetry finish and countertops was a breeze, but pulling the whole look together is truly an art. My biggest challenge was complementing the bold countertop, an earthy honed Italian Blue soapstone. I wanted the perfect “imperfect” tile. After many considerations, I decided to go with a handmade tile. The search for the right handmade tile and where to source it was completely worth the effort.
After schlepping around and mocking up numerous tile samples on my way to finding the perfect imperfect tile, I had an oh-la-la! tile moment. The perfect imperfect handmade tile turned out to be something called Zellige (pronounced “zee-LEEJE”). Once I received the tile sample I immediately fell in love, but I could see that most installers would balk at working with this quirky tile. What is zellige? Zellige tiles hail from Morocco, a place steeped in old-world charm and renowned for its trade and craftsmanship.
When most people think of Moroccan tile, they think busy and bold, in intricate shapes that fit together like puzzle pieces. These glazed terracotta tiles are not patterned in that sense. They offer subtle, sophisticated variations in colors that make them a wonderful choice for almost any style home in this country. But that doesn’t mean you cannot create an intricate mosaic pattern by using colors, shapes and various laying techniques. These tiles are created by hand from unique, non-refined clays at a local factory in the Fez region. Their ancient glazing and firing process can cause some crazing, edge chipping, cracks and color variations. Far from being undesirable, these gave me the very imperfections I needed to create an old-world feel in my kitchen.
Given all these variables, you really need an experienced tile installer, and one who has dealt with handmade materials. I was lucky to have found a local master craftsman. The installation was tedious because every tile was different. I selected a four-inch square size in natural white color and ordered 15 percent overage. With loads of shade variations, the standard white glaze can read whites, greys, warmer and cooler tones on the color spectrum. Since no two tiles are alike, I recommend mixing tiles from a few boxes to get a cohesive look. We stacked the tiles and mitered open-wall ends to create a nice edge for a border.
Selecting the right grout is also key with this tile, as any colored grout can potentially cause discoloration of the tiles’ surface. We selected alabaster grout for a finished look. It blends well with the tile and it helps to smooth excessive imperfections. We also sealed the tile behind the stove wall to protect it.
My tile was sourced from Riad Tile, based in Texas. They offer an installation guideline with all the specifications and feature an extraordinary collection of authentic Zellige. Being an imported handcrafted artisan tile, they are a bit on the pricy side. I say these beauties are totally worth the splurge, especially for backsplashes which typically require minimal square footage.
The finished backsplash is lustrous with lots of movement and organic texture and a nice natural white color that marries well with the countertops.