Some kitchen decisions have long-term consequences. You're not replacing the stove and fridge every year, and the cabinets are staying right where they are until you score an inheritance. Wall tile is one of those decisions to get right the first time. Tile is an easy-care kitchen choice for backsplashes or a whole wall -- one that has an outsize effect on the room's decor.
Play It Subway Safe
Subway tile never goes out of style. The rectangular glazed ceramic tiles that cover New York subway stations look even more fabulous above-ground in your kitchen. Try an entire wall of them behind the sink or the stove, from the counter to the ceiling. Lay them horizontally -- the traditional way -- for classic urban design. Vary tiles with chevron patterns and vertical inserts or borders to put your own stamp on things. All-white tiles in an all-white kitchen is warmly minimalist with a touch of Upper West Side. Choose white or light-gray grout. One-color subways add the metropolitan version of avocado-lime or lagoon-blue to your food prep backsplash. Variegated colored subway tiles -- golds, browns, creams, siennas, honeys and pumpkins -- work with lots of wood and brushed-aluminum surfaces.
Mesa and Cantina
Terra-cotta floor tile grounds a wall treatment that's very Southwest or south-of-the-border with lots of warm tones and rich clay all over the kitchen. Tile lower cabinet facades and a "wainscoting" part way up the walls with smaller versions of the spicy earth-colored clay floor tiles. Bring those tiles over the countertops and up the wall for a shallow backsplash and then switch to pale apricot clay tiles, set on their points and accented with a few of the darker tiles to create diamond shapes on the cabinet-free upper walls, halfway to the ceiling. This is a rustic kitchen with a salsa vibe. It needs a volcanic rock molcajete, a lava-stone mortar and pestle used to prepare guacamole, and a wooden bowl of avocados on the tile counter.
Romancing the Backsplash
Color in the backsplash from counter to upper cabinet and from stovetop to exhaust hood with painted, patterned tile in blue-and-white glazed French country squares, intricate bronze, bone and faded blue Moroccan mosaic tiles, a vivid teal and black Turkish pattern, or joyous paintbox Talavera Mexican or Tuscan botanical designs. Painted tiles add handmade character to an eclectic, rustic or otherwise nondescript kitchen with an overlay of history, an undercurrent of exotic flavors and a promise of adventurous culinary delights. Keep the rest of the kitchen simple -- that doesn't mean bland -- to showcase the theatrical tile. But consider a hot banana yellow paint for walls surrounding Talavera, a dusky dusty pumpkin wall paint to go with a Moroccan mosaic and the exact vanilla-white of the tile color for the walls next to blue-vanilla tiles from Provence.
Metallic-finish wall tile is a kitchen surprise that makes perfect sense for casual wipe-down cleaning with gilt-edged high-end style. Don't be shy about covering a bare upper wall with gleaming white gold leaf subway tiles behind open chrome restaurant-kitchen shelving. A stove panel of tiny hexagonal silver tiles, like a mermaid's scales, shines through the steam from the bouillabaisse pot and flatters the brushed stainless appliances. A horizontal backsplash of miniature pressed-tin ceiling tiles, sealed against moisture, protects and decorates the wall behind the sink and work counter. Metallic glazes give a new dimension to classic tile shapes and add a note of glamour to your otherwise plain-Jane kitchen.