The primary purpose of a backsplash used to be to protect the wall from spaghetti sauce, grease splatters and dishwater. Today, the backsplash is a design feature often so striking it becomes the kitchen's focal point. With so many materials available, the backsplash offers a way to express individuality in an otherwise safely appointed kitchen designed with resale in mind.
A variety of materials can be used for backsplashes: ceramic, glass, natural stone, concrete, metals, mosaics, repurposed bricks and laminates. Custom designs can be laser-etched into various materials such as marble and glass. Even an enlarged photo can be turned into a durable vinyl backsplash.
How might a daring backsplash design affect resale? Tile in particular is tough to tear out, so will a conservative buyer balk if you opt for something that's personally pleasing but a bit out there?
"If you're planning on staying, why not give free rein to your imagination?" said Susan Shepard, senior designer, Shepard & Lewis Interior Design of Jackson Hole in Jackson, Wyo. "If you know you'll be moving, consider expressing yourself with artwork or wallpaper or paint.
"You can easily repaint walls, but backsplashes are a fairly expensive thing to change."
Backsplashes don't take up a huge amount of square footage and can be a great place to express oneself, said Kim Preis, owner of The Fine Line tile showroom in Chicago.
Particularly above the stove and sink, the backsplash can become a veritable canvas. Shepard knows of homeowners who hired fine artists to create an original painting on tile that is specially coated.
If resale value is a concern, choose something more neutral. Note, however, it always pays to invest in richer materials and visual appeal.
"A backsplash is a great place to put money," said certified kitchen designer Cary McLean, Designs for Living, Oak Park, Ill. "It's at eye level."
Nice backsplashes cost anywhere from $5 to $300 a square foot.
"The sky is the limit, but I find a lot of nice things in the $15 to $30 range," McLean said. "There's something for every budget."
Plenty of options
On the high end are stone backsplashes that undergo a water-jet etching process to create different designs. For the budget-conscious, ceramic tiles now come in a staggering array of colors, textures and finishes. And it's possible with ceramic tiles to create a custom look with artful mixing and matching.
"For a finished, clean look that appeals to a lot of people, ceramic tile is your safest bet," McLean said.
Polished glass tile is gaining in popularity, and like ceramic, it's a crowd-pleaser, according to McLean. It is also versatile.
"It comes in all different shapes and sizes," McLean explained. "I've done it in all types of homes, including contemporary and Prairie style."
Just because you're playing it safe does not mean you have to be "square." Instead of standard 4-inch tiles, "People are using rather linear shapes, like elongated bricks," Preis said.
Stacked slate also can be used to create a striated effect. Metals are an interesting departure from tile, but their reflectiveness is not always a plus.
"I'm not crazy about the look of stainless steel unless you're going for an industrial look," Shepard said. "It casts a lot of glare back and can look very cold."
Shepard likes the look of raw or craggy stone and even river rocks. But placement is important.
"I wouldn't use anything too textured near the stove because it will be nightmare to clean," Shepard explained. "But you can use it elsewhere above the countertops."