Kitchen backsplash tile design – a fail

Ok y’all. Its update time (although no reveal, sorry!).

To recap:

When we moved into the kitchen it was OK, considering it was from the 60’s with very few updates (thank god). We planned on refinishing the cabinets (boy was that a mistake, more on that when we’re allowed to show the pics) and I knew we would get these beautiful handles from School House Electric to update them, so everything was pretty simple, clean, and classic midcentury so far. The place that I could go crazy and do something interesting was the backsplash. So the amount of hours I thought about this stupid backsplash was ridiculous.

Here’s a reminder of what it looked like when we moved in:


A pretty great layout, simple cabinetry and just needed updates on appliances, countertop. sink, faucets, lighting, etc.

Designing for yourself (and fast) is actually really difficult when you have a large audience that is going to see it, share it (or not) like it, hate on it, etc, etc. Here is what i’ve been battling:

I want to do something amazing, but also something that is a “good idea” and something that might inspire other good ideas in you – aka I could have just called up some super expensive and beautiful tile company and gotten tons of handmade tile for free (and yes, I was tempted), but what is the ‘idea’ in that? Its like “here’s a tip, folks!- spend 5K on your backsplash tile!”

But at the same time I really wanted it to be amazing and generally anything that is common and relatively inexpensive is just not amazing. And I wanted it to be simple and mid-century because a. we are going to sell the house in probably in a year so as much as I wanted to bring in a weird color palette, its just not good for resale. And b, I don’t want to get sick of looking at this thing because its attached to the family room so its the room that we spend most of our time in.

I even met with ceramic artist Bari Zipperstein because I love her work and thought I could commission tiles from her but again the tip is ‘collaborate with an amazing artist that is going to give you a deal for exposure!!’

And then part of me was like,”just do whatever you want and screw the fact that it may or may not be pinned for the rest of eternity!!!!”

Anyway, to recap, here’s what I wanted: 1. something midcentury-inspired, 2. a good ‘idea’ (in other words do something creative with something common), 3. something relatively inexpensive (EVERYTHING was just adding up so I really had to think about budget), and 4. something that you/I haven’t seen before (but still good for resale).

No pressure. Here’s are some patterns that I LOVE that helped get the inspiration going:

Tiling Inspiration

My first idea was to create an interesting pattern/design with penny tile or small 1″ square tiles (which is super common and cheap). I thought about doing a watercolor effect in tile, something organic and soft, but ultimately there just weren’t enough different soft colors of penny tile to make that look good.

So then I thought maybe its all about a graphic pattern. Stripes seemed a bit uninteresting (although classic), but something diagonal could be cool, I thought. I really wanted to bring in ‘Oregon’ somewhere since Brian and I both have ties to it. So my first idea that I really pursued was doing a mountainscape along the back wall. It would be mainly white, taupes, grays, blues and gold tile forming the shape of the mountains. Maybe there were multiple colors in each mountain or maybe each mountain would be a different tone. A la so:

mountain motif

So we ordered a sheet of each color that we kinda liked and started playing:

Kitchen tiles

Hmm. It was looking bathroom-y and just kinda bad. So what if it was just the outline of the mountain and what if it was more abstract? I thought … So we turned to our blue tape friend and just taped it up.

Kitchen Tiling

I liked that, I did … in the blue tape. So we tried taping up tiles … Sure, you can spend hours on renderings or you can just sample it.

Kitchen Tiling

Meh. I also wanted more of a solid color in the tiles – not where the edges are lighter (I actually don’t mind that normally, but i wanted the line to be more solid and look more like one piece). So I went out tile shopping again. I found a lot more tile options (some awesome, some not) but it still wasn’t there. My camera was FULL of tile photo after tile photo.

tile options

And then I started thinking that triangles (a classic geometric shape) are having a moment right now and I was scared that it would look super “2014”, and while I don’t mind things referencing the era that they are designed in, I didn’t want it to be “Emily’s Super Hipster Kitchen” redo.

Besides, the installation of this could be really difficult to relay properly to our tiler who doesn’t speak perfect english (I mean, it was difficult to explain to Brian) and the idea of doing a rendering for this sounded so daunting and boring and I don’t know how accurate it would be anyway because you have to account for grout lines and just normal irregularities. The tile dude at Classic Tile thought that the installation for that small wall would be around $1500 and thats just the installation. Ugh.

Kitchen Tiling 05

I couldn’t seem to pull the trigger on it. I just didn’t feel confidant about it and it was risking too much money (and the horror of it being hideous) to just go for it. Some people who I trusted agreed that with the right tile it could be awesome. And some other people were against the idea completely. I felt like if I could find the perfect carerra marble tile (or sheets) for the background and the perfect gold and gray tile or strips for the mountain scape that it could look amazing, but time was running out and finding those elements (and making sure their depth and size matched for installation so they really needed to be from the same company) was proving very difficult.

So on the way home from the tile place I got the idea, THEE IDEA, that we ended up doing, one that I felt extremely confidant about immediately. Unfortunately (I know its annoying, i’m sorry) I can’t reveal what it is until it comes out in Domino (september issue, comes out mid-august) but I will say that I’m 98% in love with it and i’ll show you how you can do it and avoid that mistake and make you 100% in love with it.

But again … when the magazine drops in August. So rude, I know.

For now, what do you guys think of the mountain scape plan? Can you see how it could be amazing if done right? Or are you terrified?


  1. Tara

    I would have been terrified. Its just too much money to drop on something that you’re unsure about. Then again i’m not very adventurous with big ticket items – white or b/w marble subway tile would have sufficed for me. Can’t wait to see the finished kitchen in August!

  2. Emily

    Why do you think you’ll sell your house in a year? Moving away or to another house?

    • Steph Connor

      Moving already? I thought you loved this house!

    • Samantha

      Are you MOVING TO PORTLAND????!!!!

      • Emily

        ha! I wish. :) Possibly someday.

    • Ruthanne

      I have to admit this is my question, too! Did you buy this house with resell in mind? Is there something about it you immediately didn’t like? Love, your nosy, curious reader

      • Emily

        HA!!!! I think we’ll be done re-designing in a year or so it and i’ll want a new project …. with a huge yard for Charlie (potentially even in the country). I love this house so much and will be very sad to go (and we talk about moving kinda flippantly, not too seriously) but we probably need better school districts and something more kid-friendly. We always new this wouldn’t be our forever home, despite the fact that I love it.

  3. I cant wait to see what you did. I also completely understand the dilemma of designing for yourself, although not with everyone watching in anticipation…eek the pressure! The penny tile I used in Palm Desert worked for me great, however my ceilings were not anywhere near as high as yours. I love the backsplash ideas but agree if you cannot communicate your ideas with your tile guy it would be a disaster waiting to happen! Anyway I am sure it will look fabulous and look forward to seeing it!!!

  4. Carole Kerch

    That is terrifying. I wish you had done it.

  5. I kind of love it, but I doubt I would have the guts to do it. I haven’t been able to even commit to a totally boring back splash yet… I can’t wait to see THE IDEA!

  6. Ardis

    Nope. While I appreciate your stab at being original and the hours of thought that went into your original plan, a mountain as a backsplash IS terrifying and just too much. I’m sure you could have tied it into the family room and killed it, but that is so much pressure and money in the end if if failed. Glad you nixed it and very excited to see what you came up with!

  7. kelly

    Wow, you blew my mind with some of those ideas. I can’t imagine what you ended up with. BTW – whoever buys your house next year is so lucky. :-)

  8. deb

    I lived through the fifties and sixties, so the mid century modern craze doesn’t seem fresh and new to me, but I can understand your love of the style. I will say that I was attending design school in the sixties and the problem with those mountains, is that while creative, they are too literal. It’s about small repeats, or graphic elements…jagged stripes, maybe…not mountains…but a poster or painting like that would be good. In my humble opinion…;-) i enjoy your blog every morning with my cat and coffee…enjoyable…

  9. Sandy

    When I first read mountainscape tile back splash I was terrified. But when I saw your inspiration photos I could see how it could possibly be awesome, and if anyone could pull it off it would be you. But I totally understand why you couldn’t pull the trigger on it. That’s one of those things that while it could be awesome also could very very easily go wrong. Now just waiting for the reveal of what you actually did do will be unbearable!

  10. Robyn

    Aargh!! I’m trying to pick our kitchen backsplash right now and was so excited to see how yours turned out. All those ideas then you just leave us hanging at the end!!! You’re such a tease!! I suddenly understand how my high school boyfriends felt at the end of every date. Can’t wait for that big reveal in August!!

  11. Caroline R

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate reading posts like this. It’s not that I enjoy watching others fail- but that I learn as much if not more from what doesn’t work as I do all the pretty pictures of what does! Thank you for sharing both your triumphs and, well, all the stuff in between!

  12. Erin

    The mountain TERRIFIES me, but this post is one of my all time faves. I have been trying to choose a navy blue paint for our guest bedroom for 6 months. There are patches all over the wall. This weekend at a party, I mentioned to someone “painting our guestroom” and they said–“you’re already repainting it?” NOPE, I’m just still choosing the color. It’s been that long that ppl can’t believe I’m still talking about it. You make everything looks so effortless, it is refreshing to see that this is a skill–one you hone and practice and work really, really hard at. It just confirms that I need to stop being paralyzed and hire a designer. (Because I have my own career and I’m never going to have the time/skill/tools to become awesome at decorating my home.) I’m in San Diego, new home (I need help with it all!), new baby (2) and I work fulltime–I’m assuming you are swamped (though I’d make a great blank slate before/after); recommendations?

    • Emily

      Sometimes it just takes a while, I know. i will say that i love the hague blue from farrow and ball if you are still deciding. Sadly we are busy with projects up here and I can’t think of a designer down there … argh… good luck!

      • Mar

        Funny, I just painted my guestroom Hague Blue thanks to your recommendation in your recent paint color post. To say that I love it would be an understatement! I’ve painted a wall a very similar blue before but Hague Blue is just in a different league (is it because it’s clay-based?). It’s probably not a color I’d want to use in a space I use daily since it’s a bit intense, but for our guestroom, it is perfect– and I just painted one wall.

    • Hi Erin,

      I’ve worked with Miss Emily for her HGTV show and I now offer online design packages. I have worked with clients from San Diego to New York. Visit my site for examples and shoot me an email if your interested.

  13. I love your blog but one thing that bums me out is that your layout is not optimized for mobile. I think it’s the small font but you might want to talk to your blog designer and see if they could optimize for responsive design. I read your blog on my commute and there is so much zooming in and the photos don’t resize so it makes it a less enjoyable reading experience.

    • Emily

      Oh, that is very good to know. We are redesigning soon so I’ll definitely keep that in mind. So annoying!

      • Carrie

        Pretty please add a link that takes you to the next or previous post! There used to be one on the early design of your page and it was super convenient.

    • Heather-Nicole

      Download the app Pulse and then add Emily’s blog. I always read her posts this way and it works great–no zooming needed!

  14. um, is it crazy that I think this is a pretty genius idea? I dig it. I would love to see how it came out. nothing ventured, nothing gained…

    • Emily

      Thank you! I think it could have been awesome, but yeah … I just couldn’t have pulled the trigger!

  15. Bonnie Cramer

    Emily, I have followed you since your selection as design star. I love your style. Lately, everything seems so indecisive and now to learn that not only can we not see your renovations until Sept, but that you are doing this house for re-sale, I am bummed. I appreciate hearing your design decision process, but it doesn’t seem your heart is in it. I don’t mean to be negative, but my favorite blog is slipping away.

    • Emily

      Hey Bonnie, its actually the opposite. My heart couldn’t be more into it! Sorry you feel that way, but keep on reading. :)

  16. Emily

    Can I just say how much I appreciate that you are doing something attainable for common folk rather than going with something uber expensive? This already gets the ball rolling for me on ways to be creative, even with plain tile.

  17. Sara

    Has anyone ever done a kitchen with wallpaper or a mural as a backsplash with plexi over it? Sounds ridiculous when I type it out like that but could be funky fresh. In a good way? Or it could be bad…I’m leaning towards bad. But someone do it…and tell me about it. I’d never do it. But you should. Not you but someone. :)

    • Sara

      UPDATE: According to Pinterest, it has been done and can be really good! I’m now imagining your the top right image in your first inspiration picture and it would look sooo good! Can’t wait to see what you went with!

  18. Heather-Nicole

    Use the app Pulse and add Emily’s blog. No zooming needed!

    • Emily

      OOH, interesting. Going to download now!

  19. Miki Novak Strom

    Emily – My hubby’s tennis partner makes these. Would have been very cool in your space. If people just use them as accents, they really aren’t that expensive and so worth it!

    Love this post because it’s how we all feel about making those big decisions!

  20. Very interesting! I love reading about your design process. The mountains seem like a cool idea, but I’m glad you went with something else. It could have turned out pretty tacky, and that’s no bueno if you are trying to sell in a year!

  21. Sara

    I think the mountains idea could be cool, but definitely see why you were terrified, especially with it being so pricey. Maybe it would be better in a larger kitchen, though? It almost seems to me like it would need more space to work in an ideal way.

  22. tammyCA

    I don’t know what you decided on but I came across this cool brass tile sheet when I was looking up brass things. It looks Mid-Century Modern/HR to me (with waves not mountains):
    Btw, did you know you can clean brass with ketchup or vinegar and baking soda? I just found that out.

    • Lori

      Whoa. I clicked that link and actually said, “Oh oh oh!” out loud. I love those tiles!

  23. Charity

    Even though I am dying to see what you have done to this house, I’m excited about the possible move. I love mid-century, but I always become inspired by the style of the house that I live in. Mine is a 100 year old farmhouse, I am always thinking what would Emily do? Even though I still have my modern art and some of my mid-century furniture, It’s hard not to go all”country in your face” with it.

    • Emily

      That’s so funny. I would LOVE to do a farmhouse and if we can find one here, I think I’ll jump on it. Bring me back to my Oregon roots!

    • Alicia

      I so appreciate this comment about wanting to work with the house that you have. We also live in a 100 year old farmhouse, and I feel the same way – “country in your face” vs. so modern it looks out of place. It’s really helpful when we get to see projects that don’t begin with a complete mid-century point of view. Emily, I’m loving the “process” posts, your current place, and prospective future farmhouses!

  24. ryan

    I think the mountain back splash is a great concept. I agree with other commenters that it might not work well in tile. But reverse painted glass? That would give you the mural look with the easy clean back splash cleaning.

  25. CS

    Terrified!! LOL But I can’t wait to see what you did instead! I love thos drawer/door handles by the way!

  26. Mirjam Veasey

    Hi Emily
    Ive started to follow your great blog for a while now and I am so excited for you. I will be watching like a hawk for the Domino to come out!I am personally not fazed by the fact you cannot reveal and understand you have to make a living as well.
    I love reading what goes on in your head when making design decisions and can totally relate. I wish you and your family and design associates all the very best and a well deserved rest after all thee hubbub and lots more wonderful creative ideas, collaborations and a fantasic time in your beautiful new home.
    With design love from Canada,

    • Emily

      Ah, thank you Mirjam. Seriously, thanks. xx

  27. Tiff

    Tease us all you like Emily Henderson! It will be such a fun day in August when we get to see EVERYTHING!

  28. Wo. I am both glad and sad that you skipped that mountainscape backsplash thingy. On the one hand it feels like it could have been good in a bad sort of way -sort of like super high waisted jeans. I’d have loved to see if you could have pulled it off. On the other hand, if you’re reselling soon, best not to be totally out there if you’re going to be delivering a finished property to the market.

  29. Cynthia

    Sorry, but the space you have for the backsplash looked way too small to erect mountains in tile. I think your decision to nix it was the right one. I would have bought up every shade of complementary blue in the penny tile and just told the tiler “go for it”. Random mixing of blues would look great from the family room and it would be pretty up close too.

  30. Anne

    I LOVE the mountainscape, but totally understand that it just wasn’t feasible here. Hang on to it- you may use it, yet! Like when I win a contest for you to come down to Dunedin, FL and design my kitchen. Ha! :)
    My husband and I love your style and your home. Thanks for sharing!

  31. It’s so hard for the creative juices to flow under pressure. I saw some of your Instagram sneak peaks and I JUST KNOW I’m going to LOVE what you ended up doing :)

  32. Ha. This post was definitely entertaining–I love that you keep it real!

    The mountain-scape terrified me, but I agree that it MIGHT have been interesting. If it hit the right combination of abstract, geometric, modern, and artistic, it could really sell the room. If it felt too literal (as another commenter brilliantly put it), crafty, or woodsy, it would have killed it…and not in a good way.

    That said, I would have found a way to like it, regardless, because you are lovely and sparkling, and I have no professional design experience, knowledge or training anyway. : )

  33. Eliza

    Stars, dots, flowers, nothing of the sort?! :) can’t wait to find out and love your blog, always!

  34. sg5785

    It’s so nice to read about your thought process and your ideas that do not materialize. I’m also interested in your design/resale balancing. I mean, in this crazy real estate world, we all think about resale values all the time, even if we live a really settled life. There’s so much money tied up in houses, it’s crazy not to think about resale value. But to me that means: if you’re going to do something out of the ordinary, it better be really awesome, otherwise people are just not going to see it. Needless to say, I can’t wait to read the house-selling posts! As far as the tile is concerned, I’d be really scared to do the diagonal tile unless I had really small tiles, may be a quarter the size of what you got. But some of the tile photos – light blues, peacock greens, and a splash of orange/gold – really scream “Emily, I’m your tile cascade, pick me!!” I’d bet an abstract one of a kind backsplash with a tetris-like effect could work!

  35. Julia R

    I thought the back splash was rectangular sections of carrara marble with gold spacer-thingys? Am I reading two different blogs? :) Wonder how the gold turned out– excited to see the magazine!

    • Melbournite

      yah, gold grout! on IG I think.

  36. Jenny

    I really enjoyed this post so don’t feel bad about making us wait for the reveal! Great process post with lots of beautiful inspiration pictures. I love the mountain idea but see how maybe it wouldn’t have come out right, can’t wait to see what you chose:).

  37. Olivia

    Ugh. The suspense is KILLING ME. Can’t wait to see what you did. I was totally on board with the mountain idea. I think it definitely couldve been SAWEET.

  38. Amy Saycich

    I’m into mountains (we have ties to Montana) but am just not feeling the tiled mountain scape… happy you went with what you did (the marble and gold)!

  39. RD

    Is it stained glass??

  40. Cindy

    I’m so looking forward to hearing about your process of putting things together. So many times when I’m working at putting together a space, there is a nagging voice in my head that says, “You know, a pro could just look at this and know how to fix it in a heartbeat.” It’s so encouraging to hear that it is a process for you as well! Very much looking forward to the posts on this topic.

  41. Miriam

    I don’t think you nixed the “mountain” idea after all, I think you used some ingenious mixture of white and grey marble style tile and the golden brass strips in a perpendicular fashion to make triangle shapes to resemble mountains.
    Maybe I’m simply over thinking other designers backsplash dilemmas, instead of getting some sleep…
    Whatever you did, I’m sure it’s spectacular- otherwise you could use my idea for another project ;-)

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