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A Heated Internal Debate – Are There Some Tiles That Are More “Bathroom” Than “Kitchen” And Are There Rules?

A few years ago as I was designing the mountain and portland house I was knee-deep in tile samples. As I was looking at some Julie said, that one feels like it doesn’t belong in the kitchen, it’s more ‘bathroom’. At that point, I wouldn’t say I was a seasoned designer, but certainly had some experience and this has never occurred to me. Ever. I kinda thought that any tile could go anywhere (as long as it works functionally and practically, of course). This notion that ‘this belongs in a bathroom, not kitchen’ blew my mind. So as I continued to design, I did in fact see what she was talking about and I had also mentally (subconsciously) categorized some tile. Here we go.

Can Penny Tile Go In A Kitchen?

design by amber interiors | photo by tessa neustadt

This feels like an ‘only floor’ tile to me and more specifically, in a bathroom, not a kitchen. But why??? One reason is that it’s highly grouted (and therefore harder to slip on when stepping out of the shower) and marinara spills in the kitchen would be hard to clean out of all those grout lines. But then as I was researching for this post I saw it in kitchens and it looked cool. Would I still do it? I’m scared, but it clearly looks good.

design by joan schindler | photo by lucas allen | via house beautiful
design by splinter society | photo by sharyn cairns | via est living

Why Is Subway/Square Or Brick Tile Or Brick-Shaped Tile Almost Always The Kitchen Backsplash?

photo by tessa neustadt | from: emily’s kitchen and dining room reveal

For whatever reason, brick tile is my strong go-to for kitchens in a multitude of finishes and configurations of course, but any other shape always surprises me. Here’s my theory – there are a lot of ‘starts and stops’ in a kitchen – shelving, cabinetry, outlets, window frames, etc, and having the tile be linear allows for less awkward cuts of the tile shape. If it’s square/rectangle it’s a cleaner break – does that make sense? But then I look at these examples below and I’m like, yah, those look awesome.

photo by zeke ruelas | from: the casa soria kitchen reveal (+ 5 things i would have done differently if it were my kitchen)
design by dee murphy | photo by sara ligorria-tramp

Both of those examples (by friends of mine and rooms I love) had to then order a bull-nose (the thin top row of tiles that caps it off) which complicates the cutting, install and ordering process for sure. But it looks awesome.

design by kate arends of wit & delight | photo by 2nd truth photography

Albie asked me to look at her kitchen design board (coming soon!) where she has a large scale hex tile as her backsplash and my only comment was ‘I just feel like a ‘hex’ is more ‘bathroom’, but I don’t know why (thus the idea to write about it). See the kitchen above!!! I typically don’t like ‘rules’ unless they are for function. Rules limit creativity (it’s what my whole next book is about – knowing the function so you can have more fun).

Is ‘Scallop’ Tile More ‘Bathroom’ Than ‘Kitchen’?

photo by jess isaac | from: master bathroom reveal

I’ve used scallop twice, both in bathrooms and really liked it – but my gut would be it feels more ‘bathroom’ than ‘kitchen’ because, well, scallops are on ‘fish’ and fish swim in water and bathtubs are full of water. It’s a logical conclusion.

photo by tessa neustadt | from: modern old-world master bathroom

And yet!!! look at this floor below in this KITCHEN.

design and photo by bri ussery | via domino

Other Designers Weigh-In

So I texted a bunch of my designer friends and former team members and asked them what THEY think.

From Justina Blakeney: I’m a real ‘no rules’ person, so I think all different kinds of tiles can work for different things. It’s all circumstantial.

From Cleo from Project M Plus: Hi! Definitely do not use penny tile on a backsplash! I’m not a fan of dark grout and white tile in the bathroom, for some reason – the dark grout hides the dirt yes, but feels more for the kitchen. I also never spec. Running Bond for bath, I prefer something custom or very simple stacked.

From Orlando: Like I actually can see penny tile working as a backsplash but I also think there are probs some tiles that seem more “kitchen” than others… (he was driving so that’s all he could give)

From Albie: In theory, I can see how certain tiles can give off a vibe that says “kitchen” or “bathroom” — something I’ve been guilty of subscribing to myself — I think the overall look of the tile is contingent on the other elements in the design. How they play off of one another can alter how we assess how & where to use a tile in a way that’s unexpected but absolutely gorgeous. I could absolutely make a case for penny tiles in a kitchen application. Depending on the design style & color palette, a penny tile could be the perfect finishing touch to the design. 

From Velinda: I would definitely be open to penny tile in a kitchen, but I’d probably lean more toward using it as a floor (but never say never. I may fall in love with a backsplash concept tomorrow). Penny tile is obviously classic (great for older homes/rustic vibes etc) but it’s also ‘cool’… I’m thinking New York eateries and loft spaces. Plus, there’s such potential for endless possibilities of pattern, color so it can be a fun touch in even a ‘contemporary/post modern/poppy-funky home). I see no problems here:

design by blakes london | photo by malcolm menzies

From Shavonda: Hi friend!! Oh, this is a great one! I personally don’t like glass tile in kitchens. Bathrooms, yes. Mudrooms or laundry rooms yes, but I don’t particularly care for them in kitchens.

From Rosa: I feel like penny tile is more bath than kitchen. Yes, I’d put it on a floor but I’m not a fan of it for a backsplash. I’m a bit of a traditionalist and figure that some design elements have stood the test of time for a reason. Classic penny tile has been used on floors for 100 years so it’s all good in my book! I like medium to larger scale tile for kitchen backsplashes better than small format tile, which feels much more bathroom-y to me.

From Rashida: My husband and I were shopping for kitchen tile, and I showed him a geometric marble mosaic style that had shades of grays and whites, and he said “That looks like it belongs in the bathroom.” After rolling my eyes (haha I really liked that tile) I had to agree that there are some tiles that are very “bathroomy”. But norms can be broken as long as you’re willing to deal with the maintenance that may come with it. For example, penny tile is typically seen in a bathroom, but can be done in a kitchen if you use a darker color stone with matching grout lines, or if it’s used in a pattern. I see restaurants do it all the time, and I know they have frequent spills. So if you’re thinking about it, I say go for it.

From Brady: When it comes to tiles in your kitchen and bathroom, while there is quite a bit of crossover, there are a few that I would probably never bring from one space to the other. 

Penny Tiles – stick to the bathroom floors or walls with these guys – cleaning up a kitchen mess from these sounds like too much work for my taste and visually they feel a bit busy for a kitchen backsplash. 

Hex Tiles – in large format they work in the kitchen but I prefer them in a smaller format and used on bathroom floors.

3D or Textured Tiles – you can sometimes get away with a very textured tile for a kitchen backsplash but I’d avoid using anything too textured in a bathroom setting as all those crevices can catch mold and debris.

Well, there you have it. A LOT of opinions but ultimately the only one that matters is the person living in the home. So think through how you live, the maintenance required of your dream tile (and grout), and GO FOR IT. Life’s too short to not design your house the way you want. There’s about to be a lot of bathrooms and kitchens in my future so maybe breaking some ‘rules’ will be in the cards for 2021:)

But now I want to hear from you! Any thoughts? Experiences? Let’s talk tile, folks. xx

Opening Image Credits: Photo by Sara Ligorria-Tramp | From: All the What’s, Why’s & How Much’s of the Portland Kitchen (+ Big Reveal)


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47 thoughts on “A Heated Internal Debate – Are There Some Tiles That Are More “Bathroom” Than “Kitchen” And Are There Rules?

  1. My experience when we built our home: it is important is to check how sturdy a tile/stone and its surface is. Bathrooms have less traffic (= less shoes, sand, lttles stones, … ) than a kitchen floor. Scratches can change a look. Not all sort of scratches become a patina look. But maybe this is more a matter of wall and floor tiles?

  2. so weird. I’ve been pondering penny tiles with the flower pattern (shown in pics above) for our kitchen floor for the past week and wondering if it would look too bathroom-y. this post was meant to be seen by me! nice to see beautiful examples above. but now i’m thinking of the cleaning aspect. I don’t think it’s in the cards for us. thanks for the post!

    1. Use back or dark grout! Epoxy grout is amazing, it is a bit more expensive and harder to work with but so worth it! We are doing this in a farmhouse kitchen. With all the darker grout it won’t be a pain to clean.

  3. Can someone post a link to the scallop/fish scale tiles in the kitchen in the last pic (or similar)? The Domino link doesn’t have a source, and I’ve been looking for large scale scallop floor tile for ages! Thank you!

  4. This is so funny to me: “my gut would be it [scallop tile] feels more ‘bathroom’ than ‘kitchen’ because, well, scallops are on ‘fish’ and fish swim in water and bathtubs are full of water. It’s a logical conclusion.” We also cook scallops and fish, for eating- so it seems perfectly logical to place them in a kitchen.

  5. Thinking back to my uni days : FORM & FUNCTION were drilled into us, especially in ceramics.

    So, with that in mind, while I like the look of penny tiles in the kitchens you showed, I wouldn’t do it, because of lack of functionality.
    I actually love the scallops in the kitchen too! Anywhere really!
    I agree with Brady about lumpy, bumpy tiles in a bathroom, because of mould issues.

    Back to form & function…. this wasn’t mentioned, but it’s super important… bathroom floor tiles shouldn’t be too slippery when wet!!!
    When I chose the tiles for this bathroom, both the tiler and the tile shop said no-go on a couple I liked, because they’d be too slippery if they got wet (they rarely have, but ya know, visiting little people make wet floors and…).

    So yeah, form is pretty much what your eyes love, but function is probably even more important.

    Great to hear what your people think. Not surprised at all by Justina’s “no rules” comment. Her use of tiles is magnificent!!!

    1. The smaller the tile the less slippery when wet–the healthcare facility I just retired from had 2-inch tile in the shower area, and 12-inch on the rest of the bathroom floor. No one ever slipped and fell in the shower; they saved that behavior for the rest of the bathroom….
      I had sorta-known-that before, but it became blindingly obvious while working there–use small tiles in wet areas. It really does matter.
      I’d actually love penny tile in the kitchen, because one of my dogs cannot drink water without dripping all over the floor, and I am a splashy dishwasher. It would be worth the maintenance.

      1. Hhhmmmm…. I see what you mean.
        The original nearly 100 yeat old bathroom tiles were too samaged to keep in the bathroom. I’d have loved to refurbish them, but no one could match them. I actually tiled over them.

      2. When we were redoing our shower, our contractor recommended honed marble for the shower for the same non-slippery reason.

        1. We have beautiful marble in our shower (carrara marble hexagon tiles) and they are a pain to clean with so many grout lines and you are supposed to use “marble safe” products; the grout is grimy looking just days after cleaning. It can be quite frustrating and is one thing I will eventually change. Beautiful, but high maintenance.

  6. Great post, thank you! Penny tile works best in a bathroom. Placement of tile in a small powder room ……can you do a post? Half way up around the small space, accent wall behind the toilet only, accent wall and wall behind the sink? Any rules? Thank you!

    1. The general rule is to tile wet walls (anything with a plumbed fixture attached to it) but many residential spaces only have tile on the floor. Unless you have particularly messy kids or just like the look, you don’t NEED tile in a half bath. If cost is a concern, you could just do tile wainscoting to backsplash height or tile one wall full height (I’d probably choose the sink wall). Use semigloss paint for the bare walls, or even wallpaper, assuming the half bath won’t be getting too steamy.

    2. As Izzy says in reply, you don’t need to tile a powder room if it’s not going to be used much or as a shower room. We have what was meant to be a powder room on our ground floor and we added a zero entry shower to it – the shower is tiled to the ceiling and there is a glass enclosure, but the rest of the space is wallpaper as I don’t envision anyone using it regularly (we only added the zero entry shower in the off chance an elderly parent moved in with us and we needed to change the ground floor office to a bedroom for them and start using the shower – we’re not expecting this, but wanted to be prepared).

      But in our kids bathroom we not only tiled the bath/shower area, but we also tiled all the walls half way up like wainscoting. My kids are messy and it is so much easier to wipe down the tiles instead of a painted wall.

      Also – in that bathroom the tiles are large, but non-slip. I didn’t want another bathroom with lots of grout lines around the toilet where my son pees all over.

      Anyway, the point is, really think deeply about how you use spaces and really live and then put structural pieces in place that support that.

  7. Ooooh interesting post! I love form and function discussions. Agree with others that small tile is an essential non-slip tool. For me, I think of bathrooms as a visually simpler space. There (usually) aren’t as many cabinets/countertops/different materials to work with and so the bathroom tile often packs more of a visual punch. It can take center stage and be bold or busy or unusual. In kitchens, where there’s more going on, tile that’s small or loud or busy can overload my brain if there’s already a lot of other visual “eye candy.”

  8. I love penny tile. Sarah Richardson often uses it on kitchen backsplash and it looks amazing! I have just put it on two counters in a bathroom. (Always use epoxy, non staining grout!)
    One a Mexican bathroom with orange penny tile counter and a drop in Mexican bowl with many colors but a lot of blue and orange. Stunning is what everyone thinks! The shower in this bathroom is a 4 x4 stacked white tile, a center Mexican mural that is surrounded by cobalt blue tile frame which also is used as the outside quarter round edge and step. Found some 1 inch penny tile, which I had never seen before for the shower floor!
    The other counter is white penny with dark gray epoxy grout and then a watery blue vessel sink. Some amazing Anthropology wallpaper. In the adjoining shower I used a band of a unique flower mosaic framed by the same penny tile and used subway tile on the body of the shower.
    Don’t have pictures right now but this works. Would definitely put it on a kitchen floor as in some of the pictures shown here but would use black grout. Of course have to make sure tile is a PEI 4 or 5!

    1. Wow, that all sounds amazing!! I have a penny tile backsplash in my kitchen and it’s very easy to keep clean!

  9. I absolutely think that there is bathroom vs kitchen tile. The scale of the tile and use of each room is such a deciding factor. I would never use a penny tile in a kitchen, all that exposed grout and need to reseal.

    Theres so many cool new shapes and colors, I think that you can get away with a lot for a backsplash but I worry about it feeling dated or trendy. I love the idea of using brick or square tile in new layouts like, not just a running bond but things like a flemish bond or english bond that mixes square and rectangular tile. Still feels traditional but updated.

  10. Interesting topic – hex tiles are definitely more bathroom than kitchen to me! What is it that people don’t like about penny tile backsplashes — too much grout? What about subway tile – is there a “perfect” grout size or is it generally best to do as thin as possible?

  11. This is so fascinating-loved hearing everyone’s input. I liked what Justina said and am a no rules kind of gal myself, or if there are rules know what they are so when you break them it looks intentional and works!

  12. Interesting discussion! Tile is functional art, and having had to clean grout from a bad tile job in past, definitely thought about that with tile for both our baths and kitchen remodel (we are tiling bathrooms presently!). Personality is such a big piece to design, and if the homeowner loves a tile and isn’t averse to the grout required to clean it, why not?

    I’m very curious to know if you’ve ever done a piece about picking toilets! : ) I’ve gone through a lot of research for the three bathrooms we’ve just designed, and it was actually very interesting to learn about the options out there. Toilets are important pieces of the ‘water closet’ and a lot of choices. Would be fun to read what your experience has been surrounding this!

  13. I realized I have weird hangups too: I love subway tile in the kitchen, but it’s a nope in the bathroom. Why? It seems like a bathroom tile to me, just like everyone else. BUT, it seems like a public restroom tile, specifically. I hate going in a bathroom that has the same atmosphere of a dirty public restroom. I don’t know how I got like this! It makes no sense and is silly, even to me! But I have tried to force myself to be more open minded and it just doesn’t work. Whatever is in my subconscious, it’s in there deep. So I’ve given in on this and try to be more broad-minded in other things. lol.

  14. I feel like there is a conflation of penny and hex tile in the conversation. A classic hex tile is a 1″ hexagon shape, although it definitely comes in larger formats as well, while a penny tile is a round “penny shaped” tile. Brady distinguishes between the 2 well.

    1″ hex tile is a classic floor tile that can be traditionally found in bathrooms, entryways, and kitchens (often in a gorgeous pattern!). Penny tile isn’t typically found on kitchen floors.

    IMO regarding tile, it’s less about the shape and size and more about what is appropriate for floors and walls, whether you’re factoring in material, size, or texture. I personally don’t think tiles that “traditionally” go on the floor (hex, penny, or large format) look good on walls, and smooth tiles like marble should not be in a kitchen. Ceramic should not be installed on the floor either, for the sake of endurance. Then again, design is art and what is fashionable changes all the time.

  15. When I design I think of each room as having a personality of its own, along with typical form and function. My design sense is informed by my long career as a psychologist, who came to the field later in life and my multicultural perspective have often rejected the notion of normality. Outliers become the norm for another distribution. Rooms are expressions of themselves and the bold, creative people who live there….so I find myself designing by breaking rules, convention, and twisting use of materials.

  16. “it feels more ‘bathroom’ than ‘kitchen’ because, well, scallops are on ‘fish’ and fish swim in water and bathtubs are full of water.” this makes total sense to me. 🙂

  17. I usually classify tile as “wall tile versus floor tile.” There is a good deal that can be used for both, but that’s where my mind goes most often. I agree with the glass tile for bathrooms, but I’m often proven wrong (I’m sure someone will knock me off my feet with glass tile in the kitchen). Fun conversation!

  18. Is the kitchen for “show” or is it a kitchen that is really, truly used?

    There are plenty of people that buy a Viking or Wolf or the newest “it” range and they’ll never really use it to its full capacity. For example, they’re not aerosolizing the oils in cooking and so it matters naught what’s on the wall behind it (or on the floor below).

    Do you really *use* your kitchen? Then penny tile would be horrific to clean under those conditions. It’s not about the “look,” it’s about the function that keeps it in the bathroom. I’ll gladly mop my penny tile bathroom floor, but imagine cleaning the oils, the sauces, the sugars, the stains from food in all of those grout lines.


  19. For me, any 4” x 4” tile screams bathroom tile. It doesn’t matter what color or texture it is. Every bathroom I saw growing up had 4” x 4” tile and it is just permanently embedded in my brain now.

  20. Squinting at my penny tile backsplash as I type this… did the install ourselves and it was a nightmare. For that reason alone, I wouldn’t recommend it (you have to nip every little tile around every outlet, switch, etc. and they crack… ugh). It’s pretty though. Soft white tiles with pale gray grout, on gray granite counter/white cabinets. And we sealed the grout, so cleaning it hasn’t been an issue.

    Living in NY, white subway tile with dark grout just reminds me of the actual subway, and I didn’t want that sensory trigger anywhere near the place I prepare food.

  21. How funny, I just tiled my shed office and found myself wondering if the ceramic tile I’d chosen read too “kitchen”! Relieved to find there are many points of views and no hard rules here.

    That said — I have matte white 1″ hex tile with bright white grout in my bathroom and it is a PAIN to keep clean. Everything sticks to it — a walk over the bathroom with shoes or dusty bare feet shows immediately. Any suggestions on how to make it a little easier to live with — can I re-grout it in a darker color (is it possible to re-grout tile or do you have to rip it out) or is there some kind of coating/sealer I can use to make it easier to clean or more resistant to picking up every speck of dirt?

    1. I looked into re-grouting our tile and the answer was a definite ‘no.’ But I do recommend sealing grout, especially white grout! I’ve done it on many bathroom projects.

  22. Some things are functional, like non-slip for bathrooms, (either a non-slip texture or smaller tiles with grout). And acid resistance – both for kitchen backsplashes and bathroom floors — most people don’t realize urine will etch marble until it’s too late!

    The biggest mistake I think people make with tile is to overspend on trendy tile. Unless you are wealthy, your tile will probably be with you/your house for 20 years, so the best plan is usually to stay classic and within the architectural style of the building itself. It’s easy to change a backsplash or bathroom floor but showers and large areas of flooring – keep it classic and go for quality materials that will stay beautiful with years of use.

  23. This is so funny because I’m currently installing hex tiles in my kitchen and I’ve been arguing with the installer since he started about this. He keeps telling me “hex tiles are for bathrooms not kitchens” but I completely disagree. Our house was built in 1915 so it feels appropriate to me. Many restaurants from that time period use them and they look great. I just want to warn everyone if you are going to put them in a kitchen they require much MORE WORK to install. There is way more cutting involved than your standard tiles. It literally took months to find somebody who would even do the job and now it’s taking him forever to finish but the bright side is it looks amazing. (The inspiration pattern for the job was actually your friend Scott’s kitchen that you posted on your site.)

  24. This is making me laugh thinking of an SNL skit where they say something like, “the kitchen is a farmhouse and the bathroom is a ship” to explain decor choices hahaha. I overall think all tile is situational but certain shapes/colors/sizes definitely skew one way or the other.

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