Mixing Materials

There’s no question that today’s clients want their new kitchens and bathrooms to be highly personalized spaces – rooms that don’t look like anyone else’s space. At the same time, another trend is growing in popularity: contemporary rooms that celebrate minimal design, as well as the preference for more tailored traditional spaces. What a challenge! Designers are asked to create very personalized rooms that are also “simple” in design.

One design technique that kitchen and bath specialists can use to create “simple” yet highly personalized rooms is to add style uniqueness by combining various materials in the major surfacing areas.

At all levels of the marketplace, kitchen and bath designers have demonstrated great talent in combining different finishes on cabinets. Let’s move beyond the casework of the room and think through intriguing ways to combine other surfacing materials.

Areas that lend themselves well to mixing and matching include pattern combinations on the floor, countertop and backsplash areas. Rather than studying the attributes of different materials (any good designer can “Google” a category or a manufacturer to get the performance details or the finishing specifications), this month’s article will focus on how various materials are joined together, highlighting design and engineering concerns.

Floor Treatments

One of the best ways to add detail to a kitchen or bath project without “blowing the budget” is to combine differing shapes, colors and textures of one specific material category as part of the floor treatment. Ideally, the material should come from the same manufacturer so sizing (nominal vs. actual) will be consistent. Combining various elements within one material category eliminates the installation concerns of variable expansion and contraction ratios seen between different materials that can lead to failure along the grout line.

Ideal materials to combine might be:

  • Hardwood floor patterns with assembled border or center rosette offerings.
  • Ceramic tile collections available in a wide variety of field and decorative pieces within each family grouping.
  • Ceramic tile flooring offered in pre-designed patterns.
  • Any material that offers various colors. I recently saw an elegant border created for a family hobby room where cork floor tiles of different colors were combined.

Whenever considering a patterned floor, first decide what the design theme is.

  • Is the pattern designed to enhance the overall surface? A tile patterned floor or a checkerboard created with cork, linoleum or other man-made tile is an example of this design approach. The entire surface features the repetitive pattern. Be aware that any type of patterned floor will require more material than a normal square pattern.
  • Is the design a “defining” pattern? Is the design one that is accenting the shape of the room, or creating a detail in the room? Oftentimes, this type of pattern will be created by transitioning from the field (simple) tile used in a larger size to a smaller offering in the same material, or a completely different material framing a central design. The material creates an “area carpet” focal point.

Creating any type of a center room accented area requires that the entire floor be laid out on the plan view of the room to make sure the following has been considered:

  1. What is the “sight line” of your pattern when a user enters the room?
  2. What is the relationship of the pattern to any entrance doors, windows or other architectural details of the envelope of the space?
  3. What are you centering the pattern on? The pattern might follow the outline of an island: It is then centered on the island, not the overall room. Alternatively, in a bath, it might be centered in front of a luxurious bathtub.
  4. What will be the pattern’s relationship to any adjacent centers of activity, cabinetry or other elements of the space? (This is why you need to lay out the entire floor in plan view and then superimpose cabinetry, furniture and other elements.)
  5. Is there any intersection between the floor and the mechanical elements in the room: baseboard, registers, openings?
  6. What will the relationship of the patterned surface and the field material be to the baseboard planned for the area? For example, when planning a bordered patterned focal point in a bathroom space, the designer must decide if the baseboard reverts back to the field tile (allowing the border tile placed on the floor to be “center stage”); if the baseboard is painted wood to match the other millwork; or, if the baseboard is to be finished in the same material as the border accent. This last choice is dangerous ­– it can make the tile pattern originally designed as a flat border three-dimensional as it creeps up the wall as a baseboard, overpowering the room.
  7. What grout can you use throughout all tiles? If you attempt to change grout to assist in differentiating between a pattern border or accent, you can have a very “ragged” edge as the two different grouts meet. For tight grout installations, this is not an important design challenge.

Countertop Materials

The same two approaches of material combinations work when creating a unique countertop. If you use different colors of one material, you’re following an Asian design theory. The Asian global modernism has led to spaces influenced by Asian design sensitivities: a style sometimes called “Pacific Rim.” These rooms appear, at first glance, to be very simple, however, upon closer inspection, they are complex. The concept of two philosophies, looks and beliefs that appear to be diametrically opposite to one another peacefully coexisting is a common theme in Asian philosophy.

I was recently invited to design the DuPont Surfaces exhibit for the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show in Las Vegas. One display combined two new patterns of new Corian colors in a curvilinear kitchen space. Whereas there was consistency in the pattern, the curves added a complexity and interest to the space.

When considering combining materials that share a common manufacturer or fabrication technique, one of the first things to decide is will you have straight seams or curved seams? Both are possible – you will simply decide based on what’s “right” for the design you’re working on.

When combining the same materials (which is certainly simpler than combining dissimilar materials), you can also “section” the kitchen or bath project by changing surfaces. In another exhibit in DuPont Surfaces’ booth, I did just that with three new Zodiaq colors. The brightest countertop (a new blue) was tied along the back wall and supported by a mosaic glass tile. The more neutral finishes – one reminiscent of Crema Marfil marble and one with a sense of Cordova leather – were combined on the island. To prevent confusion, the darker brown surface was placed atop a cabinet of the same finish.

When combining different materials, decide what is the most important from a design standpoint, and how you will allow that material to take “center stage.” In this case, we changed the thickness of the material and the edge treatment on the back wall top, and allowed the material to extend beyond the cabinetry.

On the island, we used a thinner material, a minimal overhang and a simple eased edge. When combining different finishes in the same material, decide if you will delineate the color differences by changing edge treatments or material thicknesses, as well.

Other engineering details to be considered are:

  • Combining a wood countertop section with any other material. The other materials might be easily scrubbed with a cleaning product, where wood needs to simply be wiped down. How can you make sure the two different cleaning techniques can be used on the two adjacent surfaces?
  • Two materials that simply cannot have a clean, flush edge. The joint between various counter materials is a key engineering point. When introducing different materials – or even color changes in the same material – decide how the two materials will intersect one another.
  1. A flushed joint.
  2. A joint with a beveled detail to separate the two.
  3. A joint where one of the two materials is higher than the other.

Finishing stone against stainless steel is a good example. I would always have one or the other slightly higher. Or, I work hard to make sure my client understands the material will not be tightly seamed.

  • Do the different materials have any different type of support requirements? A wood countertop might easily hang over an eating bar, whereas a solid surface, stone or other material may need brackets. Support the most delicate surface.

Backsplash Combinations

Next, we will look at material combinations featuring changes of surfacing between the countertop and the backsplash. We all know that the most economical way to create a beautiful countertop is to select a great material and install it on both the deck and backsplash. However, this monolithic approach to design may not lead to the personal design statement the client is so anxious to achieve.

Earlier we talked about combining various materials and/or patterns within one material category on the floor and the countertop. Let’s turn our attention to introducing a new material at the backsplash.

Many of you are expert designers and I know you can create beautiful backsplashes – I only encourage you in this discussion to detail your great ideas and communicate them clearly to everyone who has to produce your project.
Before you start designing a unique backsplash, here are several things to be aware of:

  • Pay close attention to where the electrical outlets are placed. There is nothing worse than a decorative tile splash that is interrupted by switchplate covers and outlets. Decide where the outlets are going to be placed, and prepare a specific 1" to 1' scaled drawing of the backsplash area only – for you, the countertop/backsplash fabricator and the electrician. After everyone has seen the plan, go back and check the work at the jobsite when it’s roughed in. You will need to either weave in the plugs and outlets among the decorative tile if they’ll be installed in a traditional location, or be more creative about their placement. Here are a few ideas:
  1. Install the outlets horizontally instead of vertically, closer to the deck or closer to the underside of the wall cabinets, if you need to “miss” a decorative horizontal detail in the backsplash.
  2. Consider placing electrical outlets on the side of cabinets in place of backsplash locations if this will meet code.
  3. Check new ideas available today that provide outlets that “pop-up” from the countertop (for some examples of this, you can visit www.hafele.com/us or www.mockett.com).
  4. Speak with your lighting specialist or electrical contractor – there are new outlet strips that can be placed along the lead edge of wall cabinets.
  • In the scaled drawing, decide what the relationship is of the decorative tile to any windows along the elevation or how the backsplash terminates at the end of a run. As you lay out the pattern, be cognizant of how the pattern will be treated in areas that have different heights than the normal splash, for example, underneath a lowered windowsill or behind a hood or open shelf area in the plan. Does the backsplash extend beyond the wall cabinets so it aligns with the countertop material’s overhang?
  • Decide how you will finish any edges of the backsplash at the concluding points. Some decorative tiles won’t have end pieces, so you may need to be inventive.
    In the DuPont Surfaces K/BIS exhibit, I also created a bathroom that combines solid surface material, granite and glass tiles. Here are some of the details we had to think through:
  • We determined what to use for the “foundation material” – the material that would be the predominant material echoed throughout various spaces in the bathroom plan. In this example, DuPont Corian is the foundation material and is used on the back wall of the shower as a backdrop for the granite shower tower piece, a custom shower pan is created out of the material, and it is used behind the tub. The stone is used on the back and in the decorative bath presentation in the shower area. Laying out the stone piece in the shower needed to be completed before the pan was designed, so we knew how far away from the wall the granite slab would stand, how it would be connected to the Corian and how it would interface with the curve or ledge on the pan below.
  • We then needed to think through what would be the edging on the stone surfaces. We opted for a more elaborate ogee edge on the deck of the tub, and decided to repeat that same edge on the stone in the shower.
  • We routed out the Corian solid surface material so we could integrate the glass tile in a flush installation. Using 1/4" material, we created a three-tiered bathsplash design element behind the tub with one layer of Corian topped with the bath tile and finished with a cap. In hindsight, I would like to have featured a Corian cap on the curved shower wall, as well.

Good designers search out new materials to combine at national and local trade shows, as well as by reading industry magazines. Great designers engineer how these new materials can be fit together so the finished project is as beautiful as the perspective presented to the client. To add very special – and personal – details to a plan under development, consider the design opportunities that mixing surfacing materials offers you.

Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, is a well-known author, designer, speaker and marketing specialist.

A member of the NKBA Hall of Fame, Cheever gained prominence in the industry early on as the author of two design education textbooks. She manages an award-winning design firm, Ellen Cheever & Associates, and has been part of the management team of several major cabinet companies.

This article is part of a quarterly series of “Designer’s Notebook” articles, which will continue to run throughout 2007 exclusively in Kitchen & Bath Design News.