Designing with Decorative Surfaces

Designing with decorative surfaces presents designers with unique creative opportunities – and challenges. However, as with any design idea, ending up with a finished product that fully realizes the design potential of the concept relies on each step of the process being carefully planned and skillfully executed.

Of course, there’s no one right way to do all of this. When designers “brainstorm” with one another about how to approach the creative side of our business, the difference in methods can be quite impressive.

Some designers focus first on function, almost considering the aesthetic statement an afterthought. Others spend so much time on the decorative details that the functional plan – and sometimes, the budget – suffer. Still others create wonderful rooms, but live through a physically and profitability draining installation because the crafts-people are not skillful enough to execute their vision without their daily painstaking supervision.

The most successful designers seem to do a good job of balancing the four parts of any solution:

  1. Function
  2. Aesthetics
  3. Budget
  4. Available Products/Installers’ Talents

Based on this observation, I thought it useful to study the interdependence of the four steps in the design process by reviewing a project I recently worked on for a client in the Caribbean.

The functional kitchen was already planned. The client, however, retained me to design an arched cooking area showcasing an elegantly detailed ceramic tile product.

Such a concentration on the details of this one area seems useful because, when kitchen cabinet details are simplified, consumers are interested in the kitchen designer’s ability to specify artistic and decorative surfacing.

When working with intricate decorative surfacing plans, a word of caution is advised: It’s a good idea to partner with surfacing experts, as it can be time consuming for kitchen and bath designers to become experts in all of these various materials!

Therefore, it’s a good idea to focus on being a conceptual designer and collaborate with someone who knows the details of the material being specified. For example, if tile is being used, the designer should select the best tile showroom around and developing a working relationship with one tile specialist who can be counted on to do good work in a reliable manner.

Although I will be addressing a tile arch this month, this is not an article about the basics of designing tile – which is information easily learned working with specialists. Rather, this article will address the designer’s need to logically work through 10 steps in the design, specifying, budgeting and evaluating process, as well as the importance of being able to “juggle” several of these steps at one time.

The Steps

There are 10 key steps to designing, specifying, budgeting and evaluating an installation. They are as follows:

  • Step 1: Create the conceptual functional solution.
  • Step 2: Select the area in the kitchen that will serve as the focal point. Successful designers need to be able shuttle between Step 1 and 2 as the design concept emerges.
  • Step 3: Develop a “map” or overview for the space. This step combines function and aesthetics, but it’s not the end: it’s only the beginning.
  • Step 4: Identify the budget funds available for this aspect of the project. Adjust the complexity of the solution (up or down!) based on this factor.
  • Step 5: Evaluate the available craftspeople’s skill sets. Your design solution should be guided by the level of skill your crafts-people have.
  • Step 6: Study the product and then partner with experts. Your design will be enhanced if you keep an open mind and embrace design modifications.
  • Step 7: Draw the options and calculate proper costing data with careful detailing. Again, embrace design modification – make sure you allow time to adjust your initial concept after you review the drawings.
  • Step 8: Present your ideas to the client. Listen to their reactions – and keep an open mind!
  • Step 9: Refine your ideas, complete the details and install the project.
  • Step 10: Evaluate – value-engineer – the solution. This will make it easier the next time you would like to use a similar (never the same) solution.

The Project

To expand on this approach to design, it’s a good idea to look at an actual project as an example.

A client with a business in the Caribbean had seen a kitchen I designed on my Web site and wanted to “duplicate” the arched cooking area. Duplicating a design exactly is never a good idea and rarely is even possible. However, the kitchen the couple liked was a great starting point to work from. The series of drawings detail the steps we took to create the overall solution.

It’s essential for you, as the designer, to know the space and think through the broad perimeters of the design. In fact, before beginning any material-specific detailed design, it’s critical to know the exact dimensions of the available space and to think through placement or location options.

For example the 31" left return wall is not duplicated on the right. This difference impacts the design layout. However, there are several strong design options here.

  • Option 1: Pull the cabinets forward and void out the right-hand 5" of storage space. This is a great way to provide depth for an arched niche back wall, or to provide room for a splash ledge.

With this option, however, comes two more concerns. First is the surfacing material decision. Will a sliver of the finishing material wrap around the wall and die into the cabinetry? Second is the people issue: How will the client “feel” standing outside of the arch rather than inside? Do lighting concerns need to be addressed?

  • Option No. 2: Place cabinets within the opening created by the right hand wall return, using scribes at both ends to provide a flat surface for the decorative surface product to finish against.

The surface material decision here is whether the material will be applied to the inside of the arch. The designer must also ask, what about the ceiling? How does the ventilation system integrate with the arched opening? Will the material be on the end walls, as well? If a decorative border is considered, is it necessary for such detail to continue on the side walls?

You might wonder why it’s important to answer these material questions at this stage of the design process? The answer is simple: The designer’s plan will impact material and labor costs associated with each focal point of the kitchen plan.

Next, you want to create the overall shape of this key area in the design. This example is of an arched cooking recessed area. But, the thought process is the same for any area designated as the most important aesthetic space in the room.

Consider the following:

  • Design Decision No. 1: What is the relationship between the designated focal point and the balance of the space?

Good designs never isolate a dramatic part of the kitchen. This cooking arch is part of a wall also featuring an arched doorway leading to the butler’s pantry. Therefore, while the width of the arch is determined by the cooking area, the radius is variable. Three possibilities were considered.

  • Design Decision No. 2: What is the skill level of the jobsite craftspeople? Does the designer have control over this part of the project? What product specifications must be considered?

The arch radius is limited by the tile shapes and the profile of the edges (square is preferable if the tiles must be cut to shape the arch), as well as by the tile craftspeople’s skill level at cutting square tiles to fit the arch. Note that it is critical to get a dollar estimate for materials and labor costs before quoting the project to the client.

In this example, the client selected the option because it required the least amount of tile cutting to create the arch on the job. The total material list price for this tile wall was $18,000 plus freight. Labor costs on the jobsite were an additional cost.

  • Design Decision No. 3: What will be the central point of the design?

For the project shown in Drawings #3 and #4 (see p. 84) for this project, a central geometric mural was created. Designers should consider client design preferences when recommending this type of detail.

A great resource for designers is an idea book published by the manufacturer of the tiles used on this project, Sonoma Tilemakers, Called The Sonoma Tilemakers Coloring Book, the workbook features a multitude of layout concepts for bath and kitchen projects.

Detail Shapes

When designing with tile this way, it’s critical to detail all of the shapes to be combined in the finished project.

  • Design Decision No. 4: Detailed, scaled, accurate elevations are a normal part of planning special areas of a kitchen covered in unique decorative surfacing.

For the project, I planned an interior decorative area starting with 6"x6" square plain tiles capped by a 2"x8" decorative striped piece. The balance of the back and side walls is finished in 4"x4" field tile installed in a staggered pattern (called a “running bond”). These pieces framed a geometric-patterned mural. To complete the wall, I used a curved trim piece around the butler’s pantry door to minimize its impact on the space.

My client had selected 3"x6" tile to be used on the outside of the entire wall. However, when I saw the finished wall elevation, instantly I thought, “Yuk – too busy!” By substituting 6"x12" tile on the wall, the combination of shapes worked well.

The Finished Project

After all of the decisions are made, the floor plan and elevations of all wall views are completed as a final check for pricing and ordering. These plans also serve as a guide for the tile installers.

However, everyone on the project expects the senior tile craftsperson to validate the layout and verify where the designer has recommended “cuts” in the tiles to adjust for the grout line dimensions and jobsite conditions. The finished elevation details are then translated into a perspective view.

This project is being installed in the Caribbean as I write this. I will share images of it in a future column when it is completed.