Once upon a time, there was white tile, sometimes black and maybe an off-white or cream color. Yellow was the standard neutral. If you were really daring, maybe you installed green, pink or blue. For the most part, every separate piece was the same size -- a tiny 2-by-2 inch or maybe a larger 4-by-4 inch tile for rooms built or remodeled during the 1980s.
Gone are the days when tile had to be a uniform size and color and a daring look consisted of some gold speckling on the surface. Although Midwesterners still prefer a lot of neutral colored tiles in their bathrooms and kitchens, those areas are being enlivened with insets of smaller or larger tiles, sometimes in rectangular or other shapes, sometimes with bold colors, all offering a sense of interest and personalization that says: "This space is mine."
Tile today is much more than just a ceramic or a porcelain square. While these basics are still part of many homes, tile can also encompass natural stone as well as pieces made from glass, some of which may be manufactured of recycled materials.
One of the most popular types of tile is porcelain because it's a step above basic ceramic tile, yet it's affordable.
"It's a much harder material than ceramic and it eats into our drill bits," said Bryan Sebring, owner of Sebring Services in Naperville. "You can print textures on it and there are varieties that actually look like stone, but without the cost."
Homeowners who install stone tile, however, are doing so because of the material's durability.
"We're seeing a lot of people buying travertine and slate," said Reanna Hansen, assistant manager of The Tile Shop's Lombard location. "What's nice about stone is that it is timeless and because it's natural; each piece is different."
Natural stones, which also include granite and marble, are more often used extensively in higher-end remodeling jobs because of the cost.
"We still see a lot of shower floor installations with rock," said Dan Kotel, general manager of G.M. Sloan Tile and Marble in Mundelein. "We're also seeing a lot of terrazzo tile, some of which is made from recycled material. However, it's a thick and heavy material that's better suited to commercial applications. If it's used in a home, the construction has to be such that it can take the weight."
Stone accent pieces are popular with people who may not be able to afford an entire installation in natural stone. Hansen indicated that customized profile pieces, such as chair rails or recessed shelves, are a popular way to get the look of stone without spending a lot of money.
"When these profile pieces are installed, they really make an area pop," Hansen said.
Tile accents are not just limited to stone. It's pretty much an across-the-board phenomenon, whether it's a wall, floor or backsplash installation. The name of the game is making your space different.
"The trend is, 'I want something different than my neighbor,'" said Sebring, who has found that people are personalizing remodeling jobs because they are staying in their homes instead of moving to newer or larger houses. "Accents are popular because people are trying to maximize their look without spending thousands of dollars. They're trying to get a big bang for their buck."
Mosaic insets, using small 1-square-inch or 2-inch tiles, are a popular way to add color and interest to a room. These can be manufactured from traditional porcelain using accent colors, metallic tile with stainless steel, copper, silver or gold hues, or even small glass tiles, which allow for bold and bright greens, reds, blues and more.
"Metallics are very expensive," Sebring said. "But you can mix together glass, stone, porcelain, etc., to get a lot of different textures, tones and colors."
Determining what kind of tile accents you want as well as where you want them to go makes the homeowner an integral part of the project.
"I've seen some people get really creative and design a mosaic to look like an area rug on the floor in front of a sink," Hansen said.
Popular accent patterns include framed or arched designs in shower stalls, horizontal bands running along walls between cabinets, kitchen backsplashes, and even inlays in kitchen counters that provide a burst of color.
"For (tile) floors, you can get ready-made accent such a sunburst that will add interest to your design," Kotel said.
Kotel's wife, Vickie, played an integral part in selecting the tiling and patterns for a remodel of several bathrooms and the entire lower level of the couple's home. The work is full of accent tiling, so much so, that it won the Tile Contractors Association Project of the Year Award for 2010.
But what about tiling that makes up most of an installation? Beige and its various shades from cream color to lighter shades of brown are still the most popular here. What makes the difference is tile shape. Think rectangular in all different sizes, but one particular type stands out -- subway tile.
Subway tile gets its name from the old black and white or even dark green tile that graced the underground tunnels of rapid transit systems decades ago. Individual tiles are 3-by-6 inches and while one can achieve a decidedly retro look with the aforementioned colors, a wide array of colors and materials, including stone and glass, can give any installation a modern look.
"What's nice about tile is that you can add interest with different shapes and sizes," Hansen said.
Typical sizes range from approximately one-square foot, which may be the most popular size for flooring, and larger, up to approximately 18-square inches. While square tiles may still dominate the flooring market, rectangular is even making inroads here.
"12-by-24 is gaining popularity," Kotel said. "This is what manufacturers are producing and what they are pushing. We're even seeing 8-by-20 rectangular for walls.
"On floors, anything goes from 1-inch hexagonal shaped tiles all the way up to 24-by-36 (inch) porcelain tiles."
In addition to making economical tile installations look stunning and expensive, another trend is ease of maintenance. Replacing baseboards with tile is one way that this is accomplished as tile can simply be wiped clean in a bathroom instead of the cleaning and polishing required by wooden baseboards. Glass tile is popular too because of ease of maintenance -- it's stain-proof and waterproof.
The winner in this department, however, may be tile with rectified edges, which makes the tile look more like stone as no two tiles are exactly alike. Rectified tile also allows for a thinner grout line, which ultimately leads to a cleaner look and easier maintenance.