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Captivated by bold tile? Here’s what to consider before using it

By Elizabeth Mayhew Special to The Washington Post

If you haven’t snapped the picture yourself, you have probably seen it on social media: an image of two feet, shot from above, standing on an intricately patterned ceramic mosaic or a cement-tiled floor. Sometimes the person’s shoes are of interest, but more often, it’s the graphic flooring that catches your eye.

Of course, tiled and patterned floors have a long, ancient history in places such as Turkey, Greece, Morocco, France, Italy, Spain and Mexico. Here in the United States, such flooring is a popular design choice in hotels and restaurants, where it is often the only pattern in the room. The propagation of these social media images, I think, is largely responsible for making tiled mosaic and cement floors done in bold patterns a growing trend in home design.

But although such floors might seem like an appealing design choice – especially after you have seen them in all their glory on social media – they are a commitment in terms of cost and labor, not to mention household disturbance. There are, however, ways you can get the look without an “oh my, what did I do” outcome. I spoke with two designers about how they approached the challenge in their own homes and how homeowners can do the same.

Jen McDonald, a Houston-based home stylist and an avid DIYer, is a self-described patterned-floor fan, so when she and her husband bought their home – a nondescript 1970s split-level that she says “had no character” – she used an ornate black, white and gray cement square tile in her laundry room. (The space has since been converted into an office/classroom/craft room for McDonald and her three children.) The flooring makes the room more fun – just what she wanted and needed in her laundry room, McDonald jokes – and the space quickly became the room her friends commented on most often.

“The tiles make a huge impact, and they definitely define the room,” she says. McDonald acknowledges that the flooring was a big commitment because, unlike a rug, you can’t just roll it up if you get sick of it. But she says the bold pattern was tempered by the classic black-and-white color palette. And there has been an additional benefit to the choice of tile, McDonald says: The floor is easy to care for and clean.

“I love rugs,” she says, “but having a tiled surface is just smarter with a young family.”

Katie Ridder, a New York-based interior designer known for her bold use of color and pattern, has been experimenting with floor and wall tiles since returning from a 1989 trip she and her husband, architect Peter Pennoyer, took to Turkey. Perhaps one of the greatest design gambles Ridder has taken was installing lavender hexagonal ceramic tiles from Mosaic House in the entryway of the house that she and Pennoyer designed for themselves in New York’s Dutchess County.

“It’s a color I love and don’t get to use very often, and I knew it would work well with all of the colors in the surrounding rooms,” she says. But although she knew the color would technically work, it was a gutsy – not to mention expensive – choice. When asked why she didn’t just paint the floors, which would have been a much easier and cheaper alternative, Ridder said: “Part of what makes it work are all the colors that are within the tile. The way the material takes color makes them more multidimensional, an effect that you could never achieve with paint.”

Ridder acknowledges that most people would not make such a bold choice for such a large area, so she suggests trying either patterned cement tiles, such as the ones McDonald used, or colorful mosaics in a small space, such as a powder room. “A patterned floor can give a small room a lot of punch, show personality and character, plus it’s a room your guests will see, so it’s worth splurging.”

One place Ridder says to not use ceramic or cement tiles, though, is the kitchen. “It’s just too hard of a surface to stand on for long periods of time,” she says. She also hesitates to recommend it for entryways or spaces that have a lot of traffic from the outdoors because pebbles and gravel can work their way in – a lesson she learned the hard way. “The ceramic tiles can chip,” she says. “We have taken to touching up our floor with purple nail polish.”

If you like the patterned-floor trend but are hesitant, Ridder recommends picking a pattern with neutral colors, and she says to “keep the surrounding space pared down with simple wall treatment.”

Ridder also says that should you install tile and have second thoughts, you can always cover it up with an area rug. That, of course, makes for an expensive endeavor, but “the tile becomes an interesting decorative layer in the room,” Ridder says.

Another option is to go with a bold pattern in a less-expensive, easier-to-install material. For example, McDonald just installed peel-and-stick patterned vinyl floor tiles from Wayfair in a custom doghouse that she built on her property.

“They were very affordable, user-friendly, graphic and fun,” she says. “I just cut them to fit with an X-Acto knife and installed them on top of plywood. They can give you a good idea of what something more permanent would look like.” Another one of McDonald’s tips: Make a template of the tile you like by printing out the pattern to scale on paper and putting it on your floor. You will know pretty quickly whether you can live with the design.

When it comes to actually buying the tile, she says, “whatever you do, make sure you read a lot of reviews and look at customer photos that show the tile in situ before your purchase.”

Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”

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