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There are more choices than ever in tile—from textured porcelain and shimmering glass to trendy bamboo, leather, metallics, and illuminated tiles that glow.

This metallic-glazed porcelain tile from Mosaic Tile comes in sizes ranging up to 24-by-48-inch slabs. Photograph of metal-glazed tile courtesy of Mosaic Tile Company.

Tile is a great choice for bathroom walls and floors because it wears well in wet conditions. But while tile now comes in dazzling designs, selecting what you want can be a dizzying experience.

Dozens of area stores stock thousands of designs from hundreds of manufacturers. Prices range from less than $5 a square foot to hundreds of dollars for a single tile.

One way to narrow options is to settle on a color scheme. For several years the most popular palette has been light and neutral. But the days of beige may be waning: Bath walls are trending darker while floors are lightening up. Local designers say that clients are getting more daring with tile color. Grays are a trend. Betty Sullivan, president of Architectural Ceramics, anticipates more interest in lavender, plum, and vanilla; she says reddish brown is also gaining favor.

Color scheme in mind, you can take samples of fabrics and counter materials to a store. Bringing magazine photos makes it easier to stay focused. Some tile shops offer free consultations with staff designers or referrals to bath designers.

For floors, you’ll want tile that’s tough and slip-resistant. Many natural stones are suitable, as are rough-textured surfaces.

Some homeowners want tiles that meet green standards. Sullivan suggests looking for manufactured tiles with at least 30 percent post- or preconsumer waste. Postwaste refers to recycled material in the tile; prewaste is the portion of tile that can be reused after it’s demolished. Ideally, to be green, tiles should originate within 500 miles of a store to conserve on transportation, and tile businesses should demonstrate sound environmental practices in everything from power consumption to cleaning solutions.

Tile-shop owners say that people often don’t order enough tile or wait too long to order; tile can take weeks to come in. Letitia Marks of Design Tile in Vienna helps clients estimate how much tile is needed based on floor plans but warns, “What’s in the plan and what’s actually built are often two different things.” Taking measurements of the final configuration may be in order. Some shops readily take back excess tile; others charge hefty restocking fees or have no-return policies.

Here’s a rundown of tile categories and hot styles in area showrooms.

Types of Tile

Porcelain, or ceramic, has been a staple in bathrooms for so long that you’d expect few new twists. But porcelain manufacturers offer some of the freshest looks in showrooms.

Textured glazes produce surfaces that are bumpy, scored, or engraved to resemble linen, wood, leather, even damask wallpaper. Porcelain that mimics natural stone has been around for several years. Retro subway tiles, usually three-by-six-inch rectangles, are timeless classics.

The advantages of porcelain include high durability, low maintenance, and prices usually lower than natural stone’s. It’s easier to control the consistency of color and texture from tile to tile with manufactured ceramic than it is with stone.

Tiles of natural stone such as travertine and limestone are top choices in spalike bathrooms. Classic marble—especially white marble with gray veining, such as Carrara and Venetino—is enjoying a resurgence, says Carolyn Thomas of Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath.

The advantages of stone are its sophisticated look and proven value for home resale. The natural variations in stone may be viewed as a minus, but many buyers like the one-of-a-kind quality. Most stones cost more than ceramic. The cost to install stone can be higher than for porcelain.

Stone requires coats of liquid sealer every few years or so, depending on the brand of sealer and the wear and tear. Some stone can be pretreated with penetrating sealer before installation. Glazed ceramic tiles do not need to be sealed, though sealing grout joints makes cleaning easier.

While the vast majority of tile is ceramic or stone, the assortment of glass tile is growing and now includes a variety of surface textures. Brightly colored glass squares, some with metallic shimmer, pair well with contemporary bath designs. Translucent glass tiles are also available, including some for floors. Installing glass requires special care—including using adhesives designed for glass, which prevent discoloration that could show through.

Three-dimensional pebble tiles are still popular for a back-to-nature feel—although it’s too soon to say whether pebbles will become a classic or a fad. For a less organic and more elegant bath, there are new precision-cutting water jets that can create geometric designs and swirls. Also growing in popularity, usually as accents: gemstone tiles cut from onyx and quartz.

Exotic Tile and Patterns

Wood and leather tiles are trends in Euro-influenced bathrooms, though they are better suited for powder rooms than for baths with lots of splash. Stainless, copper, and other metallic tiles make great accents in contemporary baths but are also not recommended for use near showers.

Terra cotta, a red clay, used to be a top choice for rustic charm. Now it’s used mainly to replicate baths with Moroccan, vintage European, or Latin themes. To accent rustic bathrooms, consider tiles made from organic materials such as bamboo or seashell.

Tiles that glitter and tiles illuminated from within by LED bulbs are some of the latest and edgiest designs.

It is stylish to mix traditional and edgy tiles. For example, you might arrange tiles with contrasting textures or materials vertically to create subtle striped effects.

Bigger is Usually Better

Tile sizes have been trending larger. Rectangles of 12 by 48, 8 by 24, 24 by 48 inches, and up are common. Large tiles produce a cleaner look with fewer grout lines. Installation takes less time, too.

“Big tiles are turning into wall treatments,” says Best Tile’s Kely Estigarribia.

Big is stylish, but so are mosaic tiles, which are two by two inches or smaller. Preformed, intricate mosaic designs that come mounted on mesh are easier to install. Many mosaics are imported from China, India, and Turkey.

For drama on a budget, use basic porcelain or stone for large surfaces, then accent tiles for impact. For a modern look, buy enough tile to keep grout lines tight.

This article first appeared in the March 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.    

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