Designing a multi-colored tile wall

Way back when, I read an article in Better Homes and Gardens about a kitchen re-do, and for some reason the tile backsplash stuck with me. I can’t find the original article on their site, but I did find this one, which has a picture from the original article:

Image via Better Homes & Gardens

The idea seems genius to me:  The owners chose 8 colors of tile and placed them randomly. The only rule? No two tiles of the same color ever touch (even at the corners). What an easy way to have a colorful wall, without doing some kind of mental gymnastics to figure out how to place the tiles.

When Cane and I realized we were going to need to retile our bath/shower, this article resurfaced in my brain. Then, we discovered the boxes of tile at the Portland Habitat for Humanity ReStore, The ReBuilding Center, and the Pratt & Larson outlet.

The Pratt & Larson outlet is particularly seductive.  You walk in to a room filled with boxes of tiles and cool-looking stuff on the walls.

tile at pratt & larson

tile at pratt & larson outlet

And you think:  We can do that!

So we decided to go for it:  We, too, would have random, multi-colored tile walls.  

We liked this idea not just because it’s thrifty and makes use of materials that would otherwise be discarded.  We also like the aesthetics of it.  If you’ve checked out our house tour or read about our design principles, you know that we’re way more casual than formal and we like an eclectic mix of things.

Confident of our decision, we set off to gather tile.  However, it was not entirely smooth sailing. If you decide to go this route, we’ve learned a few things that might make your journey less bumpy than ours.

Challenge #1:  There’s not as much to choose from as you might think.

Yes, there are lots of boxes and stacks of tiles. With lots of tiles you won’t want.

rebuilding center tile section

This is only part of the tile section at The ReBuilding Center.

tile at the ReStore

And this is the tile section at Habitat for Humanity's ReStore in Portland.

We have spent hours going through boxes and stacks of tiles, leaving most of them behind. Three reasons kept tiles from making our cut:

Reason #1:  They are the wrong size.
Some tiles are 4″. Some are 4 1/4″. Some are other sizes.

While it is possible to create walls with multi-sized tile, we aren’t feeling as brave/creative as others we’ve seen.

 Image via House to Home, found via Apartment Therapy


Yes, this is a kitchen, but look at the tile in the backsplash: Lots of sizes and shapes.

Image via Better Homes & Gardens

We’ve got some tiles that weren’t quite the right size–and because of where we got them from, we won’t be able to take them back. (They’ll be great for practicing our cuts with our new tile saw, though.)

Reason #2: They have the wrong finish.
Some tiles have a glossy finish, while others have a matte finish. We saw a great sample in the Pratt & Larson outlet room that mixed finishes, but–again–we aren’t feeling that brave. We think it takes some skill to pull this off well, and we figured we’re more likely to end up with a result we like by keeping it simple and sticking to one surface.  We went with glossy, thinking it’s a more classic look.

mixed tile from Pratt & Larson

The blues and greens have a glossy finish and the browns have a matte finish.

Reason #3: They’re damaged.
Because we want to create a wall like the one in the first image, we need tiles that are the same size, with a consistent finish. Any inconsistencies will really stand out with the kind of uniform pattern we’re planning.  That means we rejected tiles that have:

Uneven edges:

Cracked glaze:

We did decide to go with tiles that have some inconsistency in color.  We found many tiles with a darker outline of color around the edges. Because there were so many like this (and because we were having trouble finding the colors we wanted–see below), we decided this flaw would be OK. We’re hoping it’s going to look rustic-cool (and not crappy-cheap).

Challenge #2: You can’t necessarily get the colors you want.

And even if you can get the basic colors you want, you’re going to get lots of different shades. That BH&G image at the top of the post looks good, in part, because there are only 8 different colors. We did consider going the route of buying new tiles so we could have uniform colors, but we decided we wanted the design challenge of working with what we could find.  

What we found is a whole lot of different colors and different shades that we’re having a hard time categorizing, much less arranging.

stacks of 4-inch tiles sorted by color

It’s a challenge, one that we’re not sure we’ve met. In fact, we could use some help right about now. The one thing we don’t want is for our bath/shower walls to look like a mish-mash of junk thrown together. So, we need some principles or rules to help us in figuring out how we’re going to arrange these tiles.


I spent some time this weekend trying out some different color schemes.  We measured one of the small walls, and it’s roughly 9 tiles across.  So, I decided to give myself 9 different “colors” of tile to work with.

My rules:
1. One of each “color” in each row.
2. The same color can’t touch whole sides (but they can meet at corners).

We’re hoping you can give us some feedback on the different color schemes we played around with this weekend.

Option #1:  Saturated Color

We’ve got lots of beige/sand/bone/tan tiles, but we’ve also got some with more intense hues. We’re having trouble figuring out how to mix these, and we wanted to see what it would look like if we primarily used only those tiles.  We did throw in some white, to break up the strong color and to tie into the white tub.  And it looked like this:

High intensity mixed tiles

The main problem with this arrangement? We don’t have enough tiles in these colors to do the whole tub/shower. We’d have to keep scouting for more tile, which would delay this project even more. Not to mention spend more money, and discard a couple hundred light-colored tiles we’ve already bought.

Cane is definitely not a fan of this option because he wants to use the tile we’ve already got. I’m on the fence.

Option #2:  Warm Muted Tones

This option would make use of more of our tiles, but we’d still end up discarding many of the colors we used in the Saturated Color sample. We’re kinda partial to some of those (especially the pink, for some reason we can’t figure out).

We definitely like the warmth of these colors, and we have many more in these less-intense colors. We think this is probably the easiest option we’ve tried in terms of creating a mix that looks good.  However, we might still have to get more tiles if we go this route, and we’re thinking that it might be just a little boring.

Option #3:  Mixed Bag

For this option, I tried to have a balance of saturated and washed-out colors, and I also tried for a mix of warm and cool tones. To  make this work, I ended up combing some colors to get to my 8 “colors.” Teal green and emerald green were mixed into the pile I called “green.”  Pink and purple went into the same pile. Anything that was a saturated gold/brown went into the gold pile. I decided to use white twice in this scheme, simply because we have a lot of white and I was trying to maximize use of the tiles we already have.

mixed palette piles

These are the stacks of tile I worked with for the final sample.

mixed bag of tiles

And this is what the sample looked like when I spread those stacks out.

A unifying concept

As we looked at each sample, I kept thinking of an idea in a post from one of you (Becca of The Earthling’s Handbook) shared with us in the comments to our post on our design principles.  Becca writes that this helped her in her own bathroom renovation:

Know what your Concept is, be able to express it in one sentence, and think of it every time you’re not sure what to choose.  Concept is what holds your design together to create a cohesive experience instead of a hodgepodge of pretty stuff.  All major decisions must align with the Concept.” (You can see the whole post–which has tons of great information in it, here.)

As we sat in our garage, surrounded by piles o’ tiles, I asked Cane what our unifying concept for the bathroom should be.

After some discussion, we’ve agreed upon this:

The bathroom will be a warm, colorful, happy, playful place that contains elements of 70s style without being a time-capsule space. 

So, no–it won’t look like this amazing bathroom we found on Retro Renovation, one of our favorite home blogs.

But we want to incorporate elements of 70s design within the bathroom. That’s why we went with 4-inch tiles, which were standard when the house was built in the late 70s. If we had the tile buying to do over again, we might have gone with a matte finish, and used earth tones and blues (like the Pratt & Larson sample above).  But…hindsight is 20/20 and all that. We’ve got some other ways we’ll be bringing the past into the design.

We’ve got what we’ve got, and we want to make it work.  Any thoughts/opinions?  Don’t hold back. We’d rather go back to the drawing board than decide after we’ve installed a bunch of tile what we’ve made a ginormous mistake.

Some questions in particular we have:

  • Do any of these color schemes seem like a clear winner?
  • Are there any particular colors in any of the schemes that are just not working (and removing them would make it work)?
  • Any other ideas for schemes?
  • Any other ideas for figuring out how to arrange the tiles? (Maybe random isn’t the best?)

If it weren’t so late on a Sunday night, I’d use this as an opportunity to learn how to insert a poll in the post, but it is late on Sunday night and I’ve got an early and long day on Monday.

If you’ve got an opinion or answers, please leave us a comment.  A whole bunch of heads are better than two. 

Want to catch up on the project from start to…not finished?

Why we startedSee, we had this little mildew in the shower…

Demo-timeWho knew it could be so much fun to smash stuff?

More balls than brainsAs they’d say at Nike, sometimes you gotta just do it.

Tile meOur first foray into the land of tile

12 steps to progressSome principles that are helping us get through this challenge

A little tile, a little lighting, a little plumbing: A little progress on a lot of things

Plumbing done!: How we finally owned the plumbing aspect of this undertaking.