Category: Bathrooms

Look Ma! Only 80% hands! Can’t open door…

Oh swell, and I mean that literally! I’m sitting here with three bluish-green sausage fingers and a club-like cast on my right hand. I broke and dislocated two fingers last week, and this is the result.

I can't get my remaining two fingers and thumb around a doorknob. Even if I could, they are too weak to turn the knob. Lever handles offer easier action for those with impaired hands, and who says they have to be ugly? Look at this fun collection of lever-style doorknobs from Italian design firm Columbo.

I’m trying to be philosophical, viewing my left-handed clumsiness and inability to use flatware as a learning experience.

It’s an opportunity to sharpen my appreciation of good ergonomic design and increase my understanding of my clients’ needs. As I transition into my interior design career, my chosen clients are aging boomers like me who are beginning to encounter some – ahem – issues. But, like me, they  are not about to knuckle under and opt for assisted living; they want to stay put and “age in place.” (For the record, I hate to ask for assistance, I don’t like moving and don’t really care to age any further.)

Actually, my bad break had nothing to do with aging. I tripped and face-planted on the sidewalk during morning rush hour because a guy who was hosing down the walk jerked a hose in front of me and tripped me. Why do they have to do that when hoards of people are crowding the sidewalk, anyway?

Oh, yeah, I had a bit more velocity than usual, because I was riding a Razor scooter at the time. (See, I told you it didn’t have to do with aging! It’s more like I’m Tigger, the Winnie-the-Pooh character who could not be “debounced“.)  Shall we be sporting and call this a “sports injury”?

In Search of Good Universal Design Features

I’m grateful for some good universal design in my immediate surroundings. Last year, I replaced the cabinet hardware in my kitchen, opting for easy-to-grasp “D” ring drawer pulls and knobs that stand high enough to allow chunky, stiff fingers to slide underneath them. At the time, I was thinking of my husband, who has large fingers and who suffers from arthritis. But just two days ago, my fingers were just as big as his, and considerably more colorful.

Chatchada flatware
Yanagi Taika flatware is designed with thick, round handles that help one to get a grip. This graceful flatware set is the winner of a Good Design and Red Dot awards. Photo courtesy of Remodelista.

Tabada flatware
Maddadapt II built-up handle stainless steel flatware with upper extremity weakness or reduced range of motion.

Soft, matte-finish natural wood handles have squared-off edges topped with a braided rope motif in stainless steel. Imported from France. Available from Nautical Luxuries.

To distract myself from the frustration I have been feeling, I searched for some design solutions for my problem. I could use some distraction; it’s no fun dribbling cold milk and soggy Cheerios down one’s cleavage while attempting to eat breakfast all back-assward and wrong handed.

My broken pinky and ring finger will heal in a few weeks, but a large percentage of older folks suffer constantly from arthritis, which makes it difficult to button shirts, open jars, tie shoes, and open drawers, and doors. I dedicate this post to them.

A Diary of the Difficult World

To paraphrase the name of a book of Adrian Rich’s poetry – An Atlas of the Difficult World – I have been traversing some pretty tough territory this past week.

Aside from the two trips to the hospital to have the dislocated fingers realigned and set (yeeeoowww!), I have also been on the phone with the police in Phoenix.

My mother, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, has been defrauded of her home, and thus, I’m getting to know attorneys, doctors, detectives, and neighbors in Arizona. Mom calls repeatedly, having forgotten little things like the detective’s phone number, or the fact that she has a savings account which contains enough money to allow her to buy food, even if her Social Security check has not yet been deposited into checking. (I’m keeping notes and will write a separate article about my adventure with mom and the con man.)

Then there’s the fact that the university where I have been working for the past six years is cutting my job at the end of this month. My hand will be healed before my benefits end, but I have cause to worry about the non-portability of health care.

I’m looking for a PR/marketing job in a green building or interior design firm, and have some good prospects. (If you know the good folks at Build It Green in Oakland, tell them to hire me! We’re a match made in heaven.)

Oh, yeah, and my mortgage is a wee bit underwater, as well.

Every day, in every way, I am practicing resilience and optimism. Practice makes perfect they say. (I’m surprised that despite this litany of inconveniences, I’m remaining a Tigger and not becoming rather “boggy and sad” like Eeyore.)

All the troubles above were in place before the bust-up on the sidewalk, and in some perverse way, having to focus my attention repeatedly on little things like figuring out how to use the shift key on the right side of the keyboard or how to button a shirt is a good distraction. Rather Zen, perhaps? And also an exercise in being grateful for the things I can do. (Turns out I can still turn out a fine watercolor rendering, for example. The paint brushes are long and very light weight.) Plus, I am so grateful that this impairment will last only about a month.

Tasks that Spell Trouble for Impaired Hands

These difficulties are faced daily by folks whose hands are crippled with arthritis or other hand impairments:

  • Turning doorknobs. I have to stand in front of the door and mew plaintively like a cat.

    No-Ha door handles
    Joakim and Partners of Belgium have invented a magnetic door closure that uses no visible hardware at all. You just push on the door. Photo by Joakim and Partners.
  • Putting on makeup. My friend Alexei came down the day after the accident to blow-dry my hair and apply my makeup for me; I truly felt like I was being prepared for a stage performance, sans grease paint.
  • Typing. (If my cast is lying on the end of keyboard, my fingers are dangling in the air half an inch above the right shift key. I have devised a six finger typing system that involves moving the whole right arm and pecking keys with the longest finger.)
  • Accurately pushing buttons on phones and appliances.
  • Closing buttons and zippers. (My husband Mason is getting unaccustomed practice at putting a woman’s brassiere on.)
  • Holding anything heavy – who knew that a hot beverage in a mug counted as heavy?
  • Holding a hammer to hang a picture.
  • Driving a car. The cast goes across my palm leaving too little finger-to-finger circumference to grip a steering wheel.
  • Riding a Razor scooter.
  • Opening jars. If they are big, I can wedge them between my cast and my right boob, then twist off the lid with my left hand. If they’re small, forget it.
  • Removing the lid of the toothpaste.
  • Replacing the lid of the tooth paste.
  • Spreading cream cheese on bagel (definitely a two-handed procedure!)

    Button help
    Yep, someone has invented a device to enable clunky fingers to close buttons. It's called the Good Grips button hook and it's available from (Personally, I'm sticking with elastic and pull-on clothing for the duration.)
  • Sawing and cutting food with a knife, This task requires the use of multiple digits on two hands. (My friend Elisa cut my chicken when we went out for dinner on July 4th, and that hasn’t happened since my age was in single digits.)

Resource Links


Excerpt from Poem III,
An Atlas of the Difficult World

One of my favorite Farside cartoons on one of those now too-heavy mugs.

The spider’s decision is made, her path cast, candle-wick to wicker handle to candle,
in the air, under the lamp, she comes swimming toward me
(have I been sitting here so long?)   she will use everything,
nothing comes without labor, she is working so
hard and I know
nothing all winter can enter this house or this web, not all labor
ends in sweetness.
But how do I know what she needs?   Maybe simply
to spin herself a house within a house, on her own terms…

– Adrienne Rich


Roundabout: All About Round Tile Options

“Round, round, round,
I get around…”

I wish!

Given the economy these days, my summer travels have been taking me more to design blogs than to exotic locales. But design blogs are wonderful places too; you’ll find many of my favorite design destinations in the blogroll at right. Coincidentally, several of those blogs have recently caught my attention with posts on unusual round tiles.

Pennies on the floor in the Standard Hotel. Design by Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch of Roman and Williams.

Yesterday, I stumbled across this striking image on the Dornob blog. It’s a hotel entry where the floor has been paved with old copper pennies! An interestingly literal take on the idea of “penny-round tile.”

I’m not sure this application is entirely legal. Then again, I doubt that Uncle Sam would bother to go after these designers when he ignores all the tourists who are engraving little images of the Bay Bridge onto pennies with currency-crushing devices here in San Francisco every day.  In any case, I’m sure that the cost-per-square foot for this hotel flooring was pretty easy to calculate.

I would love to try this with mixed coins. It would be a great accent for someone who did a lot of foreign travel. (Sigh. I recall a time when I came back from Europe at least once a year, my pockets loaded with centimes, pence, and lira – dozens of interesting coins too small to merit putting back through the currency exchange process. They would have made a very interesting floor.)

This tile is from the 4mm Stainless Steel Collection. Photo courtesy of Remodelista.

Penny Round Makes a Comeback

Penny round tile is a classic, and one that’s appearing in some modern new guises, in part thanks to some new materials, including ceramic, glass, stone, cork and metals.

Metals other than copper can add panache to round tile, as the version at right attests. These penny round tiles are created by wrapping a thin stainless steel around porcelain and then mounting it on a mesh backing that is forgiving of imperfect surfaces and makes for easy installation.

Iceberg glass mosaic tiles from Evit, an Italian furniture company.

For its sheer beauty, my favorite round tile is a glass tile mosaic from Evit. This is high-end stuff and it comes with a high-end price tag. Because Evit is located in Italy (ah, to be in Tuscany this summer, or anytime, for that matter) their tile has to be shipped across the Big Pond. That means that it comes with a carbon footprint and it requires lead time to get here.

But, che bella! The mixed sizes of the round tile glass tile give this  mosaic a fanciful bubble-like quality. The subtle blue-green hues handsomely accent the cool steel shades of the modern faucet in Evit’s bathroom design.

Round Tile from Recycled Materials

A wall at an Australian winery "tiled" with bottles filled with water. In 2007, the winery received a grant from that state’s Sustainable Energy Development Office to study how the thermal properties of the wall help control temperatures in the winery. Photo by Treehugger.

For creativity (sans currency) my prize in the round tile category would have to go to an organic winery in Western Australia that built a wall from more than 13,500 wine re-purposed glass wine bottles filled with water. The winery’s owner, Peter Little, a fomer architecture lecturer at Curtin University and long-time passive solar design advocate, noted that, “Water… can store more energy, heat, or cool than any material we know.” The winery received a government grant that has been used for a thermal imaging program that studies how the wall helps to control indoor temperatures.

Another interesting use of materials coming round to a second life is the recycling of wine corks into floor tiles. Although the corks can’t be used in wine bottles a second time, there’s no reason not to use them in flooring, and that’s just what Jelinek Cork does. The penny round cork tiles even come in a mixture of colors. Jelinek cuts the corks into discs about 1/4″ and glues them onto a special paper that is then afixed to a subfloor and grouted like tile. To seal it, the floor is covered with urethane.

Floor made from recycled wine corks by Jelinek Cork. Photo courtesy of Inhabitat.

More Round Tile Options

Emperador Dark Penny Round Mosaic; Mission Stone & Tile

Red Bubbles from the Tile Store Online.

Bubbles glass mosaic title from Italian firm Evit; available in 12 colors.

3/4" glazed porcelain Penny Tile from Subway Ceramics

Unglazed porcelain penny tile in sage from

Glazed ceramic penny tile in pink from

River rock tile - it's everywhere!

These choices barely begin to scratch the surface of the options I found when I made the rounds on the net, searching for interesting round tile.

Mission Tile offers a penny round mosaic tile called Emperador Dark Penny Round that is made of tumbled stone. The naturally mottled color of the slate gives this tile a handsome texture that would provide a handsome surface for bathroom floors or shower walls.

The Tile Store online offers a glass bubble tile, somewhat like the Evit tile featured above and at right. The Tile Store’s version comes not only in the red version shown, but also shades of green, blue and smoky grays. (Be careful about installing glass tile on floors; it’s easy to crack, and it’s also slippery. It’s much safer to save it for walls and back splashes.) offers both glossy glazed porcelain penny tiles in six colors, and matte porcelain penny tile in five more. (Porcelain is extremely hard and one of the most durable flooring materials you can install.) PennyTile also offers classic black and white versions.

Finally, this web walk-about would not be complete without mentioning the popularity of naturally rounded river stones and pebbles, which are now used as both flooring and back splashes. Because the manufacturers split them in half and adhere them to a backing, they can be installed and grouted with a reasonable minimum of fuss.

I’m seeing river rock everywhere. It’s being used for shower walls, bathroom floors, kitchen backsplashes, and fireplace surrounds. While I love the look, I would never recommend installing such an uneven surface as a kitchen backsplash (a cleaning nightmare) or as a shower floor (many tender-footed types would be unable to shower without wearing rubber thongs).  It would be great on a porch, on a fireplace, or on a bathroom wall that isn’t in the shower. It seems to be widely available, even at Home Depot, and comes in a rainbow of natural stone colors.

A Round Robin on
Blogs Featuring Round Tile

Resource Links:
Where to Find It

Agates: a recycled glass tile from Interstyle
Agates: a recycled glass tile from Interstyle

Flooring: Leave No Stone Unturned

This week, Living in Comfort and Joy welcomes guest blogger Wendy Clarke, the savant of stone and tile. Wendy writes the blog "Art, Earth and Stone Tiles." You will find links to her blog's homepage, and some particularly useful posts, below. Contact Wendy at

I believe that tile and stone is sustainable and eco-friendly because it doesn’t have to be replaced during the lifetime of the house. Do it right and do it once.

How to do it Right:
Ask a Lot of Questions

In helping a homeowner to select the right stone or tile, my first questions are all about lifestyle. I ask:

  • Do you have kids? If yes, how many children do you have and how old?
  • Same questions about their pets.
  • How long are you planning on living in your home before selling?
  • Do you cook all the time or occasionally?
  • What kind of feelings do you want to have when you walk into a room?

Secondly, I look at the architectural style of the home and the client. If the home is in search of style, we have an interesting challenge! Lastly, I help the homeowner to consider budgets. Information on what the existing floor is made of, whether the wood frame will need to be reinforced and what the height of existing, surrounding floor that will need to be matched for level will all have an impact on the budget.

I realize that this sounds like a lot to discover, but it all impacts recommendations, and ultimately the choices that are made in stone and tile purchases.

More Choices than Ever, and in More Places

In the last twenty years, natural stone has evolved from exclusive use in mansions, public buildings and office buildings to being available to everyone. Dozens of choices are easily available at Lowe’s and Home Depot. Here are some of my favorite picks.

Travertine tile
Travertine planking is installed like hardwood floors; the standard Versailles pattern, shown here, is now available in an oversized version for large rooms or patios.

Travertine is the most widely used stone and is imported from Turkey and Mexico. Travertine loves to absorb everything that was ever spilled on it. Because it is compressed river sediment, it is filled with tiny holes that water used to flow through. Those holes are filled at the factory and the surface is honed so it is smooth. But because those holes are still there, lurking beneath the surface, travertine is not the best choice for homes with  lots of kids or pets. It’s not a great choice for kitchen floors, back splashes or entry floors, but it works well for bathrooms and matching slabs are available.

From cream to chocolate brown, red, pink and grey the colors, found in travertine are amazing. There are many different finishes available, so pay attention to your home’s architecture. A chipped edge works beautifully in a cottage or a Mediterranean design while a straight edge finish is more appropriate a for modern or ranch homes.

If you already have travertine on your floors, buy a steamer. After you vacuum to get the dirt out of the little holes (always do this first), the steamer will be the best way to clean your floors.

Marble stairs in a church in Florence, Italy, show wear pattern from centuries of foot traffic.

Marble can last forever it comes in every color of the rainbow.  Just think of the churches in Europe; they are filled with marble that has been in place for hundreds of years. But as those churches demonstrate, marble wears and weathers over time. It’s tough to maintain a pristine, polished marble floor or counter top.

If you opt for marble, you should understand that it’s going to develop a patina as you use it. It will become a honed surface, and it will look weathered. Carrara and Calacatta marble are very popular counter tops right now, as are creamy beige tones.  I love them, but I know that marble will stain. Vinegar, lemon juice, tomato juice and other acids can etch the stone as well.  My best advice is to love the evolving patina — or if  you want shiny and perfect, pick something else.

Because marble will stain, maintaining a good seal is important. You should avoid using orange or other citrus based cleaners, and soaps, as well as glass cleaners.  Stick to Ivory soap or stone soaps.

Keep in mind that polished marble on floors can be slippery. It’s better to choose honed, acid washed or brushed finishes for flooring installations.  If you happen to already have a slippery marble floor, you can have honing and acid washing done in place. If you want to change the finish of your existing floors to make them safer, you can call a stone professional to have this done.

The wave-like patterns and colors of a granite slab can provide a handsome palette for a kitchen or bathroom.

Granite is by far the most popular countertop material right now. It comes from all over the world, and offers an amazing range of color and pattern. When remodeling or building a kitchen, I always recommend choosing your granite first and let the rest of the finishes and color choices flow from there.

But please know that some stones that are being called “granite” really are not.  I always recommend that you get a sample piece and conduct a few science experiments. Dump some wine on it and find out if it will stain. Set a hot pan from right off the stove on it and test the results.

Don’t spend thousands of dollars unless you totally love your choice, because it will greet you every morning, and it will be one of the last things you see every night.

Make your choice from a full slab, and remember that your counters are only two feet wide. Also consider the options for finishing. If you don’t like shiny, any granite can be honed by your fabricator, just be sure to get a sample piece honed. I have walked on granite that has been used for outdoor steps — it’s like walking on ice in the rain! To make it surface less slippery outdoors, or to take the gloss off for a kitchen, granite can be sandblasted to create a handsome and practical finish.

The handsome textures and colors of limestone.

Limestone is one of my favorite materials.  Because it’s less porous than travertine, it isn’t full of tiny holes and doesn’t require fills. It’s more expensive than travertine, but it’s definitely worth the money.

Limestone comes in earth tones that range from beige and gold to grey, and even green, giving limestone a more subtle than some of the brightly colored marbles.

Limestone comes in several finishes. One handsome approach is to mix and match finishes in a bathroom or kitchen. You might have a brushed limestone on the floor, honed limestone on the walls and a polished limestone counter. These different textures add richness to the overall design. (Tip: If you use multiple textures, try to get them from a store that buys from the same quarry so the color is consistent.)

Mixing in a wall of glass mosaics to the shower will change the architectural slant to modern, while adding a chipped edge and pattern will create a look that goes well with Mediterranean styles.

Slate tile floor shows the range of color and tonality available with this versatile natural material.

Slate is used both indoor and out, and it offers amazing color choices.  Slate works well if you have indoor rooms that open out onto the patio and want the areas to flow together. Multicolor slates are definitely a personal choice, so if you are selling you home in the near future, you might want to go with something else.

Remember that slate doesn’t like freezing snow so if your patio is white in the winter use something else.  Indoors or outdoors you want to find a gauged slate, a little more expensive than natural but more consistent in height and easier and cheaper to lay so you’ll save the difference in installation costs.  For matching counter top material I’d go with Brazilian slate which is best honed and comes in slabs. Colors are limited to grey, black, green and purple.  There are also honed and brushed tiles to match.  This is my favorite to use in Arts and Crafts homes for both tiles and counters.

The translucence of onyx.

Onyx is found in both Turkey and Mexico, and it can be used to make some beautiful design statements. Because Onyx is translucent, it can be back-lit, making it glow. Underlighting for a bar or under-lighting a countertop creates an amazing focal point. I have seen under-lit floating onyx sinks in powder rooms, kitchen islands that glow in the dark, and plant pedestals that light up outdoor patios.

Onyx is very soft and will scratch easily, so you should not install it in high traffic areas or where it’s apt to get scarred.

If you choose onyx for flooring, you should make sure that it has a tumbled finish or is installed as a mosaic so that it’s not too slippery. Onyx mosaic tiles mixed with glass or limestone make for an especially striking surface combination.

Parting Words of Advice

With all natural stone you want to clean it really well and re-seal about once a year, or call a professional to do it for you.

As a tile and stone designer and salesperson, I have worked on hundreds of floors, both bathrooms and kitchens. I’m always happy to share everything I’ve learned over the years.

My best advice is to have fun with stone and to make choices that will become classics.  Use metal accents or glass and patterns that you can install in unique ways.  Stone tiles can be cut into non-traditional shapes to create a custom look. Travertine planking is installed like hardwood floors; the standard Versailles pattern (shown above) is now available in an over-sized pattern for large rooms or patios.  If you’d like to experiment with them, watch for my upcoming website; it will feature more than 200 layout design patterns that you can play with online. The new website will launch before the end of the year.

Thank you to Nicolette for allowing me to share my love of stone. I have told her that posts on ceramic and porcelain will follow soon.

Backlit Onyx bar in Las Vegas. Image by Wendy Clarke.

Resource Links

On her blog, Wendy writes:

After designing hundreds of floors, backsplashes and bathrooms with clients, I left retail to write “Piece by Piece.”…I love sharing what I know with clients and miss sitting down with a pad and sketching out ideas. So please, pick my brain, share your thoughts and designs because this blog is for everyone who loves tile.

Wendy E. Clarke
Unique Design Resource:

Making a Splash: You Can’t Afford Cheap Faucets

Asian-accented bathroom from the gallery at (Photo courtesy of Kohler.)

When I attended the real estate open house for the flat where I now live, the master bath elicited gasps of appreciation from would-be buyers. The fittings looked strikingly high-end. The wide white sink contrasted handsomely with the modern, expresso-colored vanity and the rubbed bronze fittings. It was almost as pretty as the Kohler-designed bathroom at the right.


As I contemplated the wear patterns on that same rubbed bronze faucet this morning – the faucet shown right below – I realized that it offered both an object lesson and a subject for a blog post about why you can’t afford to buy cheap faucets and plumbing fixtures.

Don’t Mention the Holes in the Ceiling

Three years after buying my house, my bathroom still looks pretty good – if you don’t look too close. (You can see a photo of it at the very bottom of this post.)

Here's my tap: See how the bronze has worn off of the handle?

The (replacement) light in my office. The leak was caused by cheap plumbing fixtures upstairs. The circles show where I lanced the ceiling to let the water out.

The drain looks even worse; the silver chrome underneath the brown finish is showing through. This fitting started to lose its bronzing a week after I moved in!

And you probably wouldn’t even notice the little holes punched around the ceiling medallion in the office if I didn’t mention them.

But if you really looked closely at my bathroom, at my friend Alexei’s bathroom (one floor up), and at the holes in my office ceiling, you would see an illustrated object lesson about cheap, designer-knock-off faucets. One of those cheap knock-offs failed in Alexei’s bathroom, flooding it, dripping down into my ceiling, and creating a swelling water blister that threatened to burst if not quickly lanced.

The cheapest single-hole faucets I can find on the internet now are about $89, and I imagine that’s what Darla (or her contractor) paid for the faucets in my house. But if you add price to that the cost of replacing the tap in a couple years with another one of similar quality, the price becomes $178, plus a plumbers fee, plus fixing and painting the ceiling, it’s going to total more than $500, bringing the cost right in line with buying a decent quality tap in the first place!

By the way, I have never bought cheap faucets willingly.  I have encountered them in the process of buying and renovating whole houses, which come as a package deal.  (Hence,  I often tell prospective clients that one of the best reasons for hiring me to plan and design a remodeling project is that I have “an advanced degree from the school of hard knocks.”  I not only know what to do, I also know what not to do. Like buying that darn tap.)

Darla’s Water Torture

At left is a current photo of the matching drain for my tap. The trim ring was originally manufactured in that popular “rubbed bronze” finish. But as you can see, it’s becoming mostly “rubbed-off bronze” — or perhaps I should call it “ripped off bronze.”

In hindsight, however, this pinto/piebald paint job is one of the least annoying plumbing problems that Darla, the previous owner of my house, bequeathed to its new owners when she “flipped” the property.

Cool Water Bath by Kohler. (Photo courtesy of Kohler.)

Detail of Kohler sink from image above. It has the same wide, gracious curves as my sink, but it has been modeled with a side area that gives you a safe place to put your contacts.

Here's a Delta 551-RB Dryden Single Handle Centerset in rubbed bronze that's similar to the style that was chosen for my bathroom. You can get it from on the internet for around $200. (Photo courtesy of Delta.)

More serious were the leaking pipes under the kitchen sink. The plumbing there had only been “staged” – which meant that the pipes were just pushed together without actually being firmly attached.

More seriously annoying was the sump pump that failed and flooded the basement with a pool of poo.

Most serious of all was that drip-drip-drip that I heard on the evening of July 4th of 2007 – a sound that was caused by a tendril of water staking down the chandelier in the office, and then pattering softly onto the hardwood floor.

Don’t Try This at Home

Picture this. I am balancing atop a rickety wooden ladder with a cellphone in one hand and a shish-kebab skewer in the other. I’m using the skewer to lance holes in the ceiling around the chandelier, allowing the water behind it to escape so that the weight of it doesn’t destroy the ceiling.

I’m standing well above the spot that says “don’t stand above this line, you could lose your balance and fall.” But I’m only 5’1″ tall, and I have to stretch up quite a bit to get the skewer close to the ceiling. I’m trying to breathe deeply and remain calm because the ladder is shaky, and now that it’s after dark, booms from the fireworks at Chrissy Field are rattling the windows.

I’m trying not to get rattled, even though my plight seems desperate. The water appears to be coming from Alexei’s upstairs unit, and I’m the only one of the four owners of this building who’s home. My husband is in the hospital having spinal surgery, and Blake and Alexei, having just closed escrow, haven’t moved in yet.

But I can’t leave my post until I relieve the pressure on the ceiling! I know that ceilings do collapse; I have seen it happen elsewhere, when a roof leaked in another building that I remodeled a decade earlier. So my cellphone is a lifeline.

Or is it? It suddenly occurs to me that the growing waterfall might interact badly with the electricity in my cellphone…oh yeah, and that chandelier is attached to live electric wires too!

You Can’t Get a Plumber on the 4th of July!

The author. Nicolette is not afraid of heights or of climbing on ladders.

Alexei has been frantically phoning plumbers – but they are all out watching the fireworks, of course! No matter what you’re prepared to pay, you can’t get a plumber on the night of the 4th of July.

To make a long story short, we coped. After I repeatedly lanced the boil, I went upstairs and discovered that a lake had formed and overflowed in Alexei’s bathtub. It had overflowed onto the floor and through my ceiling. Water was spurting copiously from tap in her shower, and even with help from Alexei’s friend Robin, there was no shutting it off.

We staved off disaster by shutting off the water to the entire building and draining the lines that led to our two flats. Alexei kindly brought me half a dozen juice jars refilled with water to see me through the night.

Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish

This story illustrates why you simply can’t afford to buy cheap faucets. Altogether, cheap plumbing jobs in our two bathrooms have resulted not only in having to repair Alexei’s shower and replace the shower head, but also in having to tear open and repair the marble tile on her bathroom wall, since it turned out that the main leak occurred behind the wall.

The Forté Tall, single-control lavatory faucet from Kohler would be my pick to replace the piebald. It lists for around $370 - less than the old one plus the price of an equally cheap replacement. (Photo courtesy of Kohler.)

Add to that the repair and repainting of my ceiling. Plus the staged kitchen sink. Plus the sump pump. Plus the two clogs from my badly maintained bathtub drains…

Oh, yeah. And then there’s the ugly piebald tap that I can’t afford to replace right now…

You get the picture. My English friends had saying that sums it up nicely: “Penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

The only good thing in all of this was that we did save some money. Our realtor, the late Kari Varland, bought us a one-year home repair insurance policy as a house-warming gift, and that did pay for most of the plumbing problems.

Choosing Bathroom Fixtures

When you choose a bathroom faucet, you should not only think about the finishes, you should also think about what’s inside. There are pros and cons to every choice, of course.

Pros and Cons of Finishes

With regard to finishes, you should consider both the design of your bathroom and your lifestyle. A person who likes a weathered look may not mind the fact that even good-quality rubbed bronze finishes are meant to patina so that they are not even. (But the silver underneath should never show through as it does on my drain.)

Student photo of Nicolette at School of Hard Knocks. This contractor quit the business in the middle of the job - without telling his clients! - and joined the Fire Department. We got the remodel finished and still own the house.

A brass finish may scratch, tarnish or corrode. On the other hand, chrome shows water spots. Enamel-coated finishes can chip and fade. Gold, stainless steel and nickel are durable, but are more expensive.

I would avoid PVC fixtures on grounds of both durability and environmental concerns. The initials stand for Polyvinyl Chloride, a kind of plastic, that is made from petroleum compounds.

Quality on the Inside

For quality inside, look for solid brass construction. It will give you durability and reliability. For safety’s sake, I would also recommend a tap that includes a high-temperature limit stop that will control how hot the water comes out to eliminate scalding.

Taps come with different kinds of valves inside. Compression valves contain washers that can wear out over time, and when they do, the tap will drip. While that’s annoying and wastes water, the washers are cheap and easy to replace.

A ball valve uses a slotted metal ball to control water flow, but they can’t be used in the kind of faucets that have separate taps for hot and cold water. A cartridge valve, on the other hand, is a durable choice that can be used by either a single- or double-handled tap, and it too is easy to repair.

The best solution is a ceramic valve. It’s the most expensive choice, but it needs no maintenance. Ceramic disc valves are extremely durable and can exceed industry longevity standards twice over. They can be used with both single- and double-handled faucets and will come with extended warranties.

Resource Links

Here's the sink and vanity that elicited admiring glances at the realtor's open house. It still looks good from a distance in low light.


Glory in Green – It’s a Color Too!

It’s hard to believe, but a bulb that I planted in the dark days of December is about to become a freesia!

Question Mark chair by Stephan Heiliger for Tonon

Mundo stacking chair by Susanne Grønlund for Fredericia Furniture

Generation office chair from Knoll

Designer Hugh Hayden used old tennis balls to create a fun chair that is bouncy and comfortable.

Hakatai Calliope collection of mosaic glass, made from recycled glass.

Green glass tile from Interstyle

Scrolled "Glassform" tile from Interstyle

Indonesian batik fabric, cotton

Ombre rug from Cost Plus imports

Up and Down knot Tibetan wool and silk rug made by Asha Carpets

As the sweet, green buds begin to open, I take my cue from ee cummings, and give thanks “for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue dream of sky.”

Spring may not yet have sprung where you are, but the days are growing longer and it’s surely on its way. That’s enough to prompt me to write an ode to green.

Nowadays, “green” is so often used to mean “ecological” and “earth-friendly” that its identity as a color has almost become secondary. But it’s a wonderful color, and with St. Patrick’s Day on the way, I thought this might be a great time to take a great green design tour.

I like to acknowledge the folks who inspire me, and one of them is  interior designer Jamie Goldberg, who writes a blog called “Gold Notes.”

Jamie, who relocated from Florida to San Diego, California not long ago, gave her readers riffs on a whole spectrum of colors  last year. I loved that series. If you, dear reader, are up for it, I will celebrate spring by doing my own color series.

As a decorator color, green has enormous possibilities. It can be tart and bright, like the Italian “Question Mark” chair above, or as tenderly subdued as the Interstyle glass tile, also near the top of this post.

Green combines beautifully with other colors to create palettes that set various moods and evoke different styles. An intense apple green is the perfect, edgy accent color for a modern interior of neutrals or black and white. Bottle green and forest greens are reflective and relaxing when used with adjacent blues. Teals and turquoise greens can be energizing when paired with a complementary red, as they are in the batik fabric at right. An upscale, business look could pair a celedon green with shades of gray.

Greening our Emotions

Psychologists and market researchers who have studied the emotional responses people have to color have found that while some of our reactions are universal, much of the meaning we impart to colors is culturally based.

Because of its connection with plants, green signifies life, stability, restfulness and naturalness. For these reasons, it’s often used in hospitals. There is some evidence that  green relaxes our muscles and helps us breathe deeper and slower.

Arteriors Home Moss Green Etched Glass Lamp

Darani Chrome Finish lamp from Lamps Plus

Babette Holland Tiger Lamp from Lamps Plus

Green can prompt us to feel comfortable, lazy, relaxed and calm. It can help soothe our emotions, and that makes it a great choice for a yoga or meditation room. It’s a pleasant option for a bedroom as well, because it’s as quieting as blue without feeling chilly.

Rotten Avocados?

Handmade blown glass knob from All That Glass

This is not to say that green is all sweetness and light. Dark greens with gray or brown tones can have a deadening effect. Olive greens can look like week-old guacamole, and can remind us of decay and death. (It’s no accident that a cartoon character who is nauseated or has been poisoned turns green.)

Your Bathroom

Green glass sink from Fontaine Faucets

Green burst glass bathroom sink from Fontaine Faucets

Hollywood sage counter from Vetrazzo

Bioglass sink and counter

Green fern towels from Pottery Barn

Rainglass shower enclosure from Nolan Everitt Artglass

Nope, it's not raining Gatorade. It's a showerhead with a green LED light from Memowell.

Interestingly enough, market researchers have found that green doesn’t do all that well in the international marketplace. Green colored packaging has proved unpopular in China and France.

Of course, this being a blog that is in part about green architecture – by which I don’t mean houses that are painted avocado – I made sure to find some items that qualified as being both emerald in hue and earth-friendly in attribute.

Prespa wallpaper from Avignon Wallpapers

The Prespa wallpaper at left is a good example. It’s handmade from  paper bags by the two women who make up Avignon Wallcoverings, Caryn Outwater and Ariane Stein. The two have been friends since childhood. Outwater and Stein  spend their days creating custom painted wallcoverings.  Ariane and Caryn introduce new coverings continually and also offer full-service custom designs.  Avignon’s papers are eco-friendly, using 100% recycled paper and all water-based paints.

Krysallis lamp by Jerry Kott

Another verte-hued “green” product is Artist Jerry Kott’s Krysallis lamp, which is made from cut wine bottles. The lamp comes in both a hanging model and the table model that is shown at left. Price varies according to number of color blocks per lamp, and color choices include greens, amber/browns, and whites.

A few other wonderful, earth-friendly items made from recycled content are shown on this page. Hakatai’s mosaic tile, which is shown at the top right side of this post, is made from recycled, post-consumer glass. Their “Calliope”  series contains color palettes that knock my socks off. (I wouldn’t mind a barefoot walk in some green grass about now.) You can order a sampler of Hakatai’s mosaics quite inexpensively. Their customer service is very good, and you can have the samples in your hands in just a few days.

Another of my favorite eco-friendly products is Vetrazzo, which I have written about before. (I took a tour of their factory in Richmond, California, and wrote about that for Living in Comfort and Joy last year.) For this green-as-a-color column, I decided to feature their Hollywood Sage countertop, which is made largely from soft drink bottles. It’s called Hollywood Sage because actor Ed Begley chose it for his kitchen and featured it in his green TV program.

Another beautiful product is Bioglass, which is manufactured by Coverings ETC. The company was founded in 1998 to source natural stone and mosaics and has added many new lines since. Their ECOVERINGS® line of products are naturally occurring, recycled, and/or manufactured with concern for conserving natural resources. Bioglass is 100% recycled and 100% recyclable and comes in six natural colors, including three handsome greens.  As the image at right shows, Bioglass can be molded. The result can be a fairly complex shape, such as this integrated sink and counter, which was designed by Tsao for a residence in Miami.

Another green (sometimes) product is Memowell’s Magic Showerhead. It actually showers you in seven colors, not just green. But it does have green advantages. It contains LED lights that are powered by water pressure and need no electricity or batteries. “Why do I need lights to color my shower?” you may ask. Because as the water changes color, in two-minute rotations, you are being reminded that time is passing. The device is hinting that you should take shorter showers and conserve water.

Links for Items
Seen and Unseen


Counters and glass tile


Rugs and textiles


Fusion green glass architectural artwork from Nathan Allan Studios

Walls and Surfaces

Other Wonders

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
wich is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

-ee cummings

Linoleum: It’s Not Old School Anymore

Stunning floor of Forbo Marmoleum uses patterns and inlays to give the effect of a tribal rug. Marmoleum Click is the first flooring product to be certified asthma and allergy friendly™ by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
Stunning floor of Forbo Marmoleum uses patterns and inlays to give the effect of a tribal rug. Marmoleum Click is the first flooring product to be certified asthma and allergy friendly™ by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

If the word “linoleum” conjures up stodgy images of granny’s old gray kitchen, think again! Linoleum has been rediscovered as an earth-friendly flooring that comes in a pleasing range of colors and also can be used to create custom patterns that match the colors of your room. With linoleum what’s old – nearly 150 years old – has become new again as we have become more conscious about the impact our interior choices have on our finite resources and our health.

This post, another in my occasional series on flooring, shows some of the beautiful things you can do with linoleum. I will also review lino’s history and the environmental advantages of this venerable, yet vibrant floor covering.

Today’s linoleum comes in both rolls and easy-to-install click-together tiles. As you will see below, there are also borders that you can mix and match to your heart’s content. Want a floor to set off a collection of African masks? No problem! You can choose an ochre red body mottled with earth tones, and set it off with a primitive patterned border like the one in the Farbo Marmoleum floor shown in the photo at left.

If you want the logo of your business styled into the floor of your home office, you can do that too. Linoleum can be custom-cut with water jets and inlaid to achieve curvilinear patterns like those shown in the Armstrong Marmorette floor below. Then again, maybe you just want a kitchen floor that’s easy to clean, comfortable under foot, and coordinates with that glass tile you got enthused about after reading last week’s blog. Because linoleum can be purchased in sheets, you can avoid the clean-up problems that come with maintaining tile and grout.

The design and color choices for linoleum are vast. The two manufacturers with the widest selection are Forbo, a Scandinavian company, and Armstrong. Forbo offers a palette of more than 100 colors and an impressive selection of 18 patterned borders and corners, which are shown below. Armstrong offers multiple lines of linoleum: Marmorette, a collection of 67 marbled surfaces; Colorette, a collection of 20 lively solid colors; Granette, 18 colors that have a granite-like coloration; Linorette, 18 deeply mottled patterns; and Uni Walton, a commercial collection of 9 strong, modern solid colors.

While linoleum costs more initially than its usual rival, vinyl flooring, it’s far more durable and cost-effective in the long run. A good quality vinyl floor will last around 15 years, but a linoleum floor can easily last 40 years! Plus, linoleum delivers health and environmental advantages that vinyl flooring can’t touch. More about those later. First, I will briefly look at the origins and history of linoleum – an interior material that was invented as the result of a fortunate industrial accident.

History of Linoleum

Marmoleum borders
Marmoleum borders

Linoleum was invented in 1860 when an Englishman named Frederick Walton failed to seal the linseed oil he was using to thin his paint. Walter was a manufacturer of a rubber flooring called Kamptulicon – a covering that was a cheaper alternative to the wood, tile, and stone floors of the time. Walton was interested in finding something cheaper and more attractive than Kamptulicon. When his linseed oil was exposed to the air overnight, a skin developed on top of it, and he wondered if that film might be useful as a flooring material. He began tinkering.

Walton invented a new floor covering and named it “linoleum” by combining to two Latin words: “linum” which means linseed and “oleum” which means oil. He received patents in 1890 and 1894 for it. Walton’s “floor cloths” were made from oxidized linseed oil, pine resin, and granulated cork on a hessian (hemp) backing. In 1868, Walton established a factory in Staines, England and was soon exporting to Europe and the US. By 1877, Kirkcaldy, Scotland was the linoleum capital of the world, with six manufacturers in that one town.

The first US company opened on Staten Island in 1877. In 1887, Scotsman Sir Michael Nairn founded another company that in time became Congoleum.

The popularity of linoleum floors continued to grow for decades. It was widely used in homes, and also in schools and hospitals. The lino floors installed in the thousands of schools built for the post-World-War-II Baby Boom crowd definitely stood up to traffic. Having visited many aging primary schools, I can testify that many of them still remain serviceable.

By the 1960’s, vinyl flooring became widely available, and linoleum faded from vogue. Armstrong, which had produced enough linoleum to pave a six-foot path to the moon and circle it four times, stopped manufacturing linoleum for a period of 25 years.

Some US companies even allowed their patents to lapse, an oversight that they came to regret decades later when ecological concerns prompted renewed interest in linoleum not only for flooring, but also for wainscoting, counters, and tabletops.

Linoleum Versus Vinyl

Linoleum and vinyl floors share some common characteristics and are considered as alternatives in similar installations. Along with cork, vinyl and linoleum are classed as “resilient floors.” This means that they are somewhat springy, will absorb impact and can “bounce back” to their original shape. (Within limits, however. High heels are the enemy of all floors, and because of the extreme pressure they exert in a small area, they can permanently dent any flooring material other than ceramic tile or stone.)

While these two types of flooring look and feel similar, I think that in terms of environmental impact and personal health, there’s not much of a contest between them. Both are available in a wide range of colors and patterns, and both are produced in sheet and tile forms. Both are good choices for people with dust allergies because smooth flooring, in contrast to carpeting, does not provide a good habitat for dust mites. But each has advantages and drawbacks. Here’s a summary of the pros and cons for linoleum and vinyl:

  • Linoleum is the green choice. Its ingredients make it recyclable and biodegradable.
  • Linoleum is far more durable. A linoleum floor will last two to three times as long as a vinyl floor. The pattern on a vinyl floor is printed on the surface and then covered with a clear “wear” layer. But both the outer wear and the pattern layers are relatively thin and can wear through, showing obvious abrasion in high-traffic areas. By contrast, the color in linoleum flooring goes all the way through. This means that the pattern on a linoleum floor cannot wear away.
  • Linoleum initially costs more, but is cheaper over the long run. Linoleum flooring squares run $6-$8 each while sheet vinyl runs $1-$5 per square foot and sheet-style linoleum costs about the same as high-end vinyl sheet flooring. Installation for linoleum may also be a bit higher. But when you’re figuring the lifetime cost of your flooring, double the price of that vinyl floor, because you’re going to have buy and install two of them during the lifetime of the linoleum floor.
  • There’s a lot of waste with vinyl flooring, and that runs up the cost. To get a seamless installation, you must often buy far more than you need. This is because the width of the sheet often will cause seams to fall in the wrong places.

    Forbo Marmoleum: pattern “Donkey Island”
  • With linoleum squares, you can avoid waste by just buying what you need. The most popular size of linoleum tiles are 12″ squares, packaged 9 to a box. You can buy boxes of several colors and mix them to coordinate with your color scheme.
  • Vinyl is easier to install. Because it’s synthetic, vinyl is less vulnerable to moisture and water damage than linoleum – even though it too will curl and warp at the edges if they are not well sealed. You have probably seen this in old kitchens or bathrooms.
  • Vinyl is also somewhat more resilient in the face of sloppy maintenance. Linoleum should be cleaned using little water, whereas the face of vinyl sheet is impervious. (The seams, however, can leak.)
  • Some linoleum floors should be waxed; others don’t need it. Armstrong’s Marmorette, for example, is finished with NaturCote, a high-performance coating that protects against dirt, scratches, and scuffs, and provides resistance to chemicals and discoloration. With this choice, the need for polishing and buffing is virtually eliminated.
  • Linoleum is a healthier alternative, both in terms of indoor air quality and germs. While linoleum does emit linseed oil fumes for a brief period – a week to a month – while it’s new, and while some people dislike that smell, it is harmless. Lino does not emit volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and vinyl does. VOCs are real culprits in indoor air pollution. In addition, linseed oil has natural anti-bacterial properties.
  • Your installation method can add to indoor air pollution. Sheet flooring is glued down, and the glue usually contains VOCs unless you make sure to buy an adhesive that is free of them. A good alternative to a glued floor is Forbo’s snap-together Marmoleum Click tiles; they can be installed as a “floating floor” that doesn’t require any glue.

What’s in Today’s Linoleum?

Since Frederick Walton’s time, the recipe for making linoleum has improved, but the ingredients haven’t changed much.

Armstrong Marmorette with Naturecoat
Armstrong Marmorette with NaturCote

Contemporary linoleum contains cork powder for bounce and resilience, resins (which come from pine sap), wood flour, and limestone dust for hardness. Various pigments – which may or may not qualify as being green, depending on the manufacturer – are added to create pattern and color.

The basic ingredient is still linseed oil, which comes from the flax plant, 80 percent of which comes from Canada, the world’s leading flax grower. To create flooring, linseed oil is oxidized. Other ingredients are then added, making a thick paste called linoleum cement. This is heated until it becomes spongy. Then it’s ground up, mixed with wood flour and other ingredients, applied to a foundation and rolled smooth. It is seasoned in drying rooms, then cured and hardened under ultraviolet light.

After you get it and expose it to light, linoleum will “amber”, subtly changing its color and yellowing slightly. This is most noticeable with white, off-white and light-colored floors. You can preview the effect of ambering, and see how your floor will look permanently, by placing a sample of the flooring in a window in the sun for an hour or so before installation.

Here, as always, are some links that will help you learn more about linoleum and see what’s available.

Links for Linoleum


school28A couple years ago, I took a trip down memory lane and visited Montview Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado. This was the school I attended during the Eisenhower years – which seemed to last forever! Although Montview has been extensively remodeled, some of the original linoleum floors are still in place and still serviceable.

I remember the floor pattern well because I spent the better part of the third grade on crutches due to a ski injury. During the four months I waited for my broken leg to heal, I had to pay particular attention to where I placed my crutches, avoiding slippery puddles from melding snow. I can close my eyes and visualize many of the floor surfaces to this day!

Those floors didn’t look a bit like the fun and fanciful Forbo Marmoleum flooring shown here, but I bet the kids who play on this floor will remember it – and it may still be there when they come back to visit with their grandchildren in tow.

Glass Tile for Sustainable Style

Glass tile is a classy, eco-friendly material. In this post, I’m going to review three tile manufacturers not just to aid and entertain you, but also to give myself a chance to gorge on some delicious eye candy.

Stairway featuring Debris Tile from Fireclay
Stairway featuring Debris Tile from Fireclay. Half of that content comes from recycled glass bottles.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I have a passion for glass: art glass, doorknobs, drawer pulls, jewelry – and of course, glass tile! I find the color caught inside glass even more satisfying than my watercolors. (My paintings are not soft and watery like a Turner landscape; the colors are vivid and I love definitive line and form.) I experience a physical thrill of pleasure when I gaze into glass, observing the way it concentrates color – so pure, so transparent and intense! Then too, I love the bubbles, gradients, layers and textures that form in glass.

You can get glorious color, transparency, and texture in glass tile, and you can feel good about choosing it. Glass is an earth-friendly material.

What’s more, glass is completely recyclable, a substance that can be designed into a cradle-to-cradle manufacturing process. Old glass can easily be ground up, melted, and then recast into dishes, counter tops, tile or what-have-you.

Glass is made from three common substances  – silica, lime, and soda ash – that occur the world around, so it seems that plants making tile from recycled glass should be located all across the country.  My searches turned up numerous companies recycling glass into tile on the west coast, but I found almost none in the center of the country or on the east coast! Ecologically speaking, it’s far better to buy regionally – within 500 miles –  and avoid generating a big carbon footprint by shipping your glass tile a long distance.

Calliope Garden glass tile from Hakatai Tile
Calliope Garden glass tile from Hakatai Tile

Whether you want to bring elegance to an entry, add color to a kitchen, beautify a bathroom, or put sparkle into a stairway, glass tile offers ways to do it. Glass tile is durable, easy to clean, and comes in an amazing range of styles and colors. Because I’m writing a blog rather than a book, I will cover only a few color and style options here. But the links at this post’s end will help you find choices galore as well as eco-conscious suppliers around the country.

Glass: Handle with Care

As with most materials, glass has its weak points: Because it’s usually slippery, it’s usually not a good choice for floors, except as a small accent. Because glass will shatter when subjected to extreme heat or cold, and because it can chip or crack if you accidentally whack it with a skillet, it’s not recommended for counter tops. (There are special forms of tile that combine glass with other materials and provide a very durable counter top while incorporating glass.) Glass tile works well for back splashes, for shower surrounds, on fireplaces, in swimming pools, around fountains, on the sides of steps, and on walls.

Choosing Your Colors

Glass can be glitzy, and the color can be intense. That’s one of its wonders, of course, but it’s easy to get carried away. If you want to choose vibrant or metallic colors, it’s probably best to make that glass tile an accent, rather than the main body of a wall. Designers often use a 60/30/10 rule for balancing color; they allocate a base color to 60% of a room, 30% to a related color, and 10% to a contrasting, accent color. Colors that “work” together usually form geometric patterns when laid out around a color wheel. Designers actually have names that describe those relationships; for example, there are jazzy complimentary palettes, subdued monochromatics with tints or shades, and colorful triadic palettes.

I would avoid trendy color combinations. There’s nothing wrong with powder blue or brown, but if you choose a tile that mixes those two colors for your kitchen, they will be together for the life of the tile. Right now that combo is in. But in a few years, someone will walk into your kitchen and think, “Oh yes! That was done in 2009, when those late 1960’s shades came back.” If you want to be au courant, you can paint the room powder blue and accent it with brown tile. When that palette starts to look “so 2009”, you can replace the powder blue paint with another color, changing the color scheme with far less labor and expense than would be involved in tearing out part or all of the tile.

Brick Mirror tile from Glass Tile Oasis

Here’s how I might go about creating a palette around the Glass Tile Oasis brick mirror glass shown at left. I would first choose the room’s base color; it might be an amber or the ivory in the tile. If you’re not working with a color consultant, I would advise you not to choose a dark or unusual color as a base for your palette. (An expert can make a purple room look great, but it’s hard to do, and getting it right takes skill and practice.)

This tile includes some shades of burnt orange or magenta that might work as an accent for an amber room, and the tile’s pink and purple shades would certainly work as accents in an ivory room.  But the reverse – say a purple room with amber and pink accents – will probably prove darkly unsettling.

Fireclay Tile, California

Fireclay Tile was founded by Paul Burns, who first started making tile with his uncle when he was 10 years old. Since founding Fireclay with three partners, Paul has devoted his efforts to finding more sustainable ways to make tile, using the most energy efficient manufacturing processes, and incorporating recycled content into his materials. This has resulted not only in beautiful products like the tile pictured on the stairs at the top of this post, it has also made Fireclay an environmental leader. Fireclay Tile’s innovations include:

  • Leadless Glazes – Fireclay converted to 100% leadless glazes in 1989.
  • Vulcanite – In 1997, Fireclay created tile that was glazed and fired from pieces of volcanic lava, a naturally occurring form of glass.
  • Debris Tile – Fireclay began putting 25% post-industrial recycled content (granite dust) into Debris Tile in 2,000. This tile, shown on the stairs, also includes recycled glass.
  • Jellybean Rocks – Firetile has created 20 styles of tile made from recycled materials, including glass bottles, sea shells, or natural stone colors (sometimes mixed together).

Firetile’s website states, “We are a triple-bottom line company and ensure we take the environment into account in every decision we make and pay all of our employees a fair wage and benefits.”

Hakatai Glass Tile, Oregon

Hakatai Enterprises has been importing and distributing glass tile since 1997,  working with architects, contractors and builders, interior designers and dealers, as well as homeowners.  The company was named by its president, Marshall Malden, who has enjoyed backpacking in the Grand Canyon for years. Hakatai, which is pronounced ha-keh-tie, is the Havasupai Indian tribe’s name for the Colorado River, and Hakatai shale is a geologic layer in the Grand Canyon.

Hakatai Tile Mural
Hakatai Tile Mural

Hakatai says that it is “committed to environmental conservation and sustainability.”  Recycled glass is a key ingredient in Hakatai ‘s Ashland-eCobblestone,  Tivoli and Calliope series of tile. The stunning mosaic tile at the top of this post is from the Calliope series. All of the tiles in these four collections are comprised of between 30 and 70% glass from bottles and/or other waste glass that would otherwise wind up in a trash heap. This waste glass is approximately 90% post-and 10% pre-consumer material.

Hakatai’s designers and artists also can turn any drawing or design into a hand-cut,  mosaic mural, like the one at left. This link to their website will lead you to a stunning collection of custom murals.

Sandhill Tile, Idaho

Founded in 1998 in Fairbanks, Alaska, Sandhill is now located in Boise, Idaho. The company’s products, including the elegant grey and sage “field tile” glass shown just below, are made from 100% recycled materials. Each tile takes less than one-half of the energy to produce than ceramic tile, and less than one-fourth of the energy it takes to produce a cast-glass tile.”

Tile manufactured by Sandhill

Sandhill’s manufacturing process came out of a a two-year research project. The project was initially funded by an Alaska Science and Technology Foundation grant that was awarded to develop an innovative glass-fusing technology that utilizes 100% recycled glass.

Sandhill produces tile for both commercial and residential projects. It comes in 36 colors and matte or gloss finish. Their line includes field tile, border designs, mosaic blends, and deco pieces. Hakatai recently received the EPA Evergreen award for environmental excellence and leadership.

Glass tile from Sandhill Industries. This is a "field concept" that incorporates two kinds of tile: Riverblend field tile and a 4x4 inch Cypress deco piece.

Installation Tips

Because it’s transparent, glass showcases the skill of the installer – or lack of it – more readily than other sorts of tile. For that reason, I urge you to resist any latent impulse you feel to install it yourself.  Hire a professional instead.

You should demand to see a prospective installer’s previous jobs before you hire him or her, and it’s also good to know what to look for in an installation. Here are some tips:

  • Make sure the grout color is right before the installer begins work. You can preview the look of the finished grouting job by sprinkling a teaspoon of dry grout in between some tiles.
  • Don’t let the installer mark on the wall. Contractors customarily pencil notes and write measurements on the wall when laying tile, but with glass tile, those marks will show through.
  • Before the adhesive sets, all the grout must be thoroughly cleaned from tile’s surface.  Once the grout has set, it can’t be removed – ever! You must remove and replace the tile to fix this problem.
Bronze Pearl 1" x 4" Black Kitchen Matte and Iridescent Glass Tile from Glass Tile Oasis
  • Glass tile usually comes covered with a paper “backing” that is actually attached to the face of the glass to protect it from scratches. Problems can occur when a person gets confused about which side of the tile should be placed up or attempts to take the paper off too soon, before the tile has set into the adhesive. (Given the need to also clean grout off the face before it sets, timing can be very tricky; this is why your contractor’s experience is so important.)
  • Never throw any grout, or anything with grout on it, down a sink, drain, or toilet. The grout will bond to the pipes and ruin your plumbing. Your contractor should use containers and materials that can be placed into the trash at the job’s completion – and you should also insist that the contractor cleans up the work area and disposes of the leftovers.
  • Reserve some tile in case you later need to replace a few tiles.

Hats Off to the Glass Artists!

Ancient Roman glass and mosaic floor

I have always wanted to learn to blow glass, so I signed up for a one-day class at Public Glass in San Franciso.
I came away from that day with an increased admiration for the gaffers who practice the strenuous-yet-delicate art of glass blowing. I’m grateful for the crews of artisans who brave the rigors of the hot shop so that the rest of us can admire the beauty of glass in total thermal comfort.

The temperature outside was in the eighties, and that made the hot shop a virtual Sahara. I needed a much-more buffed upper body to hold the heavy pontil and keep it spinning. My glass kept dribbling away like melted taffy, and it had to be repeatedly rescued by kindly instructors.

At their urging, I spent the day alternately chugging bottles of water, then dousing my hair and clothes with an outdoor garden hose. Inside, they dried almost instantly.

Glass vase by Noah Salzman, one of the fine artists represented in Public Glass' gallery.

By the day’s end,  my insides felt like a bag of broken glass. I suffered muscle aches, shakes, shivers, and a shattering headache – mostly the result of dehydration. It was a chore to muster enough energy to rehydrate before falling into bed, freezing and heaped over with blankets.

 I treasure the lumpy, transparent clear glass holiday ornament I made that day – despite the fact that it’s so thick and heavy, it could never be hung on a tree.

To top it off, I was playing with fire. I could feel the glass kiln scorching the hair on my arms, even when I stood as far back as possible. (Given the physics involved, that made the pontil even more difficult to hold.)