Category: Kitchens

Affordable Ways to Update an Outdated Kitchen

Affordable Ways to Update an Outdated Kitchen

By Jane Blanchard, Guest Blogger

Your kitchen isn’t just where you cook your meals and store your food. Today the kitchen is the center of our home; it’s where we eat, where we hang out, and is frequently the room where families spend the most time together. If you’re wanting to bring your kitchen into the twenty-first century and a total overhaul isn’t within your budget, here are some effective yet inexpensive ways to update your kitchen and make it a space that better represents your design sensibilities.

Paint Those Dark, Dated Cabinets

Via Houzz

If your home was built twenty or more years ago, you’ve probably got very dark cabinets, which means you’ll want to bring color and light into the space. When your cabinets are wood and still structurally sound, a couple coats of paint in a fun color can bring your kitchen back into the now.

In the kitchen pictured above, the cabinets were painted a lovely shade of matte blue and affixed with stainless steel fixtures to give a more refreshing, playful, contemporary look. And the best part is that this transformation will cost you just a fraction of what even the cheapest cabinets would set you back.

Rethink the Lighting Situation

Via Houzz

Lighting is easily overlooked, but putting in new fixtures and adding under-cabinet lighting can make a huge difference. The galley kitchen pictured here, at left, features hanging beaded globe lights that cast beautiful and dramatic light through the room.

The lighting installed beneath the cabinets can illuminate all the chopping and prep for your meals and are as attractive as they are functional.

Additionally, if you shop smart for your fixtures, this update definitely won’t break the bank.

Crown Those Cabinets

You’re probably aware that most kitchen cabinets don’t reach the ceiling. Depending on ceiling height and cabinet size, there could be a small space up to a rather large space between the top of your cabinets and your ceiling.

A great way to add style to your kitchen without replacing your cabinetry is to build crown molding to attach to the top of your cabinets. Whether the molding closes the gap to the ceiling or is just a decorative extension, building crown moldings won’t cost near as much as replacing your cabinets would.

Via Houzz

Additionally, if you build a frame on the molding you can attach the moldings from behind without having to fill nail holes. As you can see in the kitchen pictured here, crown moldings can enhance the way your cabinets look and make a huge difference in your kitchen.

Bringing Back Vinyl

Vinyl floors have had a bad reputation. However, there are now some truly beautiful vinyl floors on the market that are inexpensive and come in a remarkable variety of colors and patterns. Whether you want a hardwood or poured concrete look, or maybe you prefer a tiled look, there are many vinyl options to choose from.

Via Houzz

Vinyl peel-and-stick tiles are laid one by one, which is why they look infinitely better than those sheets of linoleum that probably make you cringe. As in the kitchen pictured here with vinyl floors meant to look like stained concrete, vinyl is a great, affordable way to renew your outdated kitchen.

For more ideas and inspiration, please go to


Old Beams Get New Life

America’s history — tons of it — rests in the Distinguished Boards and Beams lumberyard. The timber here comes from old factories and barns all across the United States, a few dating baBarn375ck to before there was a United States.

“Right now we have wood from a 1775 Kentucky chestnut cabin and a barn built in 1890 in Michigan,” DB&B owner Robbie Williams told the Sopris Sun. “We took those buildings down ourselves and numbered all the boards, so they can be put back up again.” The barn was huge: 40-by-70 feet with a roof peak 48 feet high. The trees harvested to build it were at least 100 years old, so they began their lives around the time when Peter the Great was crowned Czar of Russia.

It would be tough today to find lumber this massive; some beams measure as much two feet square by 36 feet long and weigh more than a ton. The wood is denser than modern lumber because it came from slow-to-mature species in first-growth forests: hardwood oak, elm, ash, hickory and maple. The yard also holds softer woods like Douglas fir, redwood and longleaf heart pine.

Because DB&B relies on scouts across the U.S. to find outdated barns and buildings slated for demolition, nearly all of the wood comes from domestic forests. DB&B re-manufactures all of the lumber here in Carbondale.

Restaurant interior made using lumber from Distinguished Boards & Beams

DB&B’s reclaimed wood is used for flooring, paneling and ceilings in custom homes, restaurants and office projects. It can be seen in the bar at Hattie Thompson’s restaurant in River Valley Ranch, and at Town restaurant and Fatbelly Burgers on Main Street. Architects and interior designers in the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond prize the lumber because weathering, saw and axe patterns, worm holes and hand-cut mortise and tenon joints give it exceptional character.

Right now, in addition to the Michigan barn, DB&B’s stock includes two complete cabins, redwood salvaged from wine and yeast vats, and white oak reclaimed from a defunct factory — all of it dated before 1910.

Detail of old, hand-hewn beams — lots of character!

“Every now and again, we find dates chiseled and signatures into the lumber,” Williams said. “We see Roman numerals cut in to tell carpenters how to put a building together. The builders would cut all of the wood and then move it and reassemble it in place.”

Although there are environmental benefits to recycling old trees, reclaimed lumber can contain rusty nails and hardware. It can host dirt, mold, bacteria and bugs. In addition, many types of wood shrinks and develops “face checking,” small cracks that parallel the grain, when lumber is moved from moister areas to Colorado’s dry climate.

To stabilize the wood, DB&B dries its lumber for five to 10 days in one of two kilns. Next, they square up the boards, trimming them to the client’s specifications, milling them to consistent depths and adding tongue-and-groove edges that prepare them for second lives as flooring or wall panels.

Met in college

Williams and his wife, Carbondale Board of Trustee member Pam Zentmyer, started Distinguished Boards & Beams about 10 years ago. The two met in Boulder during college. Williams, who grew up in Gunnison, spent a month climbing in Peru, and returned to the U.S. “completely broke.” He offered to housesit for friends in Zentmyer’s hometown and wound up becoming a Carbondale resident.

Flooring made from recycled wood.

The company now keeps 14 full-time staffers busy. Three of them, including Zentmyer, run the office. The rest sort wood for orders; run big, commercial Wood-Mizer saws that can churn out as much 15,000 board feet per run; and create custom millwork for clients.

Williams’s first exposure to reclaimed wood came after a friend who had done a demolition job in Crested Butte suggested, “we should try selling this to people.” Soon after, Williams’s brother Brad invited him to help him pull down a New Hampshire barn that had been built in 1780.

“We brought the barn back to Carbondale and sold it in pieces,” Williams recalls. “We rented some space and stored the barn. That got the inventory started. Then we had a bunch of wood that came out of a big auto factory in the Midwest. Those beams were 17-by-17 inches and 20 feet long. We had five semi loads of them.”

Although the auto factory is long gone, Williams still has a piece of the barn. It’s a chunk of weathered wood that holds an inscribed brass plaque and a photo, a commemorative gift to Williams from brother Brad.


NOTE: This story originally
appeared in the Sopris Sun,
Carbondale’s community newspaper. Images courtesy of
Distinguished Boards & Beams.

All That Glitters is Not Gold – It May be Porcelain

These days, as the proud showroom manager for the Balentine Collection in Aspen, Colorado, I get to see a lot of handsome new ceramic, porcelain and stone tile products making their way onto the market. Lately, I have been having a flirtation with metal tile.

Usually, metal tile is not made only of metal. Often, the metal is a cap over porcelain or ceramic tile, or the metal shine comes from a glaze. Sometimes, pieces of metal or metal tiles are combined with stone (and/or glass) in a mosaic. Here’s an example. This travertine and copper border comes from Australian tile manufacturer Maniscalco.

Bondi Beach Borders: Hotel Bondi

I love the interplay of color and light in the copper, and the contrast of textures between the metal and the travertine. This 3 in x 11 3/4 inch border is called Hotel Bondi and is part of the Bondi Beach Borders™ series. It would be stunning in a kitchen or a bathroom, or as an accent on a mantel.

Porcelanosa: Ironker Cobre

The image above is Ironker Cobre from Porcelanosa. This is a large format porcelain tile — 17″x 26″ — with a metallic shine, and it’s extremely versatile because the pieces are so large. Because it’s durable and somewhat textured, Ironker makes a great, non-slip flooring material. Porcelanosa features it as flooring in their installation shots. Can you visualize this in a bistro-styled dining room or around a home bar?

Copper Flashing

Flashier still is La Nova’s Metaluxe Flashing. The Metaluxe collection is metal tile over a porcelain substrate. That means that while it’s pretty enough to be installed inside, it’s also tough enough for exterior applications. You could install this around your grill on the patio.

This tile comes in a choice of 6″ x 12″,  6″ x 24″ and 12″ x 24″ formats, as well as several colors and brushed metal patterns. In addition to the silver and gold tones shown here to the left and right, there’s also a pale platinum tile.

Because of their industrial chic, I can envision these tiles making a handsome kitchen backsplash. Because of their reflectivity, they would also be good at opening up a too-small or too-dark foyer.

Cobre’s Cousin

The Porcelanosa tile shown above has lots of relatives, all members of Porcelanosa’s Stonker line of porcelains. The Cobre (copper) shown above is actually part of the Ironker (iron) family, which also includes an Ironker Acero. Even more extensive is the Ferroker group, which includes Ferroker Alumino, Ferroker Caldera, Ferroker Niquel, Ferroker Titanio and their handsome parent: Ferroker, shown in the detail below.

Porcelanosa: Ferroker

Ferroker is a Stone-Ker porcelain tile, which can be used on indoor or outdoor walls and floors. It can even live outside happily during Aspen’s ski season, which makes it a great choice here in the Rockies. Stone-Ker tiles are made with 95% recycled materials, as an added benefit.

Daltile: Fashion Accents: Fortress Shimmer

The handsome mosaic above is a nickel blend from Daltile’s Fashion accent series. It comes in 12″ x 12″ sheets on a mesh backing, so it’s easy to install. The series includes silvers, coppers and wrought iron tiles mixed with glass and stone tile for lots of choice.

Maniscalco: Bondi Beach Borders, Mermaid Rocks

Above is another stunning border from the Maniscalco Bondi Beach series. I recently helped a woman from Michigan redesign her powder room, using it to top a large-scale porcelain that looks like stone with rusty iron accents in it. The room will also have an underlit, translucent onyx countertop holding a beaten copper sink.

We’ll be sending her the tile from our showroom in Aspen. (Given that it’s an international destination, Balentine sells to customers from all over the world. ) This particular combo of stone and metal sounds so gorgeous, it makes me want to fly to the Great Lakes to see it.

Maybe she’ll send me a photo.

Maniscalco Metal Decos

A New Kitchen, A New Life Free from Fear

AFTER: Here's how the west kitchen will look after the remodeling. This side of the kitchen features wheelchair-accessible counters and sinks, and there's a handy counter where the kids can eat.

BEFORE: Here's what the west kitchen looks like now. It houses six refrigerators. In the new design, triple-wide, side-by-side commercial style refrigerators will as hold just as much food while taking up far less space.

I recently volunteered to redesign the kitchen of a domestic violence shelter. Quite a challenge!

Picture your own kitchen after a party, a potluck where a dozen people prepared different dishes. Now, imagine how it would look if it were used by 50 people every day! That’s roughly how many people use the kitchen in a domestic violence shelter, which provides a safe haven to as many as 25 women and their children all at once.

A shelter’s kitchen needs to be as tough as a restaurant or hospital kitchen. But considering the tough times the residents been through, I didn’t want it look or feel institutional. Having taken some similar lumps myself, I think I know how these women are feeling. They want to feel safe, cared for and valued. They need a warm, welcoming space.

Architectural plans and interior designs can’t fill all those needs, but the spaces in our homes – even temporary ones like this one – do carry strong messages. I wanted this one to deliver a very positive message.

I hope to do it with the golden glow of maple cabinetry, Formica 180 FX backsplashes, and counters that look like rosy granite. (A tip of the hat here to kitchen designer and fellow blogger Paul Anater, who suggested using Formica FX for backsplashes.) A handsome floor of Daltile Passagio Nocino ceramic adds an Italian flair. I opened up windows and let the light pour through, and opened doorways and pass-throughs to link the rooms.

Giving Back

I did this pro-bono job over the Christmas holidays. It was an offering I gave in recognition of the good souls who helped me through a crisis similar to those experienced by the residents of SAVE. SAVE, (Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments), is located in Fremont. California, but the address is kept secret to protect its resident women and children from stalking and further violence.

As I told Diane Anderson, Grant Writer and Counselor at SAVE, “What goes around comes around. I know that good will come from this for many people, me included.”

AFTER: The southwest corner of the kitchen will feature a pass-through that enhances safety by reducing kitchen traffic. A newly widened doorway and pocket door on the south wall will open the kitchen for wheelchair access. On the west wall, a Dutch door will prevent collisions and allow moms to keep an eye on kids in the dining/living room.

BEFORE: Here's how this cramped corner looks now.

My kitchen design is a contribution to SAVE’s “Raise the Roof” campaign, an accessibility and remodeling effort that began in 2010. I hope that my plans and drawings will help SAVE win a reconstruction grant from the City of Fremont, and to raise funds from private donors. If there was ever a kitchen remodel that deserved doing, this is it!

As SAVE writes in their grant application:

The kitchen was last renovated in 1998 after a fire destroyed it.

Since then, the kitchen has been used by about 25 people daily (resulting in more than 120,000 uses) and is in need of significant upgrading.

Our kitchen is also not wheelchair accessible, but this renovation will significantly improve our accessibility.

A New Life for the Kitchen

The SAVE kitchen is part of a large house that originally was home to a doctor’s practice and family. The kitchen wasn’t originally intended for the amount of traffic it now receives, and the strain is showing. The counter around the cook top has cracked and there’s a big gap in the surface. The vinyl flooring is curling and pulling up around the edges. Cabinet hardware is loose, and the cabinets are nicked, bumped, and bruised. The finishes and surfaces throughout the kitchen look very, very tired.

In addition, the kitchen suffers from accessibility and traffic problems.

SAVE’s leaders have been gradually upgrading the house to make it accessible to those who are disabled. The shelter usually serves two people each year who are wheelchair-dependent, and many more who have mobility limitations. As they write:

These residents can remain with us for up to 90 days. We recently had a resident who decided not to bring her teenage wheelchair-dependent daughter into our shelter because of the kitchen accessibility limitations. This event really highlighted for us the need to do what we can for all our residents to be as accessible as possible.

The need is especially keen because none of the other three other domestic violence shelters in the area are accessible to those who are mobility impaired.

To fill the gap, SAVE has already installed ramps in the house and built an ADA-compliant bathroom on the first floor. The kitchen is next. My plans will enable SAVE to  make the kitchen wheelchair accessible with widened doors and passages, a pocket door and a wheelchair-height sink and cooking area.

SAVE: Providing More than Walls

The damage that is inflicted on the body in cases of domestic violence heals faster than the emotional, social and financial wounds. As one woman told me eloquently years ago, “The bones have long since healed, but the nightmares remain.”

This visualization was created by the author, interior designer Nicolette Toussaint, using the Revit software program and Photoshop.

Women who muster the courage to escape from their abusers must often leave behind friends, family and jobs, severing ties for their own safety and that of their children. (Although men do sometimes suffer domestic violence, more than 90% of the victims are women.) To survive, some women must leave with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

To understand how hard this is, I ask men and women to visualize the process: Put your wallet, your keys, your credit cards, and all your money on the table. Now walk out of your house. Leave your car. Keep walking. Could you do that? Could you go to a new city where you know no one and start over? Could you leave all your friends and family? Call no one? Ask for nothing? And could you do it without using any part of your identity – education, licenses, business contacts – that could enable your abuser to track you down?

Tools for Starting Over

Because the clients of domestic violence shelters face the daunting task of re-creating virtually every aspect of their lives – as well as those of their children – domestic violence shelters try to offer far more than the safety of their four walls. Here, again quoting from the grant application, is what SAVE has to say about the enormity of the challenge, and what they provide:

Victims of domestic violence suffer hunger, homelessness, underemployment, psychological trauma, substance abuse and a range of mental health issues secondary to the abuse. Children suffer too, with a myriad of problems from poor academic achievement to increased rates of depression, anxiety and conduct disorders. Our program addresses the barriers that victims of domestic violence face on their path toward safety and self-sufficiency.

Formica has changed! This handsome surface is the new FX 180 from Formica, Red Montana pattern. Extremely beautiful, but durable enough to stand up to lots of kids.

Daltile Passaggio 12 x 12 Nocino, a beautiful floor that will withstand traffic and water.

We provide safe housing, food, clothing, financial literacy, employment readiness, and counseling among many other services.the period between July 2009 and June 2010 we received over 4,000 calls to our crisis hotline and provided more than 7,500 shelter and motel bednights. We served about 250 women and children where 94% of the families served had an annual income below $35,000.

Putting a Face on the Issue

Who are these women?

Statistics say that nearly one-third of American women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. I was once one of them, despite having two university degrees and the social privilege that comes with white skin.

The fear sparked by that experience led me to leave my home state of Colorado, severing ties with all but one friend and my parents. I moved to Illinois. Years later, I became a domestic peace advocate and spoke and wrote publicly about the topic in California and other states, but I always remained wary of publicity in Colorado.

The physical bruises fade, but the emotional ones can linger for years.

Thus, I feel a kinship with the women of SAVE. I met a few of them in the process of measuring their kitchen and drilling a few exploratory holes in the wall. The women’s names, like the address of the shelter, must remain secret to ensure their safety. But profiles of some of them are sketched on the SAVE website, and I have taken the liberty of reprinting them here, so that my readers can meet them. Please meet:

  1. Sara, who graduated from SAVE’s transitional housing program,  got a great job with the County and is raising her son in a violence-free home.
  2. Elena, who told SAVE that the first night she spent in our shelter was the first night she had slept without fear in 10 years.
  3. Annie, who got her son back and who told us that the people at SAVE were the first people who believed that she could be a good mother.
  4. Hosina, who told the staff at SAVE so matter-of-factly about all the terrible things her daddy had done to her.
  5. Shelly, who just today got the keys to her new apartment, after 17 years of abuse and almost a year in shelter.

If you would like to help these women, and others like them, I encourage you to visit SAVE’s website and make a donation. The shelter could certainly use your help. Last year, SAVE served more than 4,500 clients while having to cut staff due to loss of funding. What’s more, they desperately need a new kitchen (plans below)!

Floorplan for new SAVE kitchen. Designer: Nicolette Toussaint

I encourage any reader who has a friend or relative who has suffered from domestic violence to donate in the name of their loved one.

If you’re a contractor or manufacturer of appliances, cabinetry, tile or stainless steel countertops, you could do a good turn by making an in-kind donation of your products (hint, hint).

You will find links to SAVE’s website below.

Links for SAVE

Links for Author Nicolette Toussaint

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:

Of Green Lighting and Felonious Filaments

Prima Lighting's Titan Collection Mini-Pendant "Sahara." Dimensions Diameter: 5.61" Height: 5.26" 12 volt; light bulb is 50W T5 GY6.35 12v Xelogen. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

I have seen the light! Specifically, I saw quite a few beautiful and energy-efficient lights recently when I happened into Opus Lights, a new, green lighting boutique in San Francisco.

Energy-efficient lighting sure isn’t what it used to be. Fluorescent lights used to be ugly, noisy, harsh, and undimmable while LEDs were dim and homely. But no more!

Perhaps you want a beautiful, artisan-quality energy-efficient pendant light for your newly remodeled kitchen? That’s no problem. Need a dimmable CFL that doesn’t hum? Okey dokey!

Need a bright, white but low-voltage light to showcase diamonds in a store display? Got it! Want a CFL that will cast a rosy glow on customers in your cosmetics studio? Sure thing! Nowadays, low-energy lights come in different shades of white, and the color can vary over a wide range of possibilities.

As you might have guessed, this post will be devoted to beautiful, energy-efficient lighting, and I will be highlighting several suppliers.

Dim Bulbs and Bright Ideas

Prima Lighting's "Sinclair" in blue flake. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

Prima Tublix low-energy mini-pendant lamp. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

Trista Pendant from Pegasus. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

Clarity Zenon pendant from Pegasus. This 12-volt halogen quick connect mini pendant light includes glass shade, a quick connect canopy, and the bulb for about $185. Dimmer sold separately. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

Ether halogen pendant from Pegasus. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

I’m prompted to write about this topic not only because of the stunning lighting options I have recently seen, but also to mark two important dates:

  • Saturday, March 27, the third worldwide Earth Hour
  • July 1, 2010 – the day when California’s Title 24 energy legislation goes into effect, significantly changing how we in the Golden State light kitchens in both new and remodeled homes.

I also want to award an official Bronx Cheer to the dim bulbs who created the retro-lighting craze in New York restaurants. It seems that quite a few restaurants have made a point of installing energy-guzzling Edison bulbs as part of a design fad; supposedly they are sending a message about style and the old-fashioned goodness of their food.

According to the federal government’s Energy Star program, if every American home replaced just one Edison incandescent with a standard CFL, in just one year, the nation would:

  • Save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes,
  • Save over $600 million in annual energy costs, and
  • Prevent as much greenhouse gas as would be emitted by 800,000 cars.

What’s in California’s Title 24

The old-fashioned “Edison style” light bulb was banned in the European Union several years ago. The US federal government will mandate more efficient bulbs beginning in 2012. As of that date, all new bulbs will use 25 to 30 percent less energy to produce the same light output as today’s typical incandescent bulbs.

Compared to the EU, California has been slow off the mark when it comes to the push for energy-efficient lighting. Our Title 24, which will become the strictest state-enforced energy code in the US when it goes into effect, was first written in 1978 (!) in response to the energy crisis. California’s current standards went into effect in October, 2005, and the new ones were supposed to take effect last August. They were pushed back and will finally kick in on July 1 of this year (2010).

Here’s what they will require of home owners who are remodeling or buying new property:

  • “Edison bulbs” (incandescent lighting) will be allowed in most rooms, if the lights are controlled by a dimmer switch or a sensor that turns them off when no one is in the room.
  • Outdoor light fixtures will need to use energy efficient bulbs or to be controlled by light and motion sensors.
  • At least half of your kitchen lighting – as measured in Watts – will have to come from energy-efficient light fixtures (generally meaning those using CFL or LED bulbs).

Title 24: Tough in Kitchens?

California has a worksheet for evaluating whether the balance of energy-efficient versus old-fashioned, inefficient Watts in a kitchen meet Title 24 standards. The first time I tried to fill out the form, I found it surprisingly difficult! It’s not that the form is unclear, or that the math is difficult. It’s just that the new forms of lighting are so much more efficient, it’s hard to strike a 50/50 balance. To equal the energy consumption of three small of Edison pendants, you wind up lighting the rest of the room like the Eiffel Tower!

A compact fluorescent is roughly 75% more efficient than a Edison bulb that puts out the same amount of light. It’s a bit confusing to think about, mostly because we are accustomed to mentally weighing the amount of light in watts. I know, for example, that I need at least at 75 watts for reading, and that a 40-Watt bulb is too dim.

But that wattage scale is pretty much history now, because an 11-Watt CFL puts out almost as much light as a 60-Watt incandescent. To make a meaningful comparison, you need to look at the light measured in lumens. (I have included a handy table below that will help you do that.)

Meanwhile, here’s what California’s Title 24 requires for kitchens:

  • Kitchen lighting requirements remain much the same as current codes, with the added provision that internal cabinet lighting cannot exceed 20 watts per linear foot of cabinet space.
  • Your low-energy and incandescent lights must be wired on separate circuits.

These standards, by the way, apply to permanently installed fixtures and not to plug-in lamps.

It’s Easy to Do the Right Thing

The good news about the changing California, US, and European standards is how easy it is to comply. Since energy-efficient bulbs have a longer lifespan than Edison bulbs (if you don’t buy the cheap Chinese versions that sometimes get dumped on the US market), the long-term savings should more than make up for the short-term expense of upgrading your lighting.

Prima low-energy wall sconces
Low-energy wall sconce from Prima Lighting. Photo courtesy of Prima Lighting.

It’s even easy to retrofit those recessed, round, can-style lights in your ceiling without rewiring them. The good folks at Opus Lights showed me screw in adaptors that enable current can-style fixtures to use CFLs that look just like current flood-style light bulbs. In addition, you will find several helpful consumer guides to the best in low-energy light bulb options at the end of this post.

Bright and Beautiful

The best news is how beautifully the options for low-energy lighting have progressed in the past couple years. This is true for track and cable lighting systems, for fixtures, for bulbs, and also for the actual quality of the light they produce.

As mentioned earlier, the new energy-efficient lighting options – both LEDs and CFLs – come in different shades of white. The color of light is expressed in Kelvin units. For example, the warm white Edison bulbs we use have a color temperature of up to 2800K, and they shine with a pinkish light. A halogen bulb, on the other hand, measures  between 2800K to 3500K and creates a clear, white light. A cool white incandescent bulb usually has a color rating of 3600K to 4900K.

Designers draw upon an understanding of the color of different kinds of light, and choose lights that make furnishings, merchandise and people look most attractive.

Prima Lighting

Prima Lighting, which manufactures the great lights I saw at Opus Lights, manufactures  low-voltage lighting systems for commercial, residential, retail and restaurant applications. Their products include bendable monorail and cable lighting systems in sleek chrome and muted silver finishes, as well as chandelier and miniature recessed lighting systems. They also have an extensive collection of pendants, many of which are pictured here.

Prima Lighting Rail System in commercial installation. Photo credit: Prima Lighting

One of the brightest spots in Prima’s line is their vast, handsome collection of low-voltage interchangeable spot light track heads. Prima’s signature FIT system features dual slot openings, horizontal or vertical orientation, and multi-circuit operation. Their wide array of interchangeable pendants and trackheads can be mixed and matched with the various mounting systems.

Pegasus Lighting

Pegasus Associates Lighting, which is based in Pittsburgh, PA, is a nationally recognized e-commerce site that sells unique lighting products to a wide spectrum of customers. Judging from their fan club on Facebook, they’re folksy – a family-run company that prides itself on being friendly, helpful, efficient, and enlightening.

Pegasus’ products are extensive. They include barbecue lights, cabinet lighting, cove lighting, desk lamps, display lights, exit signs, fiber optic lighting, light filters, fluorescent fixtures, light bulbs, LED fixtures, lenses, light boxes, louvers, mini pendant lights, night lights, over cabinet lighting, picture lights, reading lights, recessed downlights, rope lights, shelf lights, showcase lighting, step lights, track lighting, transformers, under cabinet lighting, UV filters, wall sconces, work lights, and xenon light fixtures!

Begun in 1993, Pegasus Associates Lighting is a division of the now-anachronistically-named Edison Lighting Systems, Inc., which has been in business since 1987. On their helpful and information-rich website, Pegasus takes pains to communicate their willingness to help you find and use unique and technologically-superior lighting products. Here’s what they have to say:

We consider a lighting product to be unique or, at least, somewhat unique if it is difficult to find, is contemporary or avant-garde in styling, is unusual in some fashion, uses a state-of-the-art light source or optical design, is custom-made, or is energy-efficient… we prefer to offer our customers lighting products that use LED, fluorescent, halogen, or xenon light bulbs instead of traditional incandescent light bulbs, and we prefer to offer our customers fluorescent lighting products that use quiet, energy-efficient electronic ballasts instead of magnetic ballasts.

Lifespan Hrs.
Energy Cost
5-Year Cost
Incandescent 60W 840 1,000 $8.00 $1,200.00
CFL 11W 770 8,000 $1.45 $217.50
LED 5W 625 50,000 $0.40 $60.00

Getting Creative with LEDs

While researching this post, I found several artistically notable light fixtures built around CFLs or LEDs, and I thought I would close by sharing some of those visual delights.

Behar LED Lamp

The first is Cloud Softlights, which was created by the Molo design studio. Cloud Softlights are made from paper, and they are lit from within by LED lights. They are luminous and abstract, and indeed cloud-like. They can be hung in clusters and shaped to fit the space they are lighting.

The second is a designer-style LED lamp from Yves Behar and EcoCentric. To operate the Leaf Lamp, shown at right, you touch it. It responds to touch to turn on and off, and also to alter the brightness level and color temperature. You can adjust its angle  as well. It’s a low-energy lamp that is made from 95% recycled materials. I found it on a United Kingdom-based website, and I don’t know if it’s available in the US. (But I’m sure if you just have to have it, you can talk them into shipping it to you.)

"Fragile Future" LED installation created by Lonneke Gordijn. Photo credit: Wired Magazine website.

The third is “Fragile Future,” the ethereal LED installation shown at left. Begun as  designer Lonneke Gordijn’s graduation project from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2005, the sculptural installation pairs the fluff from dandelions with LED lights and wires.

Resource Links

Those who are shopping for stylish, energy-efficient lighting would also do well to visit Gold Notes, the blog written by my friend and fellow designer Jamie Goldberg. I didn’t know that Jamie was writing about lighting, and vice versa, but when her RSS feed popped into my mailbox, I was delighted by the lighting she had found. I’m sure you will be too.

Last Saturday, in the biggest (and possibly most beautiful) demonstration in the world’s history, lights all over the earth were dimmed in honor of Earth Hour – an event designed to raise consciousness about energy consumption and global warming.