Tile Shopping 101 With Ann Sacks

From ceramic to terra cotta, tile expert Ann Sacks gives tips on finding tiles you'll love.

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Above: Ann Sacks offers leather tile that's suitable for both floors and walls.

Hard surfaces involve hard decisions. Choosing new tile — for a floor, a countertop, a backsplash, a wall — can involve literally dozens of decisions. Do you want terra cotta? Stone? Ceramic? Glass? Metal? Leather? What size? Do you want beveled or straight edge? What color? Do you want a pattern? Bold graphics or an Israeli mosaic? It's enough to send even the savviest shopper running home to curl up on a carpet and vow to swear off hard surfaces for life.

Tile expert Ann Sacks says it doesn't have to be that way. With a few simple questions about how you live, Ann says you can narrow the field down very quickly. Ann became a tile maven by accident, when she walked into a dress shop and spotted Talavera tiles on the counter for sale as trivets. The terra cotta tiles sparked happy memories of a childhood trip to Mexico, and Ann went on binge, tiling over every wood floor in her small bungalow, and selling tile from her home. She sold the company bearing her name to Kohler in 1989 and is no longer affiliated with the business, instead focusing on her new tile venture, Design and Direct Source. Founded in early 2007, Design and Direct Source provides unique tile and stone for large commercial projects.

Selecting tile "requires careful consideration because of the initial cost and the complexity of changing it," Ann says. "But honestly, I think people end up falling in love with a tile and that's why they choose it."

Her tips on choosing tile:

Evaluate your lifestyle. "Ask yourself: 'How do I like to live?’" says Ann. Do you have a lovely formal living room and dining room in which you like to entertain? Or is your home full of kids, friends and neighbors, and you order pizza at the last minute?

A more casual lifestyle might steer you toward practical choices such as slate or terra cotta flooring, "particularly more mottled slates, or slates that appear handcrafted," Ann says. Another good fit: Glazed ceramic floors. "They’re used throughout Italy," she says, "and some of them look very convincingly like nice warm marble or slate. They wear like iron, they clean beautifully because of the glazed surface, and they’re easy to install and to grout, especially in comparison to natural stone. And they’re very affordable."

If your style is more formal, look at limestone or marble. "There's a huge range," says Ann, "from a more traditional, handcrafted look in limestone that’s tumbled or with a distressed surface to suggest age and wear, to beautiful formal patterns or inlaid borders."

Above: The Capri line of ceramic tiles is offered in a variety of subtle shades.

Think about functional realities, too. Porous materials such as terra cotta and limestone are not good choices for countertops or kitchen floors, for example, unless they're properly sealed. Ann herself once made the mistake of installing white, glazed Italian tile for the kitchen floor of her last house. "We had pets and people and cooking and rain, you name it," she says. "It was awful. I hated myself for 10 years. It could work fine for the right family. It could work on the 17th floor of a New York apartment." Now she has a rich ochre limestone.

Check out the other surfaces in your home. If you've got wood floors in your living room, and want tile for your entry, you need to think carefully about where you’ll transition from wood to tile, and about the look of the wood itself. "The grain of wood forms a pattern," Ann says. "And you need to think about how the tile is going to look with the grain. It can be a lot going on if you have a patterned tile floor next to wood."

Over the past 20 years, Ann says, more homeowners have become comfortable with using tile as an all-over flooring material for an entire house. "It’s great for people who don’t like a lot of distractions, a lot of changes. It gives you something visually to take you all the way through the house." Every room on the main level of Ann's home — living room, dining room, kitchen, den, guest bedroom — is now tiled in limestone.

Emote. Just as Ann was transported to Mexico by the sight of a tile trivet, many homeowners want tile that reminds them of a special trip, or favorite memory. "If someone says, ‘I’ve never forgotten going to southern France. I loved the color palette, and the feeling of hand-crafted work,' well, then, they can choose beautiful French tile. For people who have a certain nostalgia about an authentic experience, it’s really nice to carry that into your home."

Finally, consider working with a pro. "It could be an interior designer, or it could be a salesperson in the a tile store. You want to find someone who is trying to discover how you want your home to feel," Sacks says.

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