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Step aside, white subway tile: A perfectly imperfect alternative is becoming the ubiquitous choice for backsplashes and shower surrounds. Made for centuries using the traditional Moroccan method—dried in the sun and hand-glazed—zellige (rhymes with “prestige”) tile is flawed and irregular. Though the exact origins remain as muddy as, well, clay, its name is believed to derive from an ancient Islamic art form known as zellij, which was devised around the 10th century to adorn mosques where portrayals of deities are banned.
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Fever for the Moorish tile reached a new pitch in 2019—perhaps influenced by a 2018 Salone del Mobile installation by Hermès that featured dwelling-like structures crafted from 150,000 glossy zellige tiles—and has only risen since. “This particular tile has taken a very strong hold in the tile industry,” says Decorative Materials president Kirsten Schmit. And no wonder: In a built world that too often relies on mass-produced, cookie-cutter materials, “no two pieces of zellige tile are the same,” Schmit says. “It embodies a handmade tile with its rough, undulating edges and imperfect surface.”
The glossy tile supplies a textural touch that utilitarian kitchens and bathrooms often lack. “It reflects the light so delicately because it has depth; the uneven edges add even more interest,” Schmit says. And while the traditional zellige tile is square, new shapes and sizes are constantly hitting the marketplace. “They’re introducing trapezoids and scalloped mosaics, and they’re mixing the colors,” Schmit says of the evolution. “I cannot wait to see what’s next.”
Is zellige tile right for your project?
The beauty of zellige tile comes from its uneven texture and color variation, but that’s exactly what can make it tricky to install. It’s a job best left to the pros, Schmit says. “Hire a qualified contractor who can install proper grout joints and blend the varied colors.” Consider these factors as well: Zellige tile is thicker than most others, so ensuring that your surface allows sufficient depth for installation is key; the handmade tile tends to be sold at a higher price point; and its glazed surface can be slippery, so if you plan to use it on a floor, opt for a smaller size to increase traction.