If you’ve ever done a remodel, I think you’ll agree that at some point you hit a “breaking point.” You are so discouraged that it seems impossible that something else could go wrong and it does. You’re almost ready to “hang in the towel.” You are just certain that all of the forces of the universe are working against you. The thought of washing dishes in the bathroom sink becomes unfathomable. It usually works itself out; but, remodeling is stressful. And to make the challenge even greater, Constance didn't hire a designer, she managed all of the procurement and construction work herself while working and attending school. OK, I’m impressed. I finally caught up with Constance and asked her how she did it and if she’d share her project, design and tile secrets with us! I think you will enjoy Constance's insights and fun approach to life.
Tile Talk: You've had a busy spring and your kitchen looks great! How did your actual project schedule compare with the initial schedule?
Oh, golly! Initially, folks told us this project would take one month, though Marc and I knew it would take longer. But all our friends told us that a project like this takes double the time and double the money from what you originally plan, and I did not want to believe that. We started our planning last September and October and demolition in the kitchen began the first of November. We're still not completely finished, but our kitchen was functioning (sans dishwasher) by the middle of January and, as you know, the tile was not installed until the second week of April. By Christmas, we were definitely tired of using a hot plate and the bathroom sink to wash dishes!
TT: Why did you decide to be both kitchen designer and GC (General Contractor)?
It was purely because we were on a tight budget, and we knew that I could set aside several months in which I could be more or less devoted to the project. We worked with a fabulous gentleman, Rako Krsikapa, who was the building's temporary super at the time, and he gave us hope (both budget-wise and layout-wise) that perhaps we really could renovate our kitchen. After much discussion and play with the space, we came up with a workable architectural design, but with no real blueprint except for my notes and what I knew needed to occur. Rako implemented the project, so he and I shared the GC duties so-to-speak. While I was a bit shaky in terms of whether I knew or could learn enough to manage the work, I know I'm a good researcher and producer, and I also ask lots of questions from my vendors so that really, they become collaborators in the project, too. I took measurements, did lots of compact appliance research, and worked with a great salesperson, Mordy from AJ Madison in Brooklyn, to ensure that we had a good overall design with maximum function. (Marc insisted on a dishwasher, and for a while, that was the most difficult element to fit into the design, but wow, am I grateful to have one now!)
TT: What provided the inspiration for your choice of colors and design?
Well... this is interesting because the entire project evolved initially from the idea that we wanted to re-paint the living room area which adjoins the kitchen area. Our bedroom has a color that reminds us of a sunset, so we were looking for some form of "sunrise" in the living room. Last summer we had multiple swatches of paint on our plaster wall and for ages we called it our "Rothko wall." Then, once we determined that we could renovate the kitchen, we began to think of which colors in the kitchen would work with the color we chose for our living room (a Portola limewash in Papaya) given their proximity to each other. We have some lovely friends who are artists and designers, so they gave us great input, and then when Jamie from Portola Paints came into the picture, he really helped me design our color palette.
Three Cement Tile Patterns Considered Toward the Final Design Stages
Mission Trebol A
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I knew I wanted to paint the soffit, which is clearly visible from the living room, some kind of bold blue. But there were two other principles guiding our design choices—I had a mad desire for zinc on the countertops and hand-poured cement tiles on the walls. Also, we did not really have a choice with the design of the base cabinets, as those were the ones Rako needed to work with given our budget and given that he would need to customize the standard cabinets in many places because of the odd measurements of the space. So, with the zinc sample, base cabinet door, and living room paint color swatch, Marc and I took those items and your tile chip set and headed to IKEA (for my first trip ever) to choose the wall cabinets and to determine which tile colors we preferred within the combination.
To all of this, I have to add that Marc and I recognize that we have eclectic and somewhat bold tastes in design. We also like to honor the space in which we live, and we live in a pre-war Art Deco building. In our apartment, the front door is in the kitchen, so not only does the kitchen space need to function well (and we love to cook and entertain!), but it also needs to be inviting and needs to work in combination with the rest of the apartment. Obviously we are not afraid of color. We do have Southern exposure but it is not super-strong as we are in the back of a courtyard with other buildings, so we enjoy inviting brightness in the room. Somehow, we came up with an overall sense of artistic Modern in combination with rustic Mediterranean and pops of Art Deco. Sounds crazy but it works, and I suppose, one of our guiding principles is working with and showcasing artisan materials. I found fabulous vendors to help us to that end—those whom I've already mentioned along with Abby from Gretel Home (pendants and canteen hooks), Jay at Jelinek Cork (mosaic recycled penny cork floor), Marielle at Copperworks (zinc countertops with hand edging), and folks at Bendheim, a wonderful glass factory which we toured in New Jersey (Italian blue etch and Eco Pyramid glass inserts in closet door).
TT: You purchased custom strike-off samples in two cement tile patterns for the backsplash. The total cost of samples was about $150. Do you agree that getting samples is critical to make the right design choices?
ABSOLUTELY!! While the chips I chose with you directed me to colors and helped us choose the Rubrik wall cabinet in blue (originally only intended as an accent cabinet for IKEA), I would have never been able to choose the correct tile without the strike-off samples. I knew that our space could not accommodate one of your beautiful Cuban Heritage patterns (which I still absolutely adore!); we needed something that would repeat without building the pattern across multiple tiles. That said, initially I was leaning toward the pattern of the Ocoa because I just thought it was more interesting than the Romana. But once we saw the 8x8 tiles, our answer was clear and then I was able to build out everything else from that design choice, including the paint for the kitchen, the stain for the hardwood floors, the paint for the open shelves and reconfigured table-turn-cart, and any accent pieces. Also, once I saw those beautiful tiles, I became convinced that I did not want to cut into the tile or interrupt the pattern for electrical outlets. That's when I sought out Dave from Task Lighting to help me design an angled plug-mold for us to install at the edge between the wall cabinets and the tile.
Additionally, I want to mention that we ordered two of each style so we could better see the overall pattern. I almost wish we had purchased four of each because it was not until we put the tile up on the wall that we fully realized the prominence of the "circles" in the Romana pattern. Initially we were concerned (would it look like a circus—squares and circles?), but for some reason, the grout makes all the difference in softening our eye's perception of the pattern.
Lastly, I have to say—and I know it cannot be helped—there is a big difference between what we see on the computer screen and what we see with the actual tile. I hope all of your customers take the time to really investigate which Avente tile will work best for their application. As much as we all want to finish a project in a timely manner and to rein in our spending, for me, it was well worth the wait and additional expense to ensure I determined precisely what we wanted in our space. And given that I had the original sample tiles, I was confident in my recognition that there was a color/execution mistake in the first order. Of course, you were brilliant in working through this issue with us, and we are most appreciative for your help.
TT: What sealer did you use and where did you get it?
Initially we bought three pints of penetrating sealer in December from Richard James Specialty Chemicals Corp. in New York. It was their Stonelok™ "MLT-Plus" water-bourne sealer for concrete in a matte finish, and I ordered the product directly from the company.
TT: I remember you called me to discuss streaking that occurred after the sealer was applied. How did you resolve that problem? With sanding or another sealer?
Unfortunately the application of the sealer may have been our biggest headache. We tested the sealer on a cement sample and realized that it was streaking with typical application. So I contacted Katrine from Richard James for help. She advised that the thinner the application, the better with this particular sealer. With that we experimented some more and found that we could lightly spray the sealer on the tile and then spread it out evenly with a foam brush. But several things went wrong. First, applying sealer to a wall as opposed to a floor requires a lot more care to ensure there are no streaks or drips. To that end, I called Katrine to tell her that I did not like the application, and she overnighted a pint of their newest sealer (they did not have this one in December) that she believed would be more forgiving on the tile. This one is called TK6 NanoCoat in XTRA low gloss, and it comes as a single component, so the pot life of the product is not an issue like the MLT-Plus. Also, Rako did not anticipate the bounce-back from the spray and we ended up with sealer sprayed all over the zinc countertops and appliances, and the blue tape stuck to the countertop in places where the sealant dripped. When I realized all of this the next morning, I immediately called Katrine yet again to see what she would recommend to remove the sealant before it fully cured. (I also spoke with you as well as the folks at Copperworks.) To remove the sealer (and blue tape), I had to work in patches with ammonia, a soft toothbrush, and a plastic scraper. It took forever! Then I had to hand sand each tile to remove as much of the MLT-Plus streaks/drips as possible and then clean the tiles with a sponge. After that preparation (boy, were my arms buff and shoulders sore!), I thinly applied several coats of the new TK6 NanoCoat in sections with foam brushes. I still had to be very careful with some streaking or dripping if there was too much material on the tile, and to this day, there are still two tiles on the wall that bug me because I can see a crisscross pattern from my application of the sealant. The good news is, that overall, the tiles finally looked like the smooth yummy tiles that made me fall in love.
The Devil is in the Details - Understanding how Solid Color Cement Tiles can be bull-nosed provides a Professional Touch
TT: What was the most discouraging moment during the project?
The sealing experience was definitely the most discouraging moment. We finally had these beautiful tiles installed and then their surface was ruined by the application of a penetrating sealer. I was totally depressed. Though, by the end, I felt like I had made love to each and every tile on the wall; I know them intimately now!
I would recommend the TK6 NanoCoat, and if you are doing a wall application, I would recommend PRACTICING on several tiles that are standing upright (even stack some end to end) so you can really get the feel of how the sealer needs to be applied. It may sound like a waste of tile and sealant, but I think it may save you much heartache should the initial application not go well. I also wonder (especially if I had the time and space to do so) if there is any benefit to sealing the tiles with one coat prior to application if you are using tiles on a wall. Doing this is not necessary as a grout release with the Avente tiles and the grout that we used, but perhaps that could help the second coat of sealant go on more smoothly and evenly once the tile is on the wall and grouted. I don't know.
TT: What was the most exciting?
It was pretty darn exciting to see the tile up on the walls! There were many folks who were concerned that these thick cement tiles would not work on a wall, and I am so grateful that they were wrong. I was also worried how well the polk gold edging tiles would work, but I absolutely love how the solid trim works with the Romana tile and on the odd wall indention. Rako did a fabulous job designing and cutting the bullnose tiles to match the details of the space; the polk gold both frames the Romana pattern and gives some added dimension beside that high wall of tile. Given that the Romana tile was the one element that pulled together all of our design choices, it was ironic that it was the very last thing to be installed and so wonderful to see our vision finally fulfilled in its entirety.
TT: Knowing what you know now, would you do it all over again? Or, have you decided to become a Kitchen & Bath designer?
Haha! As a theatre artist, producer, scholar, and educator, perhaps it would be more profitable for me to switch my profession, but alas, I'm not sure I could design for others. This project was just so driven by our specific needs and tastes. I do know I can execute a project for others, and, in fact, soon I will be helping my niece renovate her kitchen here in NYC.
Of course we would do it all over again, even with the insanity of it all. I don't think there was one component of this process or one installation that did not have a hitch of some kind that had to be resolved. That said, we are so thrilled with the results and appreciative to all of those who helped us make it happen. Truly, it is an absolute pleasure to spend time in our kitchen and to experience its beauty in our space. The tiles alone make me smile every time I go to the sink for a glass of water. And, did I mention how much I love using our dishwasher?!? If I could just train the cats to load it...
In all sincerity, every day we realize small surprises about our new kitchen that thrill us. I never realized how helpful it is to have a really deep sink, for example, or how much we love our pull-out trash cans under the sink. Also, not only are we incredibly fond of our zinc countertops, we adore having additional counter space, especially when we have a dinner party. We honestly love the view of our kitchen from our living room; all of the textures, colors, and elements are cheerful and the cement tile wall is really a piece of art.
As soon as we hit a windfall, we'll move on to renovating our tiny New York bathroom with more Avente tile - !! Thank you, Bill. You're a complete dream to work with, and Marc and I look forward to sharing cocktails with you here in New York at our apartment - !
A job well done. Constance, I congratulate you and Marc! Your project is an example of what tenacity and hard work can achieve. It also shows how great design is achieved when your style is the guide. And finally, my hat is off to your construction team - they executed your design with elan! May you continue to find happiness in your kitchen, with each other and in your lives!