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Lifestyle Home & Garden

Not-so-basic backsplashes bring personality to kitchens

Kitchen backsplashes are a popular kitchen upgrade, right up there with a fancy stone countertops. Tile and glass are probably the easiest and the most common — even the big-box stores carry them now for DIYers. And the Internet is filled with photo galleries for inspiration.

But what Jackie Smith and her architect husband, Chris, do for their customers is off the grid. (Excuse the tile pun.)

"I ask them what would make them smile when they come down for their morning coffee."

That's how Smith begins the process of creating her backsplash murals. Clients send her a list of their favorite things — flowers, birds, animals, Amish wagons — and she designs a three-dimensional clay story panel for behind the sink or above the stove or over the counter of their kitchen.

"They are always kind of surprised," she said in the kitchen of her 120-year-old Westminster house. "Nobody has ever told them they can have whatever they want."

She takes the elements on her client's list of favorite things and creates a world where they all get along.

"My biggest challenge was the client who wanted turkeys, sheep, cats, chickens, hawks, red birds and an Amish boy, an Amish wagon and their Dalmatian. I had to create a scene that made sense," said Smith. Her own kitchen mural includes her cats, Hooper and Cheebers, dogwood, clematis and foxglove. Cheebers is on a dogwood branch. He loves to climb trees.

She sends a drawing to the client and waits for their thoughts or suggestions, makes some revisions and then goes to the workshop in a renovated barn on their 3-acre property and goes to work. Her husband, who is also a potter, often pitches in.

She begins with a ¾-inch thick slab of clay and brings the picture to life in relief by adding clay. Then there is drying and painting and firing. She cuts the murals kind of like a jigsaw puzzle so that important elements are intact.

The entire process might take three or four months and can cost $275 to $300 a square foot. Her murals can be ordered through design centers in several states, including Maryland.

One of her murals featured a row of English Cotswold cottages on one side of the sink, and scenes from an English vineyard on the other. Another client asked her to recreate his koi pond in three dimensions. In another backsplash mural, a rather large horse appears to jump from the side of the cabinets and into an equestrian scene, complete with fences.

In addition to the murals, Smith makes accent or centerpiece tiles, featuring flowers or animals. And she has created bath tiles, floor tiles, countertops, sinks, crown molding and chair rails. Her husband the potter throws whimsical bathroom sinks.

"We are a particular kind of custom," she said. "That's what we do."

At the other end of the backsplash spectrum is the cozy rowhouse kitchen of Dawn and Leo Guevara and their three young children.

When they redid their kitchen four years ago, they installed a glass backsplash with colors that picked up the stainless-steel appliances, the stone floor and the maple cabinets. The panels cost about $10 a square foot.

"It is easy to clean, it is reflective, and it gives the kitchen depth," said Leo Guevara, who installs backsplashes through his company, Bantam Contracting. He said the average backsplash takes about 12 hours to install for an average eight feet of counter space.

Behind the stove and on the wall beside it, he installed magnetic panels from Ikea that hold spice containers, giving his wife extra room to operate and the area a cleaner look.

"It was the last element in the kitchen, and it really made a difference," Dawn Guevara said of her backsplash.

"But we had to be practical and sensible," she said. "The kitchen gets heavy use."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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