I owe my blog to Annie Elliott, whom I’ve known since 2009, when I worked at Washington Spaces magazine. After the magazine folded that year, all I knew is that I wanted to start my own blog. I loved Annie’s blog, Bossy Color, and asked her who her developer was. She introduced me to Danna McCormick of DLM Web Development, who proceeded to help me give birth to DC by Design in January, 2010. I still work with Danna, and I’m still great friends with Annie—and a regular reader of Bossy Color!
One of the dramas I followed on her blog—and in person, since we also hired the same designer, Nadia Subaran of Aidan Design, to redo our kitchens—was the Saga of the Chinoiserie Tile. After months of hand-wringing, hair-pulling agony, it came out beautifully. So well, in fact, that her kitchen was recently featured in the New York Times.
I’ll let Annie tell you the rest. Take it away, my dear!
Hello, Gentle Readers! I’m so grateful to Jennifer for inviting me to write this guest post for DC By Design!
This is the story of my kitchen backsplash. It doesn’t sound exciting, but I promise you: There Is Drama.
Let me back up.
We moved into our 1910 Wardman townhouse 13 years ago, when our twins were babies. The kitchen was…sub-par.
It had sticky oak cabinets, salmon-colored Formica countertops, and a trashed wood floor. The wall cabinets were short. The under-cabinet lighting gave up long ago. To add insult to injury, there was only 13″ between the countertops and the bottom of the cabinets. (There should be 18″.)
I thought we’d renovate immediately, but you know how it goes when you move into a new house. You want to paint, and maybe build a few closets, and, oh, we need some bookshelves in the family room…before you know it, you’ve eaten through your budget and the kitchen renovation tops a long list of projects you’ll get to someday.
Someday finally arrived in early 2016.
On one hand, how amazing! I’m the client! I get to do what I want to make this kitchen fabulous.
On the other hand, how paralyzing! I’m the client! I’m saying to myself EXACTLY what new clients say to me: there are so many options!
I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted it to be spectacular.
We immediately engaged the services of Nadia Subaran and her fabulous team at Aidan Design. I’ve worked with Nadia many times, and she’s a brilliant kitchen designer. Yes: a designer hiring a designer, but kitchens are a SPECIALTY. While I knew generally what I wanted, I needed an expert to talk through the many nuts-and-bolts questions my husband John and I had. These included whether or not to expand the kitchen; how that would be phased if we did; where we could put a place to eat; and, critically, how to make the most of a small space.
One thing John insisted on — and he’s not usually an insister, so I was happy to accommodate — was a stove wall without cabinets. Range hood only.
OK! I thought. That will be the place for SOMETHING AWESOME. We’ll do a backsplash to end all backsplashes over the stove.
But what would that look like? There’s so much beautiful tile out there…
…but not much of it is multi-colored. I really wanted a lot of color there; we had decided to keep the rest of the kitchen fairly neutral so it wouldn’t compete with the backsplash, whatever it was going to be. (FYI, we were planning on white cabinets in the kitchen, dark blue cabinets in the butler’s pantry, Belgia marble countertops, and stained wood floors to match the rest of the house.)
I thought long and hard about doing a brass backsplash, which really worked for Cameron Diaz.
I wasn’t sure that brass alone was enough to be a show stopper without the amazing emerald-green cabinets, though. In my galley kitchen, emerald green might be a bit much.
Could I do wallpaper?
Hmmm. Closer. But how practical was that? The designer in the photo above was smart and installed marble right behind the stove for durability, but I didn’t want to do that. Could I put glass over the wallpaper? I could just see Windex creeping in along the seams, soaking and warping the paper behind it.
But a floral pattern…that felt like the right track. Something like Gracie wallpaper. Chinoiserie. A mural? I’m really picky about murals…
I was still mulling all of this over when I had a meeting with Aidan Design. Nadia, Kelly, and Megan walked in, and Megan casually dropped this picture in front of me, fresh from her printer.
HELLO!?! What is this?!?!?!?
It was the ANSWER, that’s what! Ho. Lee. Cow. (Well, bird.) Hand-painted Chinoiserie porcelain panels from a vendor in California. Like Gracie wallpaper! I had never seen anything like it.
The panels could be as large as 6.5′ x 3′. The wall where I envisioned the Chinoiserie is 8′ long, though, so I did what any self-respecting art historian would do. I decided on a triptych: 2′ on the left, 4′ behind the stove, 2′ at the right. All 3′ high.
This decision was the turning point for the whole kitchen design. Obviously the Chinoiserie would be the star of the kitchen! The show stopper! A work of ART!
Now, to make it happen. It was the spring of 2016. This, Gentle Readers, is where things started to fall apart.
I should have known from the beginning, because even ordering the samples was a challenge. You couldn’t do anything online with this vendor, so I called.
The first person with whom I spoke didn’t know what product I was talking about. I said, “The Chinoiserie tile. It’s on your website. My kitchen designer saw a picture of it and printed it out. It’s right there.” Nope. No idea.
I finally was transferred to someone who had indeed heard of this product they supposedly sold, and I eventually was able to glean that the panels were completely customizable (great), they’re extremely expensive (not so great), and sure, I could order tile samples for $50 each, and they would arrive in a month (what? Uh, ok).
So I ordered, and I waited. It took at least one more call to goose them along, but the backsplash was going to be the last thing installed in the kitchen, so I figured I had time. When the samples finally arrived, they were beautiful. I had ordered several colorways, but I fell in love
with the red.
I got the estimate. It was roughly a gazillion dollars. Plus shipping from China.
Despite the rocky start with the company — and the cost — John and I decided to swallow hard and move forward with the porcelain Chinoiserie panels. It would be a major investment, but hopefully it would be worth it.
I put down a deposit, and the vendor and I started talking about the drawing. The artist lived in China and would be doing the actual painting, but the vendor was the go-between.
There was a lot of back-and-forth about what I wanted the panels to look like. Chinoiserie, I said. Birds, trees, leaves, and flowers. Like on your sample tiles. Like in the pictures ON YOUR WEBSITE. I sent them pictures of Gracie wallpaper and said, “Like this.” I didn’t want to tell the artist what to do; this was supposed to be one-of-a-kind, right? It was costing as much as a large painting, so paint something with birds, trees, leaves, and flowers. And whatever else you think would look spectacular.
So I waited. And waited. I had sent the drawing from Aidan showing exactly where the panels would go in the kitchen, but I explained that of course the scale would be different on the actual panels:
The birds, flowers, trees, etc. should be the scale of Gracie wallpaper. The scale of the other panels they’d done. The scale of the pictures ON THEIR WEBSITE.
Finally, around 6 or 8 weeks later, I received a drawing. Wouldn’t you know it: the scale of the drawing was EXACTLY what was in Aidan’s elevation. Gigantic. A child-eating bird and kudzu climbing up the wall. I had taken great pains to explain what I had in mind. Small birds, trees, and flowers, like the panels ON THEIR WEBSITE.
I truly didn’t know how I could have been clearer. (Shame on me for trying to show them where the panels would be installed.) I asked for a different project manager, apologetically explaining that there seemed to be a communication gap. Someone was brought in to try and help, but I think it was the sales rep.
4 weeks? 6 weeks? later, I received another drawing that looked close enough to approve. Fine. Imaginary red flags waving and warning sirens blaring, I decided to go ahead. I mean, the panels were going to be GORGEOUS, right?
Around this time, I got sick. Really sick, for about 3 weeks. It was at exactly that time that the original project manager called for the 50% deposit on the backsplash. Determined not to delay the project any further, I croaked out my AmEx number and collapsed in a sweaty heap, satisfied that the project was now well underway. It was August. The panels were supposed to take 8-10 weeks after the design was approved, and demolition on the kitchen had already begun.
I heard nothing. I heard nothing. I heard nothing. I recovered from the virus. Fall happened. I called. I kept emailing for an update. It was like yelling into the void. And then one day, I looked at my American Express bill and realized that they had charged me the ENTIRE amount of the panels. The ENTIRE amount. I called. I pointed this out. We’ll take care of it, they said.
Please keep in mind that I started conversations about these painted porcelain backsplash panels with the company in the spring. I signed paperwork in August and approved the preliminary drawings in September. So yeah: I’d hoped the panels might be a tad farther along
Finally, in DECEMBER, I received a photograph of the almost-finished panels.
I requested very few changes:
- I requested that a dragonfly become a butterfly.
- I asked for another bird on the right so the tree wouldn’t be lonely.
- I requested more color going up the leaves of the trees; this looked unfinished to me.
- I asked whether the background could be a little richer and redder, like my sample tile.
- I also requested that some of the purple flowers change to blue to help the transition
from the butler’s pantry.
- I wanted to see where the cuts would be to ensure that I wouldn’t be staring at a decapitated bird as I stir my pasta.
So this was the revision:
They got the butterfly, the blue flowers, and the additional bird, but there was no change in color. I mentioned this to them, but naturally there was no response. In the end, I told myself to let the artist do his job and it would be fine. I wanted to keep this moving.
Throughout all of this, I kept asking the vendor via phone and email to credit me 50% of the backsplash cost, which was supposed to be the balance paid upon SUCCESSFUL DELIVERY of the panels. Ignored. Ignored. Ignored.
So I asked good old American Express to step in. Funny how that got the vendor’s attention. Was that the reason that I received a photograph of the finished panels a mere 4 weeks after the adjustments to the design were made?
At the end of December, I received this picture of the finished panels:
Hmm. Looked pink. And no green leaves going up the panel. I was not thrilled. But I figured that once it was in, I’d love it. I just wanted this to be over.
All that remained was for me to pay for the shipping, and the panels would be put on a boat. The cost had always been, “X plus shipping.” Being a designer myself and having a good feel for what shipping costs, I thought I had a reasonable idea of what that cost would be.
I was wrong.
The vendor emailed the invoice for the shipping fee. I had a heart attack.
The shipping cost, Gentle Readers, was thousands of dollars. THOUSANDS. Please note the plural. I could have bought a secondhand car for the shipping fee, no exaggeration. But a car wouldn’t have looked great over my range.
I did not know what to do. I felt like an idiot. We were so over budget, and for a backsplash that, based on the pictures, did not match my original vision. A backsplash I was not certain I was going to love. A backsplash that had been such a nightmare to produce that I was seriously worried that every time I looked at it, I would be reminded of the hellish process and wouldn’t be able to appreciate it.
I called the vendor. I spoke with the owner. I asked how they could not have given me an INKLING of what the shipping charge would be, considering what a big percentage of the overall cost it was. I got zero satisfaction from the call.
I seriously considered eating the cost of the deposit and starting from scratch. I would have lost thousands of dollars, but faced with paying SO MUCH MORE for something I was unsure about…I just felt sick.
I asked my fellow Bossettes what I should do. I think I was crying. Christy, so sensible, so kind, looked me straight in the eye and said firmly, “You are going to pay it. You are going to pay it, and they are going to send the damn backsplash, and it will be installed, and YOU WILL LOVE IT. You will look at it every single day and love it. And you will not think about the cost because you will be so happy. You will never have to deal with this vendor again.” I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist. And then she talked about having some kind of ceremony involving sage after the panels were installed, which sounded like a pretty good idea.
Ashamed of my own naiveté, I went to John. For a moment, I seriously considered trying to hide the unanticipated shipping expense from him somehow, but that would have been ridiculous. And impossible, and a potential marriage-destroyer.
I should have had more faith. John just shook his head and said, “Well, they have us by the !#$%$. What else can we do? Just pay it.” I love him.
So I paid the ransom. And the tile was released from China.
At the end of January, a 325-pound crate arrived.
I got my drill and took the top off. And I pulled out…a shard. Then another shard. And another.
Yes: They arrived broken.
It isn’t surprising, though, considering the crate that was used:
The artist who spent weeks painting 3 large, gorgeous ceramic panels saw fit to pack them in a single box with only 1″ of styrofoam between each panel. The panels weigh 325 POUNDS, Gentle Readers. How could anyone could expect thin pieces of styrofoam and one small crate to protect them?
The saddest thing is that I wasn’t even that surprised to have the panels arrive broken. The whole process had been such a nightmare…it was bound to end in disappointment~
When the vendor offered a replacement — another 8-10 weeks of waiting with no guarantee that the panels would be packed any differently — or a refund, I chose the latter.
One catch, though: before they’d refund my money, I had to pay several hundred dollars to ship the crate of broken panels BACK to them.
Seriously? But you know what? At that point, I would have paid money to never work with that vendor again. So that’s what I did.
That, Gentle Readers, is the nadir of the story. I started conversations with the vendor in the spring of 2016. It was then early February, 2017. The rest of the kitchen, happily, was finished. But it wasn’t FINISHED finished.
After a week or so of wallowing in backsplash-deprived self-pity, I dusted myself off. I figured there had to be other ways that one can get birds and leaves into one’s kitchen if one is a teeny bit flexible.
I had been so committed to the idea of THOSE porcelain Chinoiserie panels that I hadn’t thought how I might be able to get the same effect but in a different way.
Well, when Kellie and her talented team met with me, they had some terrific ideas:
- A mural. Again, I’d thought about that, but it didn’t feel right for this space.
- Painting a canvas, attaching it to the wall, and coating it with a super tough (non-
flammable!) clear shellac-y type material. That’s the picture above – isn’t it amazing?!
- Large painted ceramic tiles in a Chinoiserie pattern…12 x 24, 24 x 30, etc.
- Or, reverse-painted glass — eglomisé, if you’re familiar with that term.
Hmmm…eglomisé. It’s a hundreds-of-years old technique, which appealed to me, and the images are so rich and have depth. When Kellie mentioned eglomisé, she was thinking about glass TILES. “But,” I asked, “Would it be possible to do this on larger pieces of glass?
Say…panels that were about 2’ x 3’ and 4’ x 3’?”
They hadn’t done it before, but boy, were they willing to try!!!
Roberta Marovelli, the artist, is BRILLIANT. She brought over color wheels so we could get the red and greens perfect. We looked at Gracie wallpapers and other Chinoiserie images. I wanted the look to be very refined, not at all cartoony. “I want it to look like an English engraving,” I said, “or an Audubon drawing.”
Done and done. Here is Billet Collins’ Instagram picture of the sample tile they produced so we could check the color, the level of detailing, and the GILDING! Yes, Gentle Readers, we did some GOLD LEAF on this puppy!
You can see the “cartoon” in the background of the picture above. That’s the life-size drawing done on tracing paper that we taped onto the actual wall so we could see how the scale would look, make any adjustments, that kind of thing.
Not that we made many changes, mind you – Roberta knew exactly what I was after. Here is the first layer of paint on the tempered glass. Remember: she’s doing it all in reverse, since she’s painting on the back side of the glass.
And here’s Roberta doing another layer:
I cannot tell you what a RELIEF it was to work with the amazing women at Billet Collins – Roberta, Kellie, and Barbara. A relief, and a true pleasure. They’re artists, but they’re also consummate professionals. It wasn’t enough that these panels were being made for me, for my
kitchen, for this space, in the colors I want. No, Roberta and Kellie asked me to send some of my favorite flowers and birds so they could incorporate them into the painting. So I sent off peonies and some of the birds that we see on the Eastern Shore. It’s pretty fun to see this little guy when I’m cooking.
And here, Gentle Readers, is how it looks today:
On the other side of the kitchen, opposite the Chinoiserie, we did reverse-painted gold panels. They’re subtle and sparkly and pretty, but they don’t compete with the other side.
Thrillingly, The New York Times featured my backsplash in a story this month, which is on my press page.
It’s funny how things work out, isn’t it? If the original porcelain panels hadn’t broken, I might have installed something that didn’t match my original vision, I would have spent way too much money and felt icky about it, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work so closely with Billet Collins, and, when Steven Kurutz from The New York Times called to talk about how to use glass in amazing maximalist ways, I wouldn’t have had much to say, let alone pictures to send.
P.S.: I think the vendor finally came to its senses. Despite press reports in early 2016 that heralded this “bespoke collection” from “a traditional Chinoiserie artisan studio in China,” a search this morning for “Chinoiserie Collection” on the website yields, “Sorry, no longer here” and “Sorry, there are no products in this collection.”
All in all, a very happy ending.