Thomas O’Brien’s Kitchen Secret: Mirrored Backsplashes

This barbershop staple transforms utilitarian spaces into places of beauty.

August 26, 2022

It may seem strange that the man known for pioneering “warm modernism” is passionate about the humble strip of wall found in most kitchens, running beneath the cabinets and above the countertop. But design is in the details. “Mirrored backsplashes are 100 percent my go-to thing,” says designer Thomas O’Brien from his home on Long Island. “I try to talk people into them all of the time.”

Thomas O’Brien /LAURA RESEN

Mirrors famously bounce light, and make spaces feel more expansive. In the kitchen, they do all this while also adding a layer of functionality you didn’t know you needed. “It’s like the low mirror in a barbershop,” he explains. “The perfect sweet spot. You get to see the back side of what you’re doing—a full view of washing veggies, or cooking whatever—without looking directly into the mirror. It’s almost subliminal. Time and again I find that I’m watching what I’m doing in the mirror as much as I’m watching what I’m doing right in front of me, if that makes sense. It’s amazing.”

Read on to see how O’Brien used a bit of silvery shine to bring utilitarian spaces to life in a few of his own projects.

Thomas O’Brien’s Favorite Mirrored Backsplashes

Laura Resen

A mirrored backsplash gives a “tremendous openness” to O’Brien’s narrow galley kitchen in New York City. “It’s a real sleeper effect,” he says. “You have a 22-inch counter, and suddenly it feels like 40 inches, while the cabinets almost seem to float.” He notes that the mirror is very easy to clean, with no grout getting in the way.


Laura Resen

For a client on Fifth Avenue, O’Brien enlisted a mirrored backsplash to enhance the Art Deco vibe of a butler’s pantry lined with polished French walnut cabinets. When the door is open, the mirror reflects a perfect glimpse of the dining room beyond. “I love that aside from looking sleek and beautiful, it also has that old New York feeling,” he says. “A mirror just lightens up an old space every time.”


Laura Resen

After years of admiring O’Brien’s kitchens, FREDERIC editor-in-chief and Schumacher creative director Dara Caponigro finally hired him to work his magic in her old apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Adding the mirrored backsplash made the small space and narrow cabinets feel enormous. Looking at it again now, O’Brien notes how well the mirror works with the stainless steel table and appliances.