Style & Design

Subway Tile Design Ideas & Tips

Subway tile needs no introduction. It’s extremely popular in all different types of home design and has been for years. While we love a unique, bold look, there’s something to be said for the classics. In fact, our Imperial Bianco gloss 3″ x 6″ white subway tile is our most popular seller ever! We sat down with Kirsty, The Tile Shop’s design manager, to learn her best design tips for everything subway tile.

history of subway tile

Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

Created more than a century ago by architects Heins and LaFarge, the original subway tiles were used for, you guessed it, a subway—specifically the New York City subway in 1904. These tiles were perfect for subways because they were simple, clean and economical. They were so efficient that other major cities adapted subway tiles, from London’s Underground to Paris’ Metro. Soon, subway tiles became popular above ground as well, adorning Victorian kitchens and bathrooms because of their sanitary qualities.

Today, subway tiles are much more of a style statement, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still functional and durable. Many people love them for this exact combination. However, there are more choices than ever to consider so knowing what is right for you can be tricky. That brings us to our top three things to consider when you pick out your tile.

Top 3 Things to Consider

Subway Tile Design Tips

Once you know what you want as far as size, finish and shape, it’s time to explore different subway tile designs and what makes them work.

Try using a patterned, wallpaper-look tile above a wainscot and subway tile in a complementary color on the bottom. This will add color and interest to a powder room, and you can still keep the palette neutral.

The vertical straight set pattern in the charming space below adds height to the small shower in a contemporary way. We love how this pattern continues right through the nook and brings mid-century modern style to this soothing room.

With subway tile, pattern is everything. In the frame below, a herringbone pattern defines a focal point without straying from a soft, neutral color palette. There are so many interesting details here to attract the eye.

Subway tile is wonderful as a blank canvas to support other points of interest. A dazzling waterjet mosaic (first photo) or an artistic piece of Laura Ashley art glass (second photo) stand out on a subway tile background. Grout in a complementary color helps the true centerpiece shine. To transition between your subway tile and focal point (and to show it off!), incorporate layering pieces that do double duty.

The character of brick and the versatility of subway tile come together in this beautiful space. An elongated tile in a herringbone pattern gives this cozy nook a unique, textured design.

Featured: Bricklane White. Design by Timber Trails DC. Photography by Stoffer Photography Interiors.

One of the best things about subway tile is the variety of patterns possible. Here, a mix of vertical and horizontal straight stack on the wall lend a modern appearance and a bold, colorful pattern on the floor is a jolt of energy.

Featured: Color Market Patagonia, Wonderland, Lima de Persia, Flamingo and Chili

Ask Kirsty

You asked, she answered! Kirsty offers her advice on some of your most common subway tile questions.

How do I decide on a gloss or matte finish for my subway tile? Is gloss more timeless? What’s easier to keep clean?

Glossy finishes typically present a more traditional and elegant look. Their reflective quality can also make your space appear brighter. Matte finishes offer a more casual, relaxed appearance. They don’t reflect as much light and will give the space a softer look. As far as cleaning, both matte and glossy tiles have their benefits. Matte tile does not show smudges or splashes as easily as a glossy tile, but glossy tile is very easy to wipe down and clean.

What color grout should I use with white subway tile?

Grout has an incredible impact on your tile and the space around it. You have three options: matching, complementary or contrasting grout. The best option for you depends on your goals for the final look. Matching grout to the tile color gives a classic, clean, monochromatic and seamless appearance. A neutral and complementary grout color adds subtle contrast without being a focal point. Opt for a color that accents the tile and overall design. Contrasting your grout color to your tile adds character, creates a bold, dramatic look and shows off the tile pattern. The grout becomes a part of the design rather than the backdrop.

How do I match subway tile with my cabinets?

There is no one formula for matching tile and cabinetry. It’s about what appeals to you. One tip I recommend is to look at your closet. What color clothing do you have? To which colors do you tend to gravitate? Just like your clothing style, you want your home to reflect you and your individuality. It’s also important to think about contrasts. Do you want a monochromatic look or do you want your tile and cabinets to contrast one another? Deciding this will also help guide your tile choice.

What subway tile pattern should I use?

(Tip: Refer to our blog post on subway tile patterns and layouts for examples of these looks!)

The most popular layout is a traditional horizontal brick. To make that appear more modern, use a larger size tile. Vertical and horizontal straight stacks are more contemporary layouts. Any vertical pattern will add height to your space—an offset brick pattern is more traditional and a straight stack is more contemporary. More unique layouts, like crosshatch and herringbone, add dynamic patterns, whether in a monochromatic or multicolored palette. The beauty and glamour of a herringbone pattern are unbeatable.

Between all the shapes, sizes, finishes and patterns available for subway tile, there are countless designs to be discovered. However you decide to use subway tile, just make sure to follow The Tile Shop golden rule, and make it your own!

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