You don’t need to be a fan of train rides to add subway tiles into your home
Subway tiles have made their way into many modern kitchen and bathroom designs, even though they got their start in a decidedly more underground sort of way. They are aptly named, making their debut beneath the streets of New York City in 1904 when the first subways hit the tracks.
Despite their pristine white look, those subway tiles—which back then were made of glass—were considered to be the best way to keep subway stations clean and hygienic. But that’s just one reason people love to incorporate them into their home designs.
“Subway tile is able to check multiple boxes for designers and homeowners,” says Eugene Colberg, award-winning architect and principal of Colberg Architecture in Brooklyn, NY. “It provides a design expression that is timeless, modern, streamlined, and contextual at the same time.”
Let’s take a look at how subway tiles have transformed these spaces and how you can try these ideas in your own home.
1. Contrast Patterns and Colors in Other Fixtures with Classic Subway Tile
Classic white subway tile is beautiful on its own. But you can elevate the clean look by adding a patterned inset and hardware that makes a statement of its own.
Tracy B., a Connecticut homeowner, opted for traditional subway tile in two bathroom renovations. The brushed nickel hardware provides a sharp contrast against the white.
“It’s classic and easy to clean,” she says about her decision to go with subway tile for both bathrooms. “When I want a change, I can just get new towels, accessories, and paint. There’s no need to do a major renovation.”
2. Attract Tenants With a Neutral Look
Buyers and renters are drawn to spaces where neutral colors act as a blank canvas for their own design and decor choices. Though subway tiles can absolutely make a statement, they can also blend in and serve to be a chic background aspect of the space.
Tara M kept this blank slate aspect in mind when she renovated a condo in Philadelphia, shown in the photo above.
“I wanted something more modern than a traditional subway tile but still neutral enough that it will appeal to future tenants and stand the test of time without becoming outdated,” says Tara.
Plus, subway tile is easy to keep clean, making it easier for landlords to maintain properties in between tenants.
3. Mix Textures to Create a Theme
Sleek subway tiles are right at home in New York City homes, but that doesn’t mean you have to actually ride the subway to add them to your space. Rather than mimic the look of the subway stations below the street, this Brooklyn brownstone design incorporates elements of the ocean. Subway tile and exposed brick combine for a richly textured backdrop to the space.
“We wanted the sea and water feeling, so we picked a blue counter and white beveled subway style tiles with a wave border at the bottom edge, near the waterline,” owners Chip S. and Norma C. say. “The kitchen is in the middle of the brownstone’s first floor, so the white tiles make it brighter.”
No matter where you call home, you can use subway tiles to add character to your space and even add to a decor theme.
4. Use Subway Tiles to Fit Any Decor Style
The beauty of subway tiles is that they can fit in anywhere and alongside any other design elements you have in your own space.
Check out this recent renovation at Black Rabbit Farm in Southwick, MA. Owner Lauren Kendzierski updated the bathroom with a sleek white subway combined with a gorgeous pop of color and texture from the aqua penny tiles. These two elements may seem like they would compete with each other, but keeping the subway tiles neutral only allows the penny tiles to shine more.
Lauren liked the look of subway tile so much that she included it in her kitchen, too. The bright blue wall is another example of combining bright colors with muted tiles (or vice-versa), which is something any homeowner can learn from.
5. Stack Subway Tiles Horizontally
Many designs feature offset subway tiles that resemble a brick wall. If you’re looking for something a little different, you can change the look entirely by stacking the tiles instead.
Robin F., a homeowner from Long Island, shared photos of her recent renovation. The subway tiles are stacked horizontally for a neat look that’s anything but boring. The dark gray tiles on the shower floor and the simple brushed nickel hardware contribute to an industrial-chic design.
6. Embrace a Perfectly Imperfect Look
While white subway tile usually calls to mind a smooth, even look, some homeowners are opting for tiles with a slight undulation to them that lends a bit of character to the space.
“I liked that there were imperfections in the tile,” Nanette S. said of the design choice she made for her condo in Staten Island, NY. She noted that they’re called handmade tiles, even though they are mass-produced. She chose white grout to add even more brightness to the kitchen, which features traditional wooden cabinets in a rich brown.
7. Opt for Texture
The all-white kitchen trend is still popular, but you can make your mark on yours by choosing glossy subway tiles with texture.
Cara B. did extensive renovations on a home she purchased in Smyrna, GA. Here, she shares photos of the kitchen redo in the basement apartment. The subway tiles stand out even more because of their high shine and slight wave to them. This pattern combines perfectly with the grout, a slate/black shade that provides a welcome contrast to an otherwise neutral palette.
8. Use Dark Grout Against White Tiles
Matching tiles with grout color isn’t the only way to achieve a clean look in your space. Dark grout calls attention to the simple symmetry of subway tiles. If you’re on the fence about using a dark grout against a white subway tile, take a look at this recent project by Mary Patton of Mary Patton Design:
"For this project, I partnered with my very good friend Garrett Hunter of Garrett Hunter Design for the remodel of this 1900s home,” Patton says. “The overall inspiration was inspired by The Gramercy Park Hotel. Dark and moody, but still feels young and sophisticated.
9. Use Subway Tiles to Break Up an All-White Kitchen
There’s no doubt that all-white kitchens are still a hit with homeowners. But if you want something a little different for your space, know that subway tiles come in different colors other than white. Take a look at this kitchen design by Mariah Shaw of Mariah Shaw Design.
The light gray subway tile with white grout is the perfect backdrop to the bright white cabinets and island. The tile complements the other grays in the room, especially the walls and the grain in the stone countertop. The gray and white swirl inset also draws your eye to the range and hood—note how the cherry red of the dials on the stove provides a fun pop of color.
10. Look at Subway Tiles from a Different Angle
There’s no doubt that subway tiles come together neatly, whether stacked or offset. But that shouldn’t stop you from thinking outside of the typical horizontal layout. Here’s designer Lauren Turner’s reminder that you can lay subway tiles at an angle.
The herringbone pattern turns the traditional white tile on its head—quite literally—adding a sense of texture to the otherwise smooth backdrop. It looks beautiful against the chocolate brown cabinets and swoon-worthy farm sink.
If you’re looking to replicate this look, however, it’s probably best for a local tile installer, as they’ll be able to get that perfectly angled look.