Subway Tiles: A Love Story

It’s a classic for a reason. But do you know the history?

Once upon a time, in a land called New York City, one of America’s favorite design elements was born. And that stylish piece of 1904-history is the subway tile. Originated by designers George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge, this ubiquitous 3-by-6-inch rectangle, first seen in a New York subway station, quickly made its way into kitchens and bathrooms across the country. And with its sleek, easy-to-clean design, it’s no surprise that the trend is still going strong today. Need proof? Read on to see our editors gushing over this simple, streamlined tile that, even after 100 years, is only gaining in popularity.

Traditional White Kitchen With Subway Tile Walls

Traditional White Kitchen With Subway Tile Walls

Still the reigning design style, the timeless look of traditional kitchens speaks to most of us. The cabinets can be painted or stained, and glass-front doors are a popular option, as are multipurpose islands.

Shannon: I don’t think I’ll ever be tired of subway tile. It’s one of those trends that’s also timeless, so it won’t look dated in a few years. Plus, it’s an affordable backsplash option compared to other materials like stone or glass. While you can’t go wrong with the classic running bond pattern, I also love seeing subway tiles laid out in nontraditional ways, such as this herringbone design featured in HGTV Magazine.

Herringbone Pattern Tile Backsplash

Herringbone Pattern Tile Backsplash

The backsplash mimics the island’s wood pattern and requires about the same amount of tile as a straight installation. Gray grout accentuates the pattern and hides dirt. I love artwork in the kitchen since it’s a gathering space. These photos of bread and wine bottles are fun for their entertaining theme.

Photo by: Stacey Brandford

Stacey Brandford

Mariel: There’s a reason this timeless look has been going strong for more than 100 years. It’s because it looks good in so many spaces and with every design style. Plus, with gazillions of colors, textures, finishes, patterns and grouts, you can make it your own no matter your taste. To be sure, I’m loving the colored grouts and patterns that are all the rage. But my favorite remains classic white, though gray-blue is nice…oooh or green!

White Kitchen With Olive Green Tile Backsplash

White Kitchen With Olive Green Tile Backsplash

Neither bright or pastel; the olive green subway tile backsplash in this kitchen designed by Ryan Christenson of Remodel Works Bath and Kitchen is unusual enough to catch the eye, but classic enough to live with for years.

Photo by: Photography by Padilla Bowen Photography

Photography by Padilla Bowen Photography

Liz: Yes, they’re everywhere. Yes, I should be tired of them by now. The reason I’m not tired of them? This classic tile shape is so streamlined and modern that it literally works for any style of space, from farmhouse to modern. Plus, I love the newest iterations with dark gray or colorful grout. My new favorite: black subway tile with black grout. Subway tile? Sexy? You better believe it.

Tiny Eclectic Kitchen

Tiny Eclectic Kitchen

This tiny black and white kitchen designed by Kim Lewis Designs is nine feet wide. The countertops are by Silestone, lights by CB2 and tile by Daltile.

Photo by: Molly Winters Photography

Molly Winters Photography

Chelsea: I'm still a huge fan of subway tile! And I agree with Liz — it's so classic and streamlined, it really does work with so many styles. That being said, however, I've lost my love for the classic look and am currently drooling over the new lay patterns I'm seeing. Herringbone subway tile? Yes, please!

White and Gray Modern Kitchen With Herringbone Backsplash

White and Gray Modern Kitchen With Herringbone Backsplash

This light and bright modern kitchen combines white and gray tones to create a lively area of the home. Glass front cabinets are mixed in with white Shaker style cabinets, while a gray and white marble countertop offers a finishing touch. A white tile herringbone backsplash adds fun texture to the space.

Photo by: Shutterbug


Mallory: While I love a bold, artistic backsplash as much as anyone (remember that swoon-worthy backsplash from HGTV Smart Home?), I get a little afraid to go that route in my own home. The perfect balance? White subway tile with a dark grout. It grabs your eye without taking over the space, and I don’t think I will ever get sick of it. We’ve had ours for three months, and I like it more and more every day.

A photo posted by Mallory (@malcolli) on

Kayla S.: If it were possible, I’d probably subway tile my floor. It’s such a classic look that can easily rock a fun color to add some punch to a space. Kitchen, bathroom, shower … it looks great anywhere, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon. Subway tile is here to stay. 

Transitional Kitchen Boasts Green Backsplash

Transitional Kitchen Boasts Green Backsplash

Green subway tiles adds a playful pop of color to this transitional kitchen, contrasting nicely with the white farmhouse sink and cabinets. A large window and pendant light ensure that the room is airy and bright, no matter what time of day it is.

Photo by: JWT Associates

JWT Associates

Jordan: There’s a reason subway tile is still around: It’s sleek, sophisticated and, well, it’s a classic. My favorite? The timeless white with black grout that makes for a bold look in any kitchen. 

Subway Tile Backsplash With Cabinets

Subway Tile Backsplash With Cabinets

White subway tile and white cabinets with glass doors make for a sleek, simple workspace around the sink of this contemporary kitchen.

From: Property Brothers

Kayla K.: There’s nothing sexier to me than symmetry and balance. Subway tiles provide a clean, streamlined look that mosaics and glass tiles just can’t provide in a bathroom or kitchen. Dark grout is my favorite look of the moment because it adds a beautiful contrast against the white tile. But I still love a crisp, white-on-white bathroom with floor-to-ceiling subway tile. It just does something to me…

Black and White Shower With Subway Tile

Black and White Shower With Subway Tile

A reclaimed factory window serves as the shower door in this country cottage. The striking black and white color palate keeps the bathroom feeling modern and fresh. A small window in the shower lets in just enough natural light.

Photo by: Jane Beiles

Jane Beiles

11 Twists on Subway Tile

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Mirrored Metallic

Dazzling metallic subway tiles are a versatile alternative to traditional white tiles, as they can lend a glamorous or industrial style depending on the design of the kitchen. This stainless steel design from Brother vs. Brother is a stylish, easy-to-clean option that cost roughly $600 to install. 

Photo By: Ann Summa/Getty Images

Creative Layout

One of the easiest ways to mix up your kitchen’s backsplash design is by laying tile in a fun, unexpected pattern, such as this herringbone design featured in HGTV Magazine. By pairing the design with simple shelves and black-and-white art, the charming tilework remains the star of the space.  

Photo By: Stacey Brandford

All About Color

An obvious way to add a personal touch to a subway tile backsplash is by ditching basic white and opting for a favorite color instead. In this Craftsman kitchen, the vibrant green backsplash contributes a cheery accent to the Shaker-style cabinets and stainless steel appliances. 

Back to Blues

But why stick to just one color when you can give your kitchen a totally unexpected look simply by mixing variant hues of the same color? In this transitional kitchen, blue tiles with different levels of saturation are tied together by white upper cabinets and solid blue lower cabinets.

Modern Accents

A single, metallic stripe sets this kitchen backsplash apart while creating a streamlined look. Horizontal drawer pulls and a sleek range hood complete the modern design in this kitchen designed by HGTV’s Property Brothers.

Sweet Stripes

Multiple stripes in a complementary color give this sweet kitchen backsplash a one-of-a-kind look with charming appeal. By keeping the floor and upper cabinets light, the lightly colored backsplash makes a bold statement in the space. 

Sleek and Stainless Steel

Stainless steel inserts combine with white glass subway tiles for an almost futuristic vibe in this ultra-modern kitchen. Smart lighting and sleek appliances further the room’s high-tech design. 

Extended Design

Upon first glance, this subway tile backsplash may not seem extraordinary, but by continuing the tile all the way to the ceiling, the room feels larger, the walls are easy to clean, and the kitchen boasts more texture and interest.  

Bevel May Care

To liven up a basic backsplash, consider a beveled tile. "Having the tile done this way added a lot of dimension to the walls,” explains designer Tobi Farley. “It adds texture to the neutral kitchen, and the varying shades of bisque and sand complement the Roman shade perfectly. I love working with tile in new and different ways – it can really add to a design!"

The Dark Side

A dark brown backsplash keeps this kitchen from looking too stuffy or boring. It not only blends beautifully with the countertops and flooring, but the contrast with the stark white cabinetry adds a gorgeous balance that keeps the space interesting and warm. 

About Grout

In keeping with the classic white subway tile backsplash, one way to add a bit of interest is by adding contrast with a dark grout, such as the deep gray featured here. Another bonus? A darker grout is excellent for hiding dirt!

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