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Putting A Fresh Twist On The Classic Subway Tile

Subway tile has been around for more than a hundred years, but it’s a look that just doesn’t go out of style. Simple, repeating rectangles are clean, elegant, and easy on the eye – not to mention dead simple to install. But part of the staying power of this classic style actually lies in how easy it is to change up and personalize. While traditional subway tiles are plain white ceramic, altering the arrangement of the tile, the color or material, or even slightly changing the size or shape can create a very different look while still maintaining that classic air.

Play With Layout

Simply changing the layout of the same-old subway tile can make for a dramatically different - and eye-catching - accent (by Sarah Richardson Design, photo by Stacey Brandford)
Simply changing the layout of the same-old subway tile can make for a dramatically different – and eye-catching – accent (by Sarah Richardson Design, photo by Stacey Brandford)

Classic subway tile is as simple as simple gets: white rectangular tile with white grout, laid in an offset pattern like bricks. But stack the tiles instead of staggering them, lay them vertically rather than horizontally, or turn them at an angle, and those simple white tiles take on a totally different appearance. This simple technique makes it possible to get a little funky with your design, while still keeping that classic turn of the century cottage feel.

Colored Grout

Colored grout can totally transform a classic subway tile, giving it a much more assertive, urban feel rather than a classic cottage charm (by Heather Garrett Design)
Colored grout can totally transform a classic subway tile, giving it a much more assertive, urban feel rather than a classic cottage charm (by Heather Garrett Design)

Right now, though, one of the most popular ways to jazz up a traditional subway tile wall or backsplash has nothing to do with the tile at all, and everything to do with the grout. Traditional subway tile is installed with white grout, but right now it’s very trendy to go darker – sometimes much darker. Gray, brown, or even black grout and thick (rather than nearly invisible) grout lines make pure white subway tiles really pop, creating a look that’s a bit louder and more assertive, and not quite so prim and proper.

Colored Tile

Colored subway tile can add a lovely, elegant touch to a bathroom - provided you don't go overboard with it (by Filmore Clark)
Colored subway tile can add a lovely, elegant touch to a bathroom – provided you don’t go overboard with it (by Filmore Clark)

Homes built or renovated in the 1960s are somewhat notorious for their colorful bathrooms: colored ceramic tile with matching enameled tubs, toilets, and sinks. But while colorful square and subway tile were an essential component of this look, that doesn’t mean you should shun them completely. In fact, done right (as in, paired with the traditional white fixtures, and in a fairly subtle color), colored subway tile can actually be quite beautiful, lending color and warmth to the bathroom space while keeping that classic, clean look – not to mention the added benefit of having water resistant, easy-to-clean tile rather than paint.

Modern Glass “Subway” Tile

Glass subway tile is sleek and elegant, with greater visual depth and more gloss than traditional porcelain or ceramic (by Sophie Metz Design, photo by Sam Oberter)
Glass subway tile is sleek and elegant, with greater visual depth and more gloss than traditional porcelain or ceramic (by Sophie Metz Design, photo by Sam Oberter)

As a rule, traditional subway tile is ceramic or porcelain, but tile in the same size and shape is often referred to by that name, regardless of the material it’s made of. In the last few years, small rectangular glass tile has seen a huge surge in popularity. Usually these tile are done in soft, frosty, almost translucent colors (like icy blues or foamy sea greens), but they can be found in just about any color, from fire engine red to pale beige. The main appeal of glass tile over colored ceramic is that the tiles are a bit more reflective and have a greater depth of color, since the whole tile is colored all the way through, rather than simply glazed. They’re also, on the whole, a tad more water resistant, and definitely have a sleeker, more modern look and feel.

Posh Marble Tiles

Marble subway tile has a more posh, sophisticated look than traditional white ceramic, and goes great with a trendy gray-on-gray bathroom decor (by Milestone Custom Homes)
Marble subway tile has a more posh, sophisticated look than traditional white ceramic, and goes great with a trendy gray-on-gray bathroom decor (by Milestone Custom Homes)

Next to white, though, probably the most popular subway tile “color” is probably carrara marble. This white, blue-grey veined marble keeps the tradition of a light colored rectangular tile, but has a much more high end, luxurious look and feel than traditional porcelain or ceramic, and is a great way to lend a more sophisticated, regal air to this classic look. Small pieces of marble are also much more affordable than big, seamless slabs, which makes marble subway tile a surprisingly affordable way to introduce a luxurious stone element into your bathroom.

Other Stone Subway Tiles?

Rectangular stone tile is pretty far removed from traditional subway tilee, but it can make for an eye-catching accent (by Lovejoy Designs, photo by Michael J. Lee)
Rectangular stone tile is pretty far removed from traditional subway tilee, but it can make for an eye-catching accent (by Lovejoy Designs, photo by Michael J. Lee)

Carrara marble is far and away the most popular type of stone used to mimic the classic subway tile, but it certainly isn’t the only one. Granite, travertine, and many other types of marble are also common, though many of these push the boundary of what can really be called a subway tile. Many unfinished or even rough cut or split stone tiles are available in that same classic rectangular size and shape, but they certainly don’t have the same sleek, clean look of the traditional ceramic. That said, this is a great way to put a very different twist on an iconic traditional style.

But what do you think of these alternatives to the classic subway tile? Do you like these ways to spice things up, or do you prefer the more traditional look? Let me know in the comments below!