Design / August 9, 2021

Fresh Ways to Use Subway Tile

When in the midst of designing a bathroom or kitchen, hunting down the perfect wall tile can lead me deep down the Pinterest rabbit hole where the possibilities seem endless. There are hundreds of beautiful patterns and shapes but time and money can set limits to what options I have. That’s when I can rely on Old Faithful: the subway tile.

I trust anything timeless. Subway tile has been around since the 1900’s and is still going strong. That’s good enough for me! While not necessarily glamorous, this utilitarian and affordable option can make an impact when wielded in a creative way. Scroll down to see how you can reinvent the classic subway tile to create a modern, unexpected, and fresh look.

Switch Up the Grout Lines

Experimenting with grout thickness allows the opportunity to create unique and unexpected patterns. Combine both thin and thick grout lines to break up the repetitiveness of a uniform installation. With this method, the pattern possibilities are endless. Or, apply thick grout all around to create a distinct grid. You can emphasize the grid even further by pairing tile with a contrasting grout color.

white shower subway tile with thick grout
design by Sarah Sherman Samuel
The use of chunky horizontal grout lines creates a nice contrast between the vertical subway tiles.
shower with terracotta tile and white grout and glass shower door
design by Andrea Dabene / via Fireclay
Thick white grout helps to lighten and break up the saturated terracotta tile color. Without the white grid lines, this installation might look too heavy.
terracotta clay wall tile with white grout and hanging eucalyptus branch
design by Andrea Dabene / via Fireclay

Blend Different Tones

Blending different tones from the same color family creates a cohesive palette with subtle variations. Use a range of light, medium, and dark shades to add depth and visual interest to your tile design. Colors with a slight gradation create a soft and understated look while tones with high contrast are more lively and dynamic.

light and dark grey kitchen backsplash tile
via Wow Design EU
beige and cream offset stacked subway tile with black arm sconces
via tilebar
pink ombre kitchen backsplash with dark cabinets
I’m loving the ombre pink backsplash and how it contrasts with the dark kitchen cabinets.
light and dark blue bathroom tile with brass faucet and fluted glass
via Mandarin Stone
red tan and cream wall with wood bench and white pitcher
via Wow Design EU
The warm tones complement each other with vibrant pops of red.

Mix Matte and Glossy Finishes

Put a twist on the usual wall tile installation by mixing together glossy and matte tiles. A glossy finish adds pops of shine and vibrancy without being too dramatic. You can either sprinkle in gloss tiles randomly or install them strategically to form a pattern.

matte and glossy blue horizontal backsplash with grey light pendant and white sink
via Stone Source
matte and glossy horizontal black wall tile with white pedestal sink chrome faucet and mirror
via Arizona Tile
matte and glossy white herringbone kitchen backsplash with cutting boards
via Stone Source
matte and glossy white tile with geometric pattern
via Mandarin Stone

Rethink Grout Color

Grout is oftentimes an afterthought when deciding on tile colors. But the examples below reveal that deviating from neutrals and opting for a colorful grout can push your tile design to the next level.

pink backsplash subway tiles with yellow grout and brass faucet
Electric yellow grout adds a playful touch to the soft pink backsplash.
orange vertical stacked wall tile with blue grout and blue sink
via Mandarin Stone
yellow vertical bathroom tile with black grout and black showerhead
via Mandarin Stone
Lemon yellow tile contrasts nicely with thin black grout lines for a modern and colorful look.
white shower tile with red grout and brass showerhead
design by Hearth Studio / photography by Lauren Bamford
herringbone white tile with orange grout and bathtub

Color Block

Color blocking is an easy way to get creative with subway tile, and it isn’t only for aesthetics. Distinguishing or highlighting different areas can also be achieved through using color. The bathroom below, for example, uses green tile to highlight the shower floor and bench, revealing that color blocking is a useful way to organize a room visually.

white and green bathroom with wood cabinets
design by Owen Architecture
black and white tiles in checkered pattern
via Arizona Tile
blue and white color block backsplash
via Wow Design EU

There is nothing unique about a regular old subway tile, but who knew there were so many ways to take a simple rectangle and turn it into an eye-catching design? I love that subway tile offers so much room for experimenting and for creating your own, one of a kind design!


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