Are Subway Tiles Still Trending?

Polished white subway tiles enhance a chic bathroom vanity area, complemented by warm wooden cabinetry and soft daylight

Subway tiles, those iconic rectangular marvels, have graced kitchens and bathrooms for over a century. Their journey began in the bustling underground of New York City's subway system, prized for their durability and ability to brighten dark spaces. But beyond their practical origins, these versatile tiles have transcended function to become a design staple. This exploration delves into the enduring popularity of subway tiles, examining their modern interpretations and how they continue to compete for attention in today's ever-evolving design landscape.

Crisp white subway tiles backdrop a modern kitchen, illuminated by woven pendant lights and hints of greenery


The Enduring Legacy of Subway Tiles in Homes

The story of subway tiles begins not on a trendy Pinterest board, but in the bustling underground of New York City. The early 1900s saw the construction of an extensive subway system, and with it came the challenge of maintaining clean and well-lit stations. Enter the humble subway tile. These glazed rectangular tiles, likely inspired by similar installations in London's Underground a decade earlier, proved to be the perfect solution. Their durability was unmatched as they could withstand the constant wear and tear of millions of commuters. The smooth, non-porous surface was easy to clean and resistant to moisture, ideal for the damp and sometimes grimy environment. But most importantly, their bright, reflective surface helped to illuminate the dark tunnels and platforms, creating a sense of spaciousness and safety.

This marriage of practicality and aesthetics did not go unnoticed. Architects and designers saw the potential of these unassuming tiles beyond the confines of the subway system. The ease of maintenance, timeless design, and ability to bounce light made them a natural choice for kitchens and bathrooms, areas that demanded both functionality and style. Thus began the transformation of subway tiles from a practical necessity to a design icon that continues to grace homes today.


Classic Advantages for Today's Homeowner

The qualities that made subway tiles a hit in the bustling New York City subways are the very same reasons they remain a popular choice for modern homeowners. Their durability is a major selling point. Busy kitchens and bathrooms can take a beating, and subway tiles stand up to the challenge. They are resistant to scratches, stains, and even mild abrasives, making them ideal for areas prone to spills and splatters. Secondly, their ease of maintenance is a lifesaver. The smooth, non-porous surface allows for effortless cleaning with minimal effort. A quick wipe-down with a damp cloth is all it takes to keep them looking pristine. Finally, subway tiles offer unmatched versatility. Their simple rectangular form and classic white color act as a blank canvas that can complement a wide range of design styles. From the clean lines of modern kitchens to the rustic charm of farmhouses, subway tiles can seamlessly integrate into any aesthetic.


A Timeless Canvas for Design Expression

Despite their simple form, subway tiles offer a surprising amount of room for creative expression. The classic white color acts as a neutral base, allowing homeowners to personalize their space through various design elements. The most common method is through pattern. The traditional "stacked bond" or "running bond" pattern, where tiles are laid in a straight line with staggered joints, creates a clean and timeless look. For a touch of dynamism, a herringbone pattern can be used, where tiles are arranged in a zig-zag formation. Subway tiles can also be used to create wainscoting effects on lower portions of walls, adding a touch of sophistication.

But the possibilities extend beyond the traditional. Grout color can be used to add a personal touch. A bold black grout can create a graphic statement, while a warm gray can complement a farmhouse aesthetic. Subway tiles can even be used in unexpected ways. They can be installed vertically behind fireplaces to create a sleek and modern focal point, or used to create accent walls with a pop of color or even a patterned tile for a truly unique statement.


Warm taupe-toned tiles add a textured look to a stylish kitchen, accentuated by natural wood and fresh greenery


The Evolution of Subway Tiles

The iconic subway tile has transcended its functional origins to become a design chameleon, adapting to modern trends with a variety of exciting innovations. This evolution goes beyond just aesthetics, offering homeowners a wider range of options to personalize their space.


Material Innovations

While classic ceramic and porcelain remain popular choices, a wave of new materials has entered the world of subway tiles. Glass tiles add a touch of luxury and sophistication with their light-reflecting properties and come in a vast array of colors and finishes, from transparent to iridescent. Metal tiles, such as stainless steel or bronze, offer a sleek and modern aesthetic, perfect for industrial-inspired kitchens or contemporary bathrooms. For the eco-conscious homeowner, recycled materials like crushed glass or even cork are making their mark. These sustainable options come in a surprising variety of textures and colors, allowing homeowners to express their environmental values while maintaining a stylish look.


Dimensional Play

The traditional 3" x 6" subway tile is no longer the only game in town. Larger format subway tiles, ranging from 6" x 12" to even 12" x 24", create a more modern and minimalist look. These larger tiles minimize grout lines, resulting in a cleaner and more expansive feel, perfect for modern kitchens and open concept living areas. On the other hand, smaller, mosaic-like subway tiles, often measuring 1" x 2" or even smaller, offer a more detailed and intricate aesthetic. These mini-subways can be used to create intricate patterns, borders, or even accent walls with a playful touch. They are ideal for smaller spaces like powder rooms or backsplashes behind intricate stovetops.


Color Explosion

For those who crave a departure from the classic white, the color options for subway tiles have exploded. Bold and dramatic colors like matte black, deep navy blue, or even fiery red can be used to create a statement wall or add a pop of personality to a neutral kitchen. Metallic finishes, like brushed gold or brushed silver, offer a touch of glamor and can be used to create a luxurious backsplash or a sophisticated shower surround. The most daring homeowners can even opt for patterned subway tiles. These tiles come in a variety of geometric patterns, floral motifs, or even intricate Moroccan designs, allowing for a truly unique and eye-catching statement piece.


Textural Twists

The smooth, glossy finish of traditional subway tiles is no longer the only option. For those seeking added visual interest, textured subway tiles offer a unique and sophisticated touch. Matte finishes provide a subtle texture that adds depth and can be a great choice for farmhouse-inspired kitchens or rustic bathrooms. Glossy subway tiles remain a classic choice and reflect light beautifully, creating a sense of spaciousness. For a bolder statement, three-dimensional subway tiles can be used. These tiles have a raised or embossed pattern that adds visual intrigue and can be a great way to add a touch of personality to a backsplash or shower surround.

Lustrous white subway tiles complement a pristine kitchen, with golden accents and verdant leaves adding a touch of luxury


Modern Applications of Subway Tiles

Subway tiles continue to reign supreme in kitchens and bathrooms, but their versatility extends far beyond these traditional spaces. Let's explore the diverse ways modern homeowners are incorporating subway tiles into their homes.



The kitchen backsplash remains a prime spot for subway tiles. The classic white stacked bond pattern continues to be a popular choice, offering a timeless elegance that complements a variety of cabinet styles and countertops. For a more modern twist, homeowners can opt for larger format subway tiles that minimize grout lines and create a clean, minimalist aesthetic. Black or dark gray subway tiles can add a touch of drama and sophistication to a modern kitchen. But the fun doesn't stop there. Grout color can be used to add a unique touch. A contrasting black grout can create a graphic statement, while a warm gray can complement a farmhouse kitchen. For a truly personalized touch, homeowners can even experiment with colored grouts that match or complement their backsplash tile or accentuate a bold cabinet color.



The clean lines and easy maintenance of subway tiles make them a perfect choice for bathrooms as well. They can be used to create a timeless elegance in shower surrounds, adding a touch of luxury and reflecting light to make the space feel more open. Subway tiles can also be used to create stunning accent walls, adding a pop of color or pattern behind the vanity or toilet area. For a truly spa-like experience, some homeowners are even opting to clad their entire bathroom walls in subway tiles, creating a serene and sophisticated environment. The choice of color and finish allows for customization - white subway tiles with a matte finish offer a clean and modern look, while light gray tiles with a glossy finish can create a sense of spaciousness.


Beyond Kitchens and Bathrooms

The versatility of subway tiles goes beyond the realm of traditionally wet areas. Fireplaces can be transformed into a focal point with a vertical subway tile installation, adding a touch of modern elegance or a touch of rustic charm depending on the chosen material and color. Laundry rooms and mudrooms, often overlooked spaces, can be elevated with subway tile wainscoting on the lower portion of the walls, creating a more polished and easier-to-clean environment. Subway tiles can even be used to create accent walls in living spaces, adding a touch of texture or color and grounding the space. For example, a dark blue subway tile accent wall in a living room can create a dramatic backdrop for a cozy fireplace, while a light green subway tile accent wall in a dining room can add a touch of freshness and whimsy.

The possibilities are truly endless, limited only by the homeowner's imagination and design vision. Curious how these subway tiles would look in your own space? Bring your design vision to life! Try out our interactive visualizer tool.


Herringbone marble tiles add a sophisticated touch beside a minimalist bathtub with a sleek matte black faucet


Subway Tiles vs. The Competition

While subway tiles remain a design favorite, they face competition from a wave of innovative trends vying for attention in modern kitchens and bathrooms. Here's a closer look at some of the strongest contenders:


Bold Patterns and Statement Tiles

For homeowners seeking a more dramatic and contemporary aesthetic, patterned tiles and large format slabs offer a striking alternative to classic subway tiles. Patterned tiles come in a vast array of geometric designs, floral motifs, or even intricate Moroccan patterns. These eye-catching tiles can be used to create a statement wall or backsplash, instantly transforming the space. Large format slabs, ranging from 12" x 24" to even larger, create a seamless and minimalist look with minimal grout lines. These slabs come in a variety of materials like porcelain, quartz, or even natural stone, offering a luxurious and modern feel.


Natural Materials

The allure of natural materials continues to be strong in kitchen and bathroom design. Stone tiles, such as marble, granite, or slate, offer a timeless elegance and a touch of luxury. These natural beauties come in a variety of colors and veining patterns, making each installation unique. For a warmer and more organic feel, wood-look tiles are gaining popularity. These porcelain or ceramic tiles realistically mimic the look of wood, offering the beauty of wood with the durability and low maintenance of tile. Wood-look tiles are perfect for creating a rustic farmhouse aesthetic or adding a touch of warmth to a modern kitchen.


Textured Options Beyond Subway Tiles

While subway tiles can be textured, they don't hold a candle to the variety and depth offered by other options. Handmade tiles, often crafted by local artisans, boast unique textures and imperfections that add a touch of character and craftsmanship to any space. Mosaics, with their intricate patterns and small tiles, create a visually stunning and textural experience. These mosaics can be used to create accent walls, borders, or even entire shower floors. For a truly unique and sculptural element, 3D wall tiles are making a splash. These tiles have a raised or embossed pattern that adds visual intrigue and can be used to create a focal point behind a vanity or fireplace.


Design with a Conscience

Environmental consciousness is increasingly influencing design choices. This is evident in the rise of sustainable materials for tiles. Recycled glass tiles offer a beautiful and eco-friendly alternative to traditional tiles. These tiles come in a surprising variety of colors and finishes, allowing homeowners to express their environmental values while maintaining a stylish look. Cork tiles are another sustainable option, offering a warm and textured surface that is naturally water-resistant and easy to maintain. These eco-conscious tiles are perfect for bathrooms or backsplashes where functionality and environmental responsibility go hand-in-hand.


Gleaming marble-like tiles provide a luxurious backdrop for a golden rainfall showerhead, radiating elegance


The Future of Subway Tiles

Subway tiles have defied trends and remained a design mainstay for over a century. But what ensures their continued relevance in the ever-evolving landscape of interior design? The answer lies in their inherent adaptability.


Adaptability as a Badge of Honor

Unlike some trendy materials or design elements that quickly fade from favor, subway tiles possess a chameleon-like quality. Their adaptability allows them to seamlessly integrate into a variety of design aesthetics. The introduction of new materials, like glass or metal, expands their reach beyond the classic ceramic or porcelain. Bold colors and metallic finishes cater to those seeking a more dramatic look, while textured subway tiles add a touch of visual intrigue. Installation styles also play a role in keeping subway tiles fresh. The classic stacked bond pattern remains popular, but homeowners can explore options like herringbone, wainscoting effects, or even vertical installations for fireplaces to create a modern edge. This adaptability ensures that subway tiles can evolve alongside design trends, offering a timeless foundation for any space.


The Charm of Simplicity

Despite the exciting innovations, the classic white subway tile retains its undeniable charm. Its simplicity and clean lines create a timeless elegance that transcends fleeting trends. These unassuming tiles offer a neutral canvas that allows homeowners to personalize their space with bolder elements like statement lighting, colorful artwork, or vibrant rugs. The versatility of white subway tiles allows them to seamlessly complement a wide range of design styles, from the crisp minimalism of modern kitchens to the rustic warmth of farmhouse bathrooms. Their enduring appeal ensures they will continue to be a popular choice for homeowners seeking a timeless and elegant foundation for their renovations.


A Canvas for Personalization in the Age of DIY

The rise of DIY projects and the growing desire for personalized spaces further strengthens the future of subway tiles. Their versatility allows homeowners to unleash their creativity and personalize their kitchens and bathrooms. Creative layout patterns like herringbone or basket weave can add a touch of personality. Grout color becomes a design element in itself, offering the option for bold contrasts or seamless integration. For the truly adventurous, hand-painted designs can transform a simple backsplash into a unique work of art. Subway tiles provide a blank canvas for DIY enthusiasts and allow them to express their style and personality through their tile choices.



Subway tiles, once utilitarian squares gracing the walls of underground tunnels, have transcended their origins to become a design icon. Their enduring popularity is a testament to their versatility, timeless appeal, and remarkable ability to adapt to modern trends. From classic white backsplashes to unexpected accent walls, subway tiles offer a foundation of style that will continue to grace kitchens, bathrooms, and beyond for years to come.

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