Is A Subway Tile Always White?

Classic white subway tile creates a fresh backdrop in a cozy nook with oak cabinetry

Subway tile. We all know the image - clean white rectangles adorning bustling subway stations. But this iconic design element offers far more than meets the eye. Beyond the classic white, subway tile boasts a surprising spectrum of color, from bold blues to calming beiges. Material choices extend beyond ceramic, with luxurious glass and natural stone options adding depth and texture. And its applications go far beyond the traditional backsplash - walls, floors, fireplaces, even accent walls - all become opportunities for creative expression. This guide delves into the world of subway tile, showcasing its versatility and potential to transform any space, from practical to breathtaking.


Glossy white subway tile with beveled edges and a hint of wood trim


Unveiling the History of Subway Tile

The ubiquitous subway tile, a staple in modern kitchens and baths, has a history far removed from trendy design. We journey below the surface to explore the origins of this versatile tile, tracing its path from the utilitarian world of subterranean tunnels to its current status as a design staple gracing homes around the globe.

The Birthplace: New York City's Subways

In the bustling heart of New York City, around the turn of the 20th century, a new era of transportation was dawning. The iconic subway system, a marvel of engineering, was taking shape beneath the city streets. But functionality wasn't the only concern. The designers, George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge, envisioned a welcoming and aesthetically pleasing environment for commuters. Their solution? Glazed ceramic tiles, meticulously laid in a rectangular format. White, the chosen color, offered several advantages. It reflected the dim lighting, enhancing visibility in the subterranean passages. Its glazed surface was highly durable, withstanding the wear and tear of constant traffic. Most importantly, white symbolized cleanliness, a crucial factor in the newly developed and somewhat mysterious underground world.

Evolution Beyond the Underground

The success of subway tile wasn't confined to the subway system. As the early 20th century progressed, the concept of hygiene gained significant importance. Homes, particularly kitchens and bathrooms, began to prioritize easy-to-clean surfaces. The practicality and clean lines of subway tile resonated with homeowners, leading to its adoption in domestic spaces. Furthermore, the simple rectangular format offered a timeless aesthetic that blended seamlessly with various architectural styles. This versatility, coupled with its functionality, propelled subway tile beyond its utilitarian origins and into the realm of popular design.

From Ceramic to Glass and Stone

For decades, ceramic reigned supreme in the world of subway tile. Its affordability, durability, and ease of maintenance made it the go-to choice. White remained the dominant color, further solidifying the association between subway tile and its origins. However, the design landscape was poised for change. The introduction of alternative materials like glass and stone in the latter half of the 20th century opened doors for a more diverse aesthetic. Glass subway tile brought a touch of elegance and sophistication to spaces, with its reflective properties enhancing light and creating a sense of spaciousness. Natural stone options, like marble or granite, offered a luxurious feel with their unique veining patterns and textures. These new materials paved the way for a more colorful future for subway tile, as they were not inherently limited to just white.


Striped marble tile in neutral tones with brass shower fixtures


Embracing the Rainbow in Subway Tile

Beyond white, a spectrum of color awaits! This vibrant journey explores a kaleidoscope of colors, from the tranquility of ocean blues and the energy of verdant greens to the boldness of fiery reds and the cheerfulness of sunshine yellows. Unleash your inner artist and discover how to use color to create a personalized masterpiece in your home, transforming the ambiance of each space.

Classic Neutrals

While the world of subway tile has exploded with color in recent years, the classic white rectangle still holds a special place in design. Its enduring popularity stems from its undeniable versatility. White subway tile reflects light beautifully, creating a bright and airy feel in any space. This makes it a perfect choice for smaller kitchens or bathrooms, where maximizing natural light is crucial. The clean lines of white tile also contribute to a sense of order and simplicity, making it ideal for minimalist or modern aesthetics. Furthermore, white acts as a neutral canvas, allowing other design elements like cabinetry, countertops, or hardware to take center stage.

However, white isn't the only neutral player in the subway tile game. Gray subway tile offers a sophisticated and timeless alternative. The range of grays available allows for subtle variations in mood. Lighter grays maintain a sense of brightness while adding a touch of depth and dimension compared to stark white. Darker grays can create a dramatic backdrop, particularly when paired with contrasting grout or bold fixtures. Gray subway tile seamlessly integrates with various design styles, from contemporary kitchens to industrial lofts, offering a touch of elegance without overwhelming the overall aesthetic.

Black subway tile takes the concept of neutrality to a whole new level. While not for the faint of heart, black tile can create a bold and dramatic statement in a well-considered design. Its ability to absorb light necessitates careful planning, often working best in larger spaces with ample natural light. However, when used strategically, black subway tile can add a touch of luxury and sophistication. For example, a black backsplash paired with brass hardware and warm wood cabinetry can create a stunning and sophisticated kitchen.

Vibrant Colors for a Statement

The once-monochromatic world of subway tile has been delightfully disrupted by the recent surge in popularity of colorful options. These vibrant hues allow homeowners to inject personality and energy into their spaces. A bright red subway tile backsplash can become the focal point of a kitchen, adding a touch of warmth and vibrancy. Similarly, a turquoise backsplash can evoke a feeling of coastal serenity in a bathroom. Green subway tiles can bring the outdoors in, creating a calming and natural atmosphere.

Beyond aesthetics, color psychology plays a significant role in choosing colored subway tiles. Red is known to stimulate the appetite, making it a bold choice for a kitchen backsplash. Blue has a calming effect, perfect for creating a tranquil bathroom oasis. Yellow evokes feelings of happiness and optimism, making it a cheerful choice for a laundry room or mudroom. It's important to consider the overall mood you want to create in a space when selecting a color for your subway tile.

Calming and Earthy

For those seeking a softer touch, pastel subway tile has emerged as a popular choice. These delicate hues offer a serene and calming effect, perfect for creating a spa-like bathroom or a peaceful reading nook. Pale pink subway tiles can add a touch of femininity and romance, while light blue evokes a sense of tranquility. Soft green tiles can create a connection with nature, bringing a touch of the outdoors indoors.

Neutral colors beyond white and gray also offer a vast array of possibilities. Beige subway tile provides a warm and inviting backdrop, perfect for creating a cozy kitchen or bathroom. Taupe adds a touch of sophistication and can complement various design styles. Light brown subway tile can introduce a natural element and pairs beautifully with earthy tones in countertops or flooring. These neutral colors, while not as eye-catching as their bold counterparts, offer a timeless elegance and versatility that allows other design elements to shine.

Ombre and Gradient Effects

For the truly adventurous, ombre and gradient effects with subway tile offer a dynamic and visually interesting way to incorporate color. The concept involves using tiles with subtle color variations within the same color palette, creating a gradual transition from light to dark or vice versa. This can be achieved by using pre-made ombre subway tile sets or strategically placing tiles of different shades within the chosen color range. For a more playful effect, even bolder color palettes can be used, creating a vibrant and eye-catching statement wall or backsplash.

When incorporating ombre or gradient effects, it's important to consider the grout color and its impact on the overall visual flow. Matching the grout color to the lightest shade in the tile gradient can create a seamless transition. Alternatively, using a contrasting grout color can emphasize the individual tiles and enhance the visual impact of the gradient effect.


Herringbone backsplash with creamy marble tiles and wooden accents


Material Versatility of Subway Tiles

Not just ceramic anymore! Subway tiles come in a surprising array of materials, each offering unique benefits and aesthetics. Let’s explore the versatility of these materials, from the reflective beauty of glass and the earthy elegance of stone to the durability of porcelain and the textural richness of handmade tiles. Discover how your choice of material can elevate your design and create a truly one-of-a-kind look in your home.

Ceramic Subway Tile

For decades, ceramic subway tile has reigned supreme as the go-to choice for a reason. Its affordability makes it an accessible option for budget-conscious homeowners. Furthermore, ceramic boasts superior ease of maintenance. Regular cleaning with a damp cloth and mild detergent keeps it looking fresh for years to come.

Beyond practicality, ceramic offers a wide range of aesthetic possibilities. The traditional glossy finish reflects light beautifully, creating a bright and airy feel. However, for a more subdued look, matte finishes offer a contemporary touch. Textured ceramic tiles add a touch of visual interest and dimension, perfect for creating a rustic or farmhouse aesthetic.

While historically associated with white, the world of ceramic subway tile has embraced color in recent years. A vast spectrum of hues is now available, allowing homeowners to personalize their spaces and match any design scheme. From vibrant blues and greens to calming beiges and grays, ceramic subway tile offers the perfect balance of affordability, functionality, and design versatility.

Porcelain Subway Tile

Porcelain reigns supreme for busy areas like kitchens and bathrooms. This durable material, fired at high temperatures, resists chipping, scratches, and moisture, making it ideal for busy spaces. Its dense, non-porous nature translates to easy cleanup and reduced risk of mold or mildew growth. Spills wipe up effortlessly, minimizing the need for harsh chemicals.

But porcelain isn't all about function! It boasts a vast array of colors and finishes, from classic whites and neutrals to bold jewel tones and patterns. This allows for a timeless aesthetic, a modern statement, or anything in between. Plus, finishes range from smooth and glossy to matte and textured, further expanding design possibilities. The low-maintenance nature – just regular sweeping or mopping – is the icing on the cake. Porcelain offers exceptional strength, resistance, design freedom, and easy maintenance, making it the clear choice for beautiful and durable subway tile installations.

Glass Subway Tile

For those seeking a touch of glamour and sophistication, glass subway tile emerges as a stunning alternative. Its defining characteristic - the ability to reflect light - offers several advantages. Glass tiles can visually expand a space, making them ideal for smaller bathrooms or kitchens. The reflective surface also helps bounce light around a room, creating a brighter and more airy environment. Furthermore, glass subway tile adds a touch of luxury and elegance to any space. Its smooth, non-porous surface is easy to clean and maintain, making it a practical choice for high-moisture areas.

The design possibilities with glass subway tile extend beyond its reflective properties. Available in a wide range of colors, glass tiles can add a vibrant pop or a subtle touch of color depending on the chosen hue. Similarly, finishes range from the classic clear glass to frosted or iridescent options, allowing for further customization and a unique visual appeal.

Natural Stone Subway Tile

For a timeless and luxurious feel, natural stone subway tile offers a unique and captivating option. Materials like marble or granite elevate the design aesthetic of any space with their inherent beauty. Each tile boasts one-of-a-kind veining patterns and textures, adding depth and character to walls or backsplashes. Stone subway tile creates a sophisticated and elegant ambiance, perfect for achieving a high-end look.

However, it's important to consider the trade-offs when opting for natural stone. Compared to ceramic or glass, stone tiles are typically more expensive. They also require additional maintenance, as some stones are susceptible to etching or staining and may need to be sealed periodically. Despite these considerations, the unmatched beauty and timeless appeal of natural stone subway tile make it a compelling choice for those seeking a truly luxurious and customized design element.


Cozy living room with textured dark grey tiles surrounding a modern fireplace


Creative Applications of Subway Tile

Forget the ordinary! Get ready to explore unexpected applications, from statement accent walls to stylish fireplace surrounds, and discover how subway tiles can inject personality and pizzazz into every corner. Let's unleash the full potential of this versatile material and create a home that reflects your unique style.

Kitchen Backsplashes

The classic use of subway tile for kitchen backsplashes remains a popular choice for its undeniable practicality and timeless style. Its smooth, non-porous surface is easy to clean and resistant to splashes and splatters, making it ideal for the messy business of cooking. But beyond functionality, subway tile offers a vibrant canvas for color exploration. A simple white backsplash can be a clean and classic choice, but don't be afraid to inject personality with a pop of color. A bold blue backsplash can add a touch of energy to a neutral kitchen, while a sunny yellow can create a cheerful and inviting atmosphere.

The layout pattern you choose for your subway tile backsplash can also significantly impact the overall look and feel. The traditional stacked layout, where tiles are arranged in neat horizontal rows, offers a clean and timeless aesthetic. For a more dynamic look, consider a herringbone pattern, where tiles are laid in a zig-zag formation. This creates a sense of movement and visual interest, especially when using contrasting grout colors that highlight the pattern. Feeling even more adventurous? Explore a basketweave pattern, where tiles are interlaced in a square grid, adding a touch of elegance and complexity to your backsplash. Ultimately, the color and layout options for kitchen backsplashes are vast, allowing you to personalize this space and reflect your unique style.


Subway tile's reign extends beyond the kitchen, experiencing a surge in popularity for bathroom applications. Its water-resistant properties make it a perfect choice for walls and floors in high-moisture environments. Similar to kitchens, color plays a significant role in creating the desired ambiance in a bathroom. Soft blue or green subway tiles on the walls can evoke a sense of tranquility, perfect for a spa-like retreat. For a bolder statement, consider a vibrant red or orange, adding a touch of energy and personality to your bathroom.

It's crucial to choose slip-resistant finishes for floor applications, especially in areas like showers and bathtubs. While many subway tile materials are naturally slip-resistant, some finishes like high-gloss can be slippery when wet. Opting for matte or textured finishes will ensure safety while maintaining the desired aesthetic. With careful planning and color selection, subway tile can transform your bathroom into a stylish and functional haven.

Shower Stalls

Subway tiles elevate shower walls with their sleek design. Classic white brightens the space and complements various styles. Beyond white, a world of color awaits. Soft blues and greens create a spa-like sanctuary, while earthy tones like beige or brown evoke a natural retreat. Darker colors like navy or black add drama, but work best in larger showers to avoid shrinking the space visually. Slip-resistant finishes ensure safety, and remember - proper waterproofing behind the tiles is crucial to prevent moisture damage. Consulting a professional for waterproofing is key for a beautiful and functional shower that lasts.

For an extra touch of luxury, consider using colored glass subway tiles. These tiles introduce a beautiful reflective element that can add depth and dimension to your shower stall. Opt for frosted or patterned glass tiles for a unique look, and remember that glass tiles are naturally easy to clean and maintain in a shower environment. Ensure the glass has a slip-resistant texture for safety.


Fireplaces are the heart of many living rooms, and subway tile offers a unique opportunity to update this classic feature with a modern twist. The heat-resistant properties of some tile materials, like ceramic or glass, make them perfect for fireplace surrounds. This allows you to explore a wider range of design possibilities compared to traditional materials like brick or stone.

Embrace a contemporary aesthetic with a clean white subway tile surround that reflects light beautifully and creates a sense of spaciousness. For a bolder statement, consider dramatic options like black or charcoal tiles that add a touch of sophistication and ground the space. But don't be afraid to think outside the box! A burst of color around your fireplace can truly make it a focal point. Use vibrantly colored subway tiles to create a unique accent that reflects your personality and sparks conversation. This unexpected pop of color can elevate your fireplace from traditional to trendsetting.

Accent Walls

Subway tile's versatility extends far beyond functional areas. Imagine transforming a blank wall into a captivating focal point with a statement accent wall. This is where color truly takes center stage. A vibrant red wall in your entryway can create a bold and energetic first impression, welcoming guests with a touch of personality. On the other hand, a soft lavender accent wall in your bedroom can evoke a sense of tranquility, perfect for unwinding after a long day. The color possibilities are truly endless!

To elevate your accent wall from ordinary to extraordinary, explore the interplay of color, pattern, and texture with your subway tile. For a dramatic statement, consider a black subway tile wall with contrasting white grout. This creates a bold graphic element that instantly draws the eye. For a more subtle yet sophisticated touch, opt for white subway tiles with a contrasting gray grout. The subtle color difference adds depth and dimension to the wall. Don't stop there! Subway tile can also be used to create intricate geometric patterns, adding another layer of visual interest and design flair to your space. This is your opportunity to unleash your creativity and personalize your home with a truly unique accent wall.

Classic cream subway tile wall, a timeless choice for modern and traditional styles

Choosing the Right Grout

While the color of the subway tile itself is undeniably important, grout selection offers another layer of design control, allowing you to elevate your design or steer it in a completely different direction. Here are some key considerations to guide you in choosing the right grout for a colorful impact:

Achieving a Unified Aesthetic

For a seamless and unified look, consider creating a monochromatic palette by choosing a grout color that complements the shade of your subway tile. This approach is particularly effective for smaller spaces, as it creates a sense of continuity that can make the room feel larger. Here are some examples:

Classic White on White

Matching white grout with white subway tile creates a clean and timeless aesthetic, perfect for minimalist or Scandinavian design schemes.

Gray Scale Symphony

Using a light gray grout with gray tiles maintains a monochromatic theme with added depth. This is a sophisticated choice for kitchens and bathrooms, offering a touch of modern elegance.

Beige Beauty

Pairing beige subway tile with a slightly darker shade of beige grout creates a warm and inviting atmosphere, ideal for creating a cozy bathroom retreat.

Bold Statements

If you're looking for a more dramatic effect and want your subway tile to truly stand out, consider using a contrasting grout color. This approach creates a strong visual definition of each individual tile, making a bold statement and adding a touch of graphic interest to your space. Here are contrasting grout options to consider:

Dark Drama

Dark grout against light-colored tiles, like white, light blue, or light green, creates a high-contrast look that is both eye-catching and modern. This is a great choice for creating a focal point wall or backsplash.

Light Balance

Conversely, light grout with dark-colored tiles, like black, navy blue, or charcoal gray, can help break them up visually, creating a more balanced look. This approach prevents the dark tiles from feeling overwhelming and adds a touch of lightness to the space.

Playing with Perception

Grout color can be a powerful tool for influencing the perceived size of your space. Here's how to use it to your advantage:

Light and Airy

Light-colored grout, such as white, beige, or light gray, creates a sense of continuity between the tiles, making the overall surface appear larger and brighter. This is a great strategy for small kitchens or bathrooms where maximizing the feeling of spaciousness is crucial.

Dramatic Reduction

Dark grout creates a grid effect that can visually shrink a space. While this might not be ideal for tiny rooms, it can be a design asset in expansive areas. For example, using dark grout with light-colored subway tiles in a large living room can add depth and definition to the walls, making the space feel more grounded.

Finding the Perfect Match

Ultimately, the "right" grout color depends on your desired aesthetic and the overall design scheme you're aiming to achieve. Don't be afraid to experiment! Here are some tips to help you find the perfect match:

Order Samples

Grout color can look vastly different depending on the lighting in your space. Order samples of both your chosen subway tile and potential grout colors to see how they interact under your specific lighting conditions.

Mockup Magic

Create a mockup by laying out a few tiles with different grout colors to visualize the final look. This allows you to compare options and make an informed decision before committing to a large-scale installation.

Seek Professional Guidance

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the choices, consult with a design professional or an experienced tile installer. They can offer valuable insights and help you navigate the world of grout colors to find the perfect match for your project.

By understanding the impact of grout color and utilizing these tips, you can transform your subway tile installation from ordinary to extraordinary. Remember, grout is more than just a filler; it's a design element with the power to elevate your space and create a truly unique and personalized look.

Keeping Grout Looking Fresh

Grout, by its very nature, is susceptible to staining and showing dirt over time. This doesn't have to spell design doom! Here are some tips for keeping your grout looking fresh for years to come:

Stain Resistance Matters

When choosing grout, consider stain-resistant options, especially in busy areas like kitchens and bathrooms. These grouts are formulated to repel liquids and make cleaning easier.

Proper Cleaning is Key

Regular cleaning with a grout-specific cleaner will help remove dirt and prevent deep-seated stains. For stubborn stains, consider using a grout recoloring product to restore its original appearance. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations for selecting and using grout, especially regarding stain resistance and cleaning products.

By acknowledging the importance of grout color and implementing proper maintenance techniques, you can ensure that this unsung hero plays its part in creating a stunning and long-lasting subway tile design. Remember to always consult the grout manufacturer's recommendations for proper cleaning methods to avoid damaging the material.


Subway tile is no longer a one-trick pony. It's a design chameleon, adapting to any style and personal preference. So, ditch the limitations, embrace the possibilities, and see your vision come to life! Before you finalize your choices, use our innovative AR technology to visualize how these stunning subway tiles would look in your own space. With a little planning, a touch of imagination, and the help of AR, you can transform your space into a unique and personalized haven that reflects your unique style.

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