What Does A Subway Tile Look Like?

Modern kitchen featuring a marble subway tile backsplash, wooden cabinets, and stylish decor items.

Subway tile, synonymous with the gleaming walls of historic subway stations, has transcended its functional origins to become a beloved design element in modern homes. This comprehensive guide explores the evolution of subway tile, from its classic rectangular form with a glazed finish, traditionally laid in a running bond pattern, to the vast array of modern interpretations. We'll delve into size variations, color explorations, and innovative patterns, along with the different materials used, to equip you with the knowledge to incorporate the timeless elegance of subway tile into your own space.


Bright kitchen featuring a white subway tile backsplash, sleek marble countertops, and stainless steel appliances, creating a modern and clean aesthetic.


The Classic Subway Tile 

Subway tile gets its name from its resemblance to the glazed ceramic tiles used extensively in early 20th-century subway systems, particularly the iconic New York City subway. These early tiles were typically a bright white color and played a crucial role in maintaining a clean and sanitary environment in busy areas. The simple, rectangular design and glazed ceramic finish made them easy to clean and resistant to moisture, a necessity for a constantly bustling underground environment.

Key Characteristics 

The classic subway tile is defined by a combination of specific features that contribute to its iconic look:


The most recognizable aspect is the rectangular silhouette, typically boasting a 2:1 width-to-height ratio. This balanced proportion creates a visually pleasing aesthetic, neither appearing too squat nor overly elongated. This aspect ratio allows for easy visual flow and complements a variety of design styles.


The flat surface is traditionally smooth and features a glazed finish. This glaze acts as a protective layer, shielding the tile from moisture, stains, and scratches, making it ideal for busy areas like kitchens and bathrooms. The glossy finish's ability to reflect light contributes significantly to the clean and bright aesthetic that's synonymous with subway tile. However, advancements offer matte finishes for a more contemporary feel.


Traditionally, the classic subway tile comes in a 3" x 6" format. This size strikes a perfect balance: it offers enough coverage to minimize grout lines while still creating visual interest. The 3" x 6" size is also practical for handling and installation, making it a versatile choice for DIY enthusiasts and professional tilers alike.


The most common laying pattern for classic subway tile is the running bond. In this arrangement, the horizontal seams between tiles are offset by half a tile width. This creates a staggered pattern that adds a touch of dynamism and visual interest compared to a simple stacked layout. The running bond pattern offers a timeless aesthetic that complements various design styles.

Material Options 

While the original subway tiles were made from white glazed ceramic, modern options offer a wider variety of materials to suit different design preferences and functional needs. Here's a breakdown of the most common materials used for subway tile:


The reigning champion in popularity and affordability, ceramic offers a classic look and good durability. They come in a vast array of colors and finishes, making them incredibly versatile for various design aesthetics. From the ever-popular white subway tile to bold colors and even patterned options, ceramic tiles can match any vision. However, keep in mind that they might not be the most durable choice for busy areas.


For areas that demand superior water resistance, porcelain comes to the rescue. Denser and more impervious to moisture than ceramic, porcelain is ideal for high-moisture environments like shower surrounds and kitchen backsplashes. Its slightly increased scratch resistance makes it a good option for busy areas as well. While typically more expensive than ceramic, porcelain offers a longer lifespan and requires minimal maintenance.


Popular options of natural stone subway tiles include marble, granite, and slate, each offering a unique look and a touch of luxury. Stone tiles are incredibly durable and can add significant value to your home. However, they come at a premium price compared to ceramic or porcelain. Natural stone is also more susceptible to staining and requires specific cleaning methods to maintain its beauty. For these reasons, stone subway tile is best suited for those who appreciate its inherent qualities and are willing to invest in the extra care it demands.


Serene bathroom featuring a freestanding tub, herringbone-patterned terracotta tiles, and a wooden vanity with round mirror, creating a spa-like atmosphere.


Modern Interpretations of Subway Tile 

The classic subway tile, while undeniably charming, is just the starting point for a world of design possibilities. Modern interpretations have taken this timeless element and breathed new life into it, offering a spectrum of variations that cater to diverse styles and preferences. This section delves into the exciting realm of modern subway tile, exploring how size, color, pattern, and texture can be manipulated to create unique and captivating looks.

Size Variations 

While the traditional 3" x 6" format remains a popular choice for its versatility and timeless appeal, modern interpretations offer a wider range of sizes to suit different design goals and spatial constraints. Here's a breakdown of how size variations impact the overall aesthetic:

Smaller Formats (1" x 2", 2" x 4")

Think intricate details and big impact in small spaces. These miniature tiles are ideal for backsplashes, powder rooms, or shower niches. They create a detailed look that can be used for stunning mosaic patterns or borders. The increased grout lines add visual interest and can be leveraged for creative design elements.

Larger Formats (4" x 8", 6" x 12")

Large format tiles create a clean, expansive visual effect, ideal for larger walls or open floor plans. The minimal grout lines also contribute to a sleek and sophisticated look. However, keep in mind that they might not be suitable for very small spaces or intricate patterns due to their size.

Color Exploration 

The iconic white subway tile, a symbol of clean lines and timeless elegance, continues to be a popular choice for modern spaces. However, the world of subway tile has embraced a vibrant color palette, allowing homeowners to express their personal style and create a truly unique aesthetic.

Bold and Saturated

Make a statement with bold and saturated colors like cobalt blue, emerald green, or fiery red. These can create a dramatic focal point, add a pop of vibrancy, or complement existing design elements. Imagine a fiery red subway tile backsplash behind a stainless steel stove for a modern kitchen with a touch of personality.


Embrace sophistication and versatility with neutral tones like gray, beige, and black. Gray subway tile creates a cool and modern ambiance, perfect for pairing with chrome fixtures and sleek countertops. Beige tones add warmth and a touch of rustic charm, ideal for farmhouse-inspired kitchens. Black subway tile makes a striking statement, creating a dramatic backdrop for white cabinets or metallic fixtures.

The Power of Grout

Don't overlook the impact of grout color. It can complement or contrast with your chosen subway tile, influencing the overall aesthetic. For a seamless look, select a grout color that matches the undertones of the tile. For example, white subway tile with a light gray grout creates a clean and cohesive flow. Alternatively, a contrasting grout color can add definition and visual interest, particularly with smaller format tiles. Imagine a black subway tile backsplash with white grout for a graphic impact, or a light beige subway tile with dark charcoal grout for a vintage feel.

Pattern Play 

The classic running bond pattern, where horizontal seams are offset by half a tile, has long been the mainstay for subway tile installations. While this timeless layout remains a popular choice, modern interpretations offer a plethora of exciting patterns that can add a touch of personality and visual intrigue to your space.

Modern Minimalism

Embrace clean lines and contemporary style with stacked patterns. Here, tiles are laid one directly on top of the other, emphasizing the rectangular form and creating a sense of order and simplicity. A vertical stacked pattern can further enhance the feeling of height in a room, making it ideal for areas with lower ceilings.


Inspired by the way herringbone fabric is woven, this pattern features V-shaped rows of tile laid at alternating 45-degree angles. Offering a touch of dynamism and visual texture, the herringbone pattern is a popular choice for both backsplashes and floors. Consider using a contrasting grout color to further highlight the V-shaped design and add depth.

Beyond the Basics

For the adventurous homeowner, explore intricate and playful patterns like chevron or basketweave. Chevron involves laying tiles in a series of continuous zigzags, creating a dynamic and eye-catching design. Basketweave, on the other hand, creates a woven effect by interlacing rows of tile in a grid-like fashion. These patterns add a touch of complexity and sophistication to a space, making them ideal for those who want a statement piece.

The ideal pattern depends on your overall design goals and the desired aesthetic. For a classic and timeless look, the running bond or stacked pattern remains a safe bet. Modern spaces can benefit from the dynamism of the herringbone pattern. If you're looking to add a touch of personality and visual intrigue, consider exploring chevron or basketweave patterns. Remember, the size of your space also plays a role. More intricate patterns like basketweave might overwhelm smaller areas, while simpler patterns like stacked bond can create a sense of spaciousness.

Textural Experimentation 

The classic subway tile boasts a smooth, glazed surface that reflects light and creates a clean aesthetic. While this finish remains a popular choice, modern interpretations embrace a wider range of textures, adding depth and visual interest to your space.

The Allure of Matte

Embrace a more subdued and sophisticated look with matte finishes. Unlike their glossy counterparts, matte tiles absorb light rather than reflect it. This creates a softer and more contemporary feel, ideal for modern kitchens and bathrooms. Matte finishes can also be surprisingly forgiving of minor imperfections, making them a good choice for busy areas.

Mimicking Nature

Incorporate the natural beauty of stone into your design with textured subway tiles. These tiles come in a variety of textures that replicate the look of materials like slate, brick, and even wood. They also add a touch of rustic charm or organic texture, creating a unique connection to the natural world.

The Beauty of Imperfections

Handcrafted subway tiles often feature slight variations in size, color, and texture, creating a warm and inviting ambiance. They are perfect for farmhouse or cottage-style kitchens, adding a touch of authenticity and character to the space.

Mixing and Matching

Don't be afraid to unleash your creativity and experiment with combining different finishes. For example, consider using glossy subway tiles for the main area of your backsplash and introducing a band of matte or textured tiles along the bottom for added visual interest. This creates a layered and visually engaging design. Mixing finishes can also add depth and dimension to your space, allowing you to create a truly unique aesthetic.


Cozy living room with a dark tiled fireplace, flanked by wooden bookshelves, blending modern and rustic elements for a warm ambiance.

Choosing the Right Subway Tile 

Subway tile's versatility extends beyond its visual appeal. It caters to a wide range of design styles and functional needs. However, with so many options available – size variations, color palettes, patterns, and textures – navigating the selection process can feel overwhelming. Here, we’ll equip you with the key factors to consider when choosing the perfect subway tile for your space to help you make an informed and confident decision.

Overall Design Style 

Subway tile's adaptability allows it to seamlessly integrate with various design styles. For a classic or traditional kitchen, opting for white subway tile in a running bond pattern with a glossy finish creates a timeless aesthetic. Modern spaces can benefit from larger format tiles in bold colors or a unique herringbone pattern with a matte finish. Farmhouse style kitchens might favor smaller format subway tile in a neutral tone with a textured finish that mimics the look of worn brick.

Our advanced Augmented Reality (AR) tool allows you to visualize different subway tile options within your own space. Experiment with various styles and bring your design vision to life!

Color Scheme of the Surrounding Space 

Consider the overall color scheme in your kitchen or bathroom. If your cabinets are dark-colored wood or painted a dramatic shade, opting for white subway tile can help brighten the space. The white tiles act as a reflective surface, bouncing light around the room and creating a feeling of openness. Alternatively, consider dark-colored subway tiles, like black or charcoal gray. This can create a dramatic focal point in a light-colored kitchen, adding depth and sophistication. Black subway tile pairs beautifully with white countertops or metallic fixtures for a touch of modern elegance.

But subway tiles don't have to be limited to black and white. Explore a range of colors to complement your existing design scheme. For example, a light blue subway tile backsplash can add a touch of coastal charm to a white kitchen with chrome hardware. Remember, bold colors can be used sparingly for a pop of vibrancy, or more extensively for a truly unique statement.

Need help choosing the perfect color combination? Our design experts are here to help! We offer design consultations to assist you in selecting the ideal subway tile color scheme for your space.

Room Size and Lighting Conditions 

The size of your room plays a crucial role in selecting the optimal subway tile size. Smaller spaces like powder rooms or backsplashes can feel overwhelmed by large tiles. Opt for smaller format tiles (1" x 2" or 2" x 4") for these areas. The increased grout lines can even add visual interest in compact settings. In larger rooms, you have more freedom to explore. Larger format tiles (4" x 8" or 6" x 12") create a clean, streamlined look, ideal for expansive walls or open floor plans. 

Lighting conditions also influence your choice. Glossy finishes act like mini mirrors, reflecting light and making a small space feel larger. This is perfect for areas with limited natural light. Conversely, matte finishes absorb light, creating a more intimate feel. They can be a good choice for overly bright bathrooms or rooms with expansive windows.

Desired Level of Visual Interest

Subway tile offers a spectrum of visual complexity, from the classic running bond pattern to intricate mosaics or bold herringbone layouts. Consider the overall design of your space. If your kitchen or bathroom already features busy patterns, opt for a classic stacked or running bond pattern for a cohesive look. These simpler patterns allow existing elements to take center stage without visual clutter. 

Conversely, a plain kitchen with minimal design elements presents a perfect canvas for a more visually interesting subway tile pattern. Explore herringbone, chevron, or basket weave patterns to add personality and intrigue. These elevate a simple space, becoming a focal point without overwhelming the overall aesthetic.

Budget and Maintenance Requirements 

Don't forget to factor in your budget and how much time you're willing to dedicate to maintenance. Larger tiles, while more expensive per tile, require less grout, meaning easier cleaning. Smaller tiles are budget-friendly but necessitate more frequent cleaning of grout lines. Material also matters. Glazed ceramic and porcelain are easiest to clean, while textured finishes or unglazed options may require more effort. By understanding these factors, you can find the perfect balance between your budget and your desired level of maintenance commitment.


Modern kitchen with light gray vertical subway tile backsplash, wooden cabinetry, and sleek open shelves, creating a minimalist and stylish space.

Installation and Maintenance of Subway Tiles 

Subway tile's popularity extends to its relative ease of installation and maintenance. However, achieving a flawless and long-lasting finish requires careful planning and proper execution. This section dives into the key aspects of installing and maintaining your subway tile masterpiece.

Installation Tips 

To achieve a professional-looking subway tile installation, consider hiring a tiler for intricate designs. Before laying the first tile, ensure a smooth, level surface for a seamless look. Choosing the right grout is key: color should complement your tile and desired aesthetic, while type (sanded/unsanded) depends on tile size. Finally, use spacers throughout the installation to maintain consistent grout lines for a polished finish.

Maintenance and Cleaning 

One of the significant benefits of subway tile, particularly those made of ceramic or porcelain, is its low-maintenance nature. Thanks to its non-porous surface, dirt and grime typically don't adhere strongly, making cleaning a breeze. Here's a simple routine to keep your subway tile looking its best:

Daily Cleaning

For regular cleaning, a simple wipe-down with a damp microfiber cloth is all you need. Microfiber cloths effectively trap dust and grime without scratching the tile surface.

Tackling Tough Stains

For tougher stains, grease buildup, or occasional soap scum, use a mild cleaning solution. Popular options include a mixture of warm water and dish soap or a diluted vinegar solution (one part vinegar to ten parts water). Avoid harsh chemicals like bleach or ammonia, as they can damage the tile's glaze. 

Important Note: These cleaning suggestions are general recommendations. It's always best to follow the specific care instructions provided by the manufacturer of your subway tile, as they may have specific recommendations for your particular material, finish, or color.


Kitchen countertop with a white marble subway tile backsplash, wooden cutting boards, and stylish decor.


Subway tile's journey from practicality to beloved design element offers a timeless foundation for your kitchen or bathroom. Explore size variations for spaciousness or intricate detail, a color spectrum for personalization and mood, and pattern play for a touch of design flair. Whether you choose the classic running bond or delve into herringbone, stacked layouts, or textures mimicking natural materials, subway tile empowers you to unleash your creativity and craft a space that reflects your unique style.

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Elegant white marble tile backdrop in a bright kitchen, featuring a rustic fruit bowl and fresh greenery next to modern cookbooks.
Modern kitchen with light wood cabinetry, an island with beige chairs, and a herringbone subway tile backsplash.