Classic Subway Tiles Can Work in Modern Room Design

Modern Kitchen With White Subway Tile 478427147
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  • 01 of 09

    Subway Tiles Past and Present

    White subway tile without grout
    dlinca / Getty Images

    You recognize them in a flash—those 3 x 6-inch white tiles arranged in an offset running-bond pattern. These types of tile were first used in New York subway stations in the early 1900s, where they proved to be an easy-to-clean, durable surface that reflected light well. Those same virtues quickly led to subway tiles being used in residential housing, and more than a century later they remain among the most popular choices for tile installations. While subway tiles often are used in classic, heritage room designs, they can be surprisingly effective in rooms with much more modern design schemes.

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  • 02 of 09

    Modern Classic Kitchen

    Modern Kitchen With White Subway Tile
    David Papazian/Getty Images

    This kitchen certainly attempts to recreate the design feeling of a turn-of-the-century kitchen, even though its modern functionality is quite clear. The carefully chosen elements create the feeling of an old-time kitchen with a very modern function.

    The white-on-white color scheme is straight out of turn-of-the-century aesthetics—a time when pure whites in a kitchen were thought to signify health and cleanliness. Subway tile is used extensively, covering not just the backsplash area but the entire wall. The dark grout highlights the brick-like quality of subway tile.

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  • 03 of 09

    Modern Classic Bathroom

    Classic Subway Tile Idea
    South Cypress

    Part of the appeal of subway tile is its design simplicity and universal measurement ratios, where width to length ratio is a precise 1:2. The classic subway tile is 3 x 6 inches, though other variations are also available in 2 x 4-inch or 4 x 8-inch sizes.

    This bathroom features classic white subway tile paired with retro elements, such as the pedestal sink and octagonal floor tile. It's a very traditional look but with a fresh modern feel.

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  • 04 of 09

    Tuscan-Style Kitchen

    Tuscan Style Subway Tile In Kitchen
    Jessie Walker/Getty Images

    Although one might think that subway tile is best suited for traditional American styles, it actually can be quite effective for other styles as well, such as in this Tuscan-style kitchen.

    At first glance, you might not notice the use of subway tile, especially with all of the other elements added: the grandiose terra-cotta medallion and vent hood with corbels. But on closer inspection, the tile is revealed to be an elegant and functional design element when installed as a backsplash wall behind a very modern drop-in stovetop. 

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  • 05 of 09

    Brightly Colored Subway Tiles

    Modern Kitchen With Colorful Subway Tile 155386823
    Tim Abramowitz / Getty Images

    Because white subway tiles are so common and expected, breaking expectations with unusual colors greatly livens up a kitchen. The classic dimensions of the tile still anchor the design by providing a traditional element in a kitchen that is otherwise decidedly modern. 

    These colorful backsplash tiles are unusual—and welcoming. They play well with the four pendant lights, the double-tier breakfast bar with glass counter, and the retro-style stools.

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  • 06 of 09

    Subway Tile Turned on Its Head

    Vertical Subway Tile in Kitchen

    By turning classic subway tile on its end, the designer of this kitchen defies expectations and makes for an exciting space. The twin-tone stripes further enhance the vertical visual effect. The running bond pattern—also called a brickwork pattern—is one of the simplest tile patterns, in which the neighboring row advances half a tile length. It's typically used horizontally, but there's no rule that say is has to.

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  • 07 of 09

    Subway Tile for Contrast

    Classic Subway Tile with Harlequin Wall Tile
    South Cypress

    To give this bathroom some extra punch, the tile installation includes a strong array of black-and-white harlequin-patterned tile on the wall. Further emphasizing the contrast are the jet-black pedestal sink and bathtub. It's a truly modern look using classic retro materials.

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  • 08 of 09

    Subway Tile in Natural Stone

    Calacatta Oro Marble Tile

    The original subway tiles used in subway stations were all about function, for which ceramic was the perfect fit because it is not porous and is virtually impervious to grime, dirt, and smoke. In the home environment, however, you can get away with tile materials that aren't quite so "bulletproof," such as these marble tiles that combine the classic dimensions of subway tile with the elegance of natural stone.

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  • 09 of 09

    Glass Subway Tile

    Glass Subway Tile

    As a home design trend, subway has had a good run, but it pales by comparison to the general excitement over glass tile. If you like both styles, why not put them together? It's classic modern meets modern modern.