Classic Subway Tiles Can Work in Modern Room Design

  • 01 of 09


    You recognize them in a flash—those 3" x 6" white tiles arranged in an offset running-bond pattern. The tiles were first used it in the early 1900s New York subway stations, where they proved to be an easy-to-clean, durable surface that reflected light well. Those same virtues quickly caused subway tiles to be used in residential housing, and more than a century later they still are among the most popular choices for tile installations.

    While these tiles often are used in classic, heritage room designs, they can be surprisingly effective even in rooms with much more modern design aesthetics. The pages that follow will show you eight examples of modern kitchens and baths that make exciting use of that old-time standard, the classic subway tile.  

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  • 02 of 09

    A 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. Have a look at the carefully chosen elements that create the feeling of an old-time kitchen with a very modern function. 

    • Note the" freestanding" cabinets. This is for appearance only, as you can clearly see the modern toe-kicks behind the false legs and is a detail aimed at creating the feeling of an early 20th-century kitchen. 
    • 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. 
    • The double-hung window is somewhat rare in modern kitchens, but the choice here aims to create the look of an old-time kitchen. 

    Notice the signals that this is a very modern kitchen: 

    • Engineered stone kitchen countertops.
    • A Bosch-type dishwasher with hidden controls, and a giant stainless steel vent hood over the stove.

    Then there is that subway tile—it's everywhere. This is one of those installations where the backsplash becomes the wall itself. Classic subway tile with dark grout instantly brings classic, timeless, and traditional style.  

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  • 03 of 09

    Modern Classic Bathroom

    Classic Subway Tile Idea
    Classic Subway Tile Idea. © South Cypress; Courtesy of 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", though other variations are also available in 2" x 4" or 4" x 8" sizes. 

    This example shows the classic bathroom subway tile: traditional white and paired with retro elements, such as the pedestal sink and octagon floor tile. It's like the bathroom version of the kitchen you saw previously. They could both be in the same house.

    From South Cypress, this product is Dal Tile's Rittenhouse Square 3" x 6" with a 2" x 6" shelf rail.

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  • 04 of 09

    Subway Tile In a Tuscan-Style Kitchen

    Tuscan Style Subway Tile In Kitchen 513043141
    Tuscan Style Subway Tile In Kitchen. Jessie Walker/Getty

    Although one might think that subway tile is best suited for traditional American styles, it actually can be quite effective in other styles. Here's an example, where classic subway style appears in a  Tuscan-style kitchen.

    It barely even looks "subway," with all of these other elements added: the grandiose terra-cotta medallion and vent hood with corbels. It is actually quite 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 Tiles

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

    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 excessively 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
    Vertical Subway Tile in Kitchen. Image: Copyright Daltile; Courtesy of Daltile

    Now we turn that classic subway tile on its end: in itself, this breaks expectations and makes for an exciting space, but this kitchen now adds two different colors arranged in alternating vertical stripes. These tiles are Architectural Gray and Almond, both are from South Cypress, manufactured by Daltile. Size: 3"x6".

    This 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.

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  • 07 of 09

    Subway Tile for Contrast

    Classic Subway Tile with Harlequin Wall Tile
    Classic Subway Tile with Harlequin Wall Tile. Image: Copyright South Cypress; Courtesy of South Cypress

    The subway tile in question is American Olean Profiles 3"x6" and it's very much like the classic subway look of our first photo.

    To give this bathroom some extra punch, it includes a strong array of black-and-white harlequin-patterned tile on the wall (American Olean Profiles 3" x 6", Gloss Black Harlequin) and Satinglo 1" hexagon tile on the floor. All are available through South Cypress.

    To further exaggerate the contrast, a jet-black pedestal sink and bathtub are installed. Could any bathroom look more modern, even though the materials are completely retro?

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  • 08 of 09

    Subway Tile in Natural Stone

    Calacatta Oro Marble Tile
    Calacatta Oro Marble Tile. © Bedrosian's; Courtesy of Bedrosian's

    You'll be hard-pressed to find true marble subway tile—mainly because subway tile was never intended to be anything but ceramic. When originally installed in the New York subway system in 1904, these tiles were all about pure, brutal functionality. The builders wanted a vitreous, not porous, surface that could easily be cleaned of graffiti, dirt, and smoke. It also had to be cheap, and the rounded-off edges were nice, too.

    In residential design applications, though, natural stone tiles in the same classic dimension ratios and installed in the classic running-bond, brickwork pattern provide an elegance that is unsurpassed. Here we have a 3" x 8" Calacatta Oro Marble tile from Bedrosian's—slightly more elongated than the classic 1:2 ratio of traditional subway tiles. 

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  • 09 of 09

    Glass Subway Tile

    Glass Subway Tile
    Glass Subway Tile. (c) Modwalls

    The tile used in this shower is called Lush Vapor and it's from an online company, Modwalls, located near Santa Cruz, CA. It is not ceramic tile at all, but glass tile. 

    Tiles are official, regulation 3" x 6" subway-size, as NY Transit Authority intended. They come in sheets of eight attached to a mesh backing for a quicker install. If you like the ​running-bond brickwork pattern mentioned earlier in this gallery, Modwalls says just to peel off the tiles and install them individually.