Interior Design

You Can Do Better Than Subway Tile

January 26, 2016

Too much of a good thing can ruin it for you, as anyone who lived off flavor packet ramen in their 20s can testify.

So it is for me with subway tile. The 3-inch by 6-inch glossy white ceramic tiles rose to popularity after they were used in turn-of-the-century subway station designs in New York City—and have become seemingly de facto in so many kitchen and bath wall coverings of current vogue.

All the kitchen trends (including subway tile) on the set of The Intern. Photo by The Intern

I'm not saying subway tile is awful—it's classic, and it's appealing for good reasons: It's easy to clean and shines like a smile. It's humble, yet rooted in history. Trendy but subtle, inexpensive, and with a report card that reads, "Plays well with others."

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But, from where I stand (sifting through every other Pinterest photo just to find one that's not subway tile porn), we've lost control. Just because something is classic and clean doesn't mean it's the only option! Also, they're white tiles laid like bricks... Let's collectively yawn.

There are so many incredible tiles and patterns to choose from in the world. As a call for change from the subway tile status quo, for an acceptance that tile can be expressive and exciting, for confidence in creative design, here are 5 clean, uncluttered alternatives to subway tile that can do everything it can do—and better.

Beveled

Photo by Nemo
Photo by Yellow Trace

With six beveled sides, this Formae Diamond Cotton tile by Nemo (above, left) adds dimension and interest while still being regular, white, and glossy. A slightly less dramatic bevel, just around the edges of each tile, paired with an unexpected vertical pattern (above, right) is similarly shaken up while still relying on glossy rectangular unit.

Color

Whether you go casual or splashy—as in these juicy green Moroccan Mosaic Tiles from Badia Design (above, right)—choosing tiles that are colorful doesn't mean you will miss having one more sliver of white wall space. In fact, especially on a backsplash or in a bathroom, a rich hue will help disguise grime in between cleanings. Either work with a range of related tones (above, left), or spring for a saturated color and lay the tiles horizontally (as in, don't go too crazy if your color is).

More: How to use tile even more unexpectedly in your home.

Pattern

A playful pattern—either in the way you lay the tile (above, right) or on the tile itself (above, left)—can change everything. The otherwise simple white marble tiles above (from Mandarin Stone) are statement-making when laid in a sideways herringbone pattern with a jagged uncut edge left exposed; and the patterned black and white bathroom section on the left is almost cozy, like a textile. Replace either with subway tile, and Pinterest would have cried.

Shape & Scale

Photo by Pinterest
Photo by Smart Tiles

Tiny hexagonal ceramic tiles(above, right) are a great way to go if you want to stay white (or gray, or marbled) and glossy but change up the shape. And you can even opt for stick-on sheets of them, like these genius little guys from Smart Tiles, which make it possible for renters to tile, too. On the flip side (above, left), oversized rectangles of tile can do even quicker work of covering large walls—and with less grout the clean over time.

Handmade

Using handmade tile, especially if it's textural, can give a room a certain rugged warmth. Even square handmade tiles laid in the most basic pattern across a large wall (above, left) feel nuanced without being distracting from the overall design. And if you really can't part with everyday white subway tiles, choosing some with a clay-like surface and uneven edges (above, right) is at least one step out of the box.

It's true: We've got subway tile all over the Food52 office, it's found in droves of gorgeous homes, and I'm sure the next apartment I rent will be ~blessed~ with a whole mess of it across the backsplash. Subway tile is hard to hate, being so tidy and classy and all, but isn't that reason enough to wonder if it's time, this or in your next home, to do better?

Tell us: What design trends will you never ever get sick of?

9 Comments

Clever M. August 5, 2018
peel and stick tiles can be stick over existing wall tiles, it is a really good choice for a renter to update their kitchen backsplash, just peel and stick, so easy to install, everyone can do it, besides, there are so many design peel and stick tiles for us to choose from, see more product clevermosaics.com
 
dinner A. January 27, 2016
Being sick of seeing subway tile on Pinterest seems like mostly a hazard of being a home design editor. Maybe it's tiresome to have design professionals stuck on any particular style for showrooms and photo shoots, but as far as making personal decisions about design for your own home, this article seems irrelevant. Most people don't renovate their houses very frequently (and shouldn't, due to environmental costs even if money is not an issue). Any design decision you make for your home about something durable like tile will be with you every day for decades -- so it had better be somewhat neutral and/or something for which your love is undying. <br />The author also seems to overestimate the average level of style found in most people's homes anyways -- I'm pretty sure that subway tile would represent a significant step up for many (including all the apartments I've rented).
 
amysarah January 26, 2016
As mentioned, it’s not always a lack of imagination. In my experience, most projects simply have a budget - and good looking, simple white subway tiles can be literally a fraction of the cost of the many gorgeous tiles available – both material and sometimes labor cost (depending on pattern/mosaic/etc.) When a tile package includes other pricey floor tile or whatnot, it can be a good solution - as you said, it coordinates well with most tiles. (And I’m a tile obsessive – there are piles of samples around me as I type!) <br /><br />A small discrete area, e.g., shower enclosure or kitchen backsplash, is a good way to splurge on pricier tile – lots of visual impact, but a relatively small quantity is needed, unless your kitchen is very large w/extensive cabinetry. (Btw, I think you mean simple white subway tile - any rectangular tile - often 3x6 - set in a "running bond" or "railroad" pattern is actually called subway tile – even the lovely glazed ones in your pix, or glass, stone, etc.) <br />
 
Moshee January 26, 2016
Amen! All these options are beautiful. But I agree that subway tile is mainly a budgetary choice and a decent one. I'm just bored by it. That said, I don't even have a backsplash (gasp!) in my rental, so who am I to judge?
 
joseph R. January 26, 2016
Home Studios did something interesting with subway tile at Sisters in Brooklyn. Subway tile (ceramic in some places, marble in others) will follow a traditional running bond pattern punctuated by the occasional trapezoidal tile, which seems to shift the pattern up a row. Not sure if it is a custom tile situation. For me it adds visual interest and a bit of the unexpected. <br />http://homestudios.nyc/<br />http://static1.squarespace.com/static/51256af8e4b0d69820153bac/5526cb88e4b0f295d6bc4f84/563ba69ee4b03a8b2f1ae874/1446749860641/26.jpg?format=1500w
 
Margaret January 26, 2016
We redid our bathroom and kitchen when we moved four years ago and here's the thing with most of the decorative tiles you featured. While I would have died and gone to heaven for a gorgeous Moroccan patterned tile, my husband died when we flipped the tile over and got a look at the price. Subway tile (we opted for an inexpensive marble option) is not only clean, classic, and comes in a range of colors, it won't break the bank. That said, of COURSE I would have loved to have a gorgeous Ann Sacks... anything. But that was not in the budget.
 
Allyn January 26, 2016
Yes, budget doesn't seem to be worth mentioning in this article, but I'm pretty sure it's the reason why a lot of people choose subway tile. Classic, elegant, easy to adapt to different color palettes/styles, and AFFORDABLE. As much as I'd love to do a kitchen with Heath ceramics one day, I highly doubt I'll be able to responsibly afford that, and will certainly consider subway tile.
 
Stephanie G. January 26, 2016
I think subway tiles are still beautiful! I've had mine for over 10 years and still love them. Plan to have them for a long time...
 
lfm January 26, 2016
I think you should steer clear of the word "better" which is by definition insulting to the people who have chosen the classic. Different is a good word, plays well with others, too. While other ideas can be interesting to read about (and it is all of course subjective) some of your choices are def not "better". "You can do better" makes people feel bad about something they may have chosen and that's pretty hard and expensive to change.