Home Decor

5 Less Boring Ways to Pattern Subway Tiles (If You *Must* Use Them)

February 11, 2016

When I recently expressed a certain longtime, quietly-harbored, and job-related frustration—that subway tile is a design trend that won't seem to die off despite it having fully, and even excessively, run its course—several of you called bullshit.

A selection of reactions from commenters:

'You can do better' makes people feel bad about something they may have chosen and that's pretty hard and expensive to change.

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.

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.

Amen! All these options are beautiful. But I agree that subway tile is mainly a budgetary choice and a decent one.

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.

Our first office! Inoffensive use of subway tile. Photo by Mark Weinberg

And my personal favorite:

Being sick of seeing subway tile on Pinterest seems like mostly a hazard of being a home design editor.

I still feel strongly that the use of subway tile (or perhaps, okay, the design world's weird revere for it) has gotten out of hand. Yes, it is an inexpensive option that seems to go with everything, but that doesn't mean it's the only one! (If you're still open to branching out as far as shape goes, here are some inexpensive white tiles that are not rectangular, that I love: mesh-mounted tiny hexagons, large brushed marble squares, and pre-configured panels of quilted diamond shapes.)

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But for the sake of giving the people what they want, let's say you're not a home editor—you don't spend your off-hours scouring the internet for home photography, and you aren't yet sick of subway tile.

A new suggestion: Consider all the ways you can lay subway tile that aren't in a brick formation. I recently had breakfast at Egg Shop on Elizabeth Street (so good!), and one of their walls was covered in subway tile—with the tiles laid in a pattern I'm not sure I've ever seen.

Friday morning essentials. Thanks for the 📷 @eaemileeanne #eggsyall

A photo posted by Egg Shop (@eggshopnyc) on

It made me really happy, was not at all boring, and didn't appear to ruin subway tile's good mojo (cleanliness, glossiness, whiteness).

Here are some other ways to lay subway tile that will help you break it (and other rectangular tiles) out of its subterranean municipal station box.


The Eggshop tile above is actually crosshatched—but diagonally. You can also rotate that pattern 45º if you prefer a more regular look. All of the below patterns can be varied simply by rotating the pattern.

Stack Bond

Instead of offsetting each row of horizontal tiles to look like a traditional brick pattern ("running bond"), consider stacking them straight in a grid. This pattern is still super clean and spare, a little less expected than traditional offset horizontal tiles, and open to many variations.

Horizontal Stack Bond

Photo by Pinterest
Photo by Westside Tile

Vertical Stack Bond

Offsetting your stack bond pattern, as in the left image above, is another variation. Photo by Banheiro Azulejos Retangulares (via ArkPad), Lotta Agaton


Under the umbrella of herringbone—wherein the tiles are laid in columns that all slope one way and then the other, appearing to overlap at the ends—you have a few options.

Straight Herringbone

For some reason not as popular in tiling, this orientation is actually most traditional (and subtle!).

Vertical Herringbone

The color of your grout can make a huge impact. Photo by Design to Inspire, Sarah Sherman Samuel

Probably the most popular way to lay herringbone, this formation lines up the tiles so they appear to point up and down—thereby adding verticality and order to a space, rather than more movement (see below for that).

Diagonal Herringbone

Photo by Design Sponge

Mixed patterns

I love the look of these oversized subway tiles laid in a number of patterns that fit around the corners of the cabinet perfectly. This is a good idea to keep in mind if you're trying to avoid cutting any tiles in half at the edges—just jigsaw them around in a variety of patterns to see if they can fit.

Photo by Simo Design

So, if you've been following the ever-increasing subway tile trend over the years, just waiting for the moment when you're actually ready to remodel the kitchen or bathroom and use it, don't let me keep you from fulfilling your dreams. But do consider that there's more than one way to lay it! Happy tiling.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • TheNicolai
  • Mrs Beryl Patmore
    Mrs Beryl Patmore
  • Lindsay-Jean Hard
    Lindsay-Jean Hard
Amanda Sims

Written by: Amanda Sims

Professional trespasser.


TheNicolai January 29, 2020
I totally agree that subway tiles are boring... And unless you get the adhesive sheets, removal is costly and a huge hassle! I’m looking forward to the day that this trend dies off.

The egg shop design is pretty though.
Mrs B. February 11, 2016
First, someone needs to give "subway tiles" a new name. The word "subway" has no business being anywhere near any sentence having anything to do with a kitchen.
Second, any layout involving anything other than lines parallel to the floors and counters needs the best tile setter in your area code to pull it off. Consider that when planning a DIY project.
Lindsay-Jean H. February 11, 2016
Count me in for camp straight herringbone!