interiors & styling

How to Make Subway Tile Look Classic, Not Basic

How to Make Subway Tile Look Classic and Not Basic - Let’s talk tile, friends… everyone and their mother, brother, mailman, etc (you get the point) is using subway tile these. For the past six or seven years this classic material caught on in a big way and the trend isn’t seeming to slow. In my opinion, that’s a good and bad thing. The good news is this: people have discovered the magical and timeless aesthetic of subway tile. The bad news? Since subway tile has been a safe and trendy choice for quite some time now, the overuse of it is quite frankly feeling boring and dated, instead of classic. You’re probably thinking, “since it IS a classic material, you really can’t go wrong and it will never go out of style”… ehhh, yes and no. Like all trends- materials and decor cycle back around with time. Too much of a good thing doesn’t always end well, you know? Not to worry though! I’m sharing a bunch of tips for installing subway tile in a way that feels timeless, intentional, and anything but basic or boring. Click through for lots of ideas and ways to avoid using this popular tile without it looking too trendy or running the risk of it becoming dated. 

How to Make Subway Tile Look Classic and Not Basic - Ready or not, here we go! You know what they say… variety is the spice of life. It’s only natural to get bored with something after you’ve seen it a million times on Pinterest, Instagram, or installed in five of your neighbors’ kitchens and baths. Something becomes “trendy” and runs the risk of feeling dated when a material or design is overused. That doesn’t mean a material is no longer relevant- it just means you have to be thoughtful in the way you install and design it, if you want it to withstand the test of time.

The key to using subway tile in a way that won’t get old is to look to history for inspiration. In doing so, you’ll find craftsmanship and intentional design.

I want to share some ideas for making this amazing and affordable tile feel fresh again! After all, I’m about to start installing our guest bathroom this week (YAY!), and there’s a reason I’m using subway tile… obviously I still love it.

How to Make Subway Tile Look Classic and Not Basic -

source : elle decor

This goes for any tile job, if you want it to look finished and tailored… use trim pieces! Obviously the above image looks over the top because of the architecture. It’s stunning and not really the norm, but you get the point!

In my guest bath, I’ll be using this base tile, pencil liner, subway tile, and chair rail tile for a cohesive look. No matter your aesthetic, make sure the visible edges look and feel finished. Even if you’re shooting for a modern aesthetic, be sure to cap the tile with a line of simple bullnose tile or install a piece of schluter to hide an unfinished edge. I’m a details person and I promise- they make all the difference!


source : hj martin

The beautiful thing about subway tile is that it comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Don’t be afraid to add a little contrast with an inset border. You could even use a different material! Look how beautifully marble carrara pairs with classic white subway in the above image. Again, looking back through history, this technique was commonly installed. Spoiler alert… there will also be a border in my guest bath and just looking at the design plan gets me all kinds of excited for a fun graphic detail.

How to Make Subway Tile Look Classic and Not Basic -

source : anvil hotel

Obviously I’m a color blocking fan, and tile is no exception. This is a great way to elongate a space or break up a field of boring, white tile.


My friends Kim & Scott used a colored subway tile for the backsplash in their treehouse kitchen and the result is stunning! I love the warm gray hue that is still neutral and classic- yet inviting. Using a colored subway tile immediately feels updated and modern.

How to Make Subway Tile Look Classic and Not Basic -

source : caitlin wilson

Try running your subway tile in a different direction or pattern. This is the easiest way to make an impact using what you already have.


Traditional subway tile is sized at 3×6 inches. However, there are plenty of options on the market that push the scale of subway tile in a unique direction. The above tile makes this bath feel more modern because of the elongated shape. You’ll also notice the designer ran it in a vertical direction. I’m calling that a win for both the scale and the unique pattern. Remember, when I ran the tile in my previous bathroom vertically to trick the eye into thinking the ceiling height was taller than it actually was? That’s another designer trick using tile orientation.

How to Make Subway Tile Look Classic and Not Basic -

source : studio mcgee

I’m loving textural tile lately. These handmade and hand glazed subway tiles take on a very organic and natural feel that add a ton of depth and variety to any wall. They feel timeless and effortless, yet updated. The textured tiles certainly give off a more casual vibe.

How to Make Subway Tile Look Classic and Not Basic -

source : megan bachmann

For added interest, I prefer to install a little contrast in the niche. Whether it’s behind the range or cooktop in the kitchen on the backsplash, or a shower niche in the bathtub, a little classy contrast goes a long way! You could trim it out with a different color, switch up the tile completely, run a different pattern, or play with scale. However you choose the highlight the recessed area, it will certainly add instant sophistication. Remember, we’re trying to steer clear of “basic”.


Lastly, the surroundings and accompanying design elements in a space highly influence the look and feel of a room. For example, if you’re installing subway tile in a bathroom because it’s a classic material, consider purchasing plumbing fixtures that will also withstand the test of time. The surroundings really come into play- it’s not just the tile! Everything that goes into a space plays a part in making it feel timeless, trendy, or dated.

If you’re wondering about grout, that’s an entirely different ballgame. Check out this post for tips on how to choose the right grout for your tile!

How to Make Subway Tile Look Classic and Not Basic -

source : remodelista

For those of you that are rocking plain subway tile and are freaking out right about now… please don’t! Rock it, embrace it, and style the living daylights out of it. OWN IT. At the end of the day, it is a classic material- even if it’s everywhere. To sum things up, I’ll use this little analogy…

Subway tile is like a basic tee- you can wear it every single day and it can look fresh and new depending on how you style it. That’s exactly how I like to think of subway tile! It’s so versatile and can morph into any aesthetic- it just depends on how you install it. It will never really go out of style, but it can look boring if you don’t pay attention to the details. I’m so excited to start tiling this week! Stay tuned. Questions? Comments? I want to hear them all in the comments below!!

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  • Reply
    January 30, 2019 at 4:09 am

    First of all, I had to google schluter; thanks for the education! Now. I added white subway to my kitchen a couple of years ago; we used the slightly smaller tile (maybe 2×4?) because the scale seemed better. We LOVE how it improved the look of our kitchen. Basic seemed right for our simple 1940s Cape.🙂 I love all of your suggestions…except the accent band. Sorry! I trust that you will make it beautiful, but I think I’m scarred by terrible glass tile mosaics in shoddy flip houses. On another note, you’ve mentioned a couple of times looking to history for timeless inspiration. Tell me how you do that! I’m intrigued. (Happy tiling!)

    • Reply
      January 30, 2019 at 8:50 am

      Ha! I think schluter is a fun word. Anytime I get to use it in a project, I make sure to throw it into as many sentences as I can :) Great choice on your 2×4 kitchen tile- that’s a wonderful scale and a good variation to ensure you’ll love it forever!

      I’m hoping you’ll feel differently about my contrast border once you see it installed in my guest bath- I’m really excited about it, but no hard feelings if you don’t love it. Everybody has their preferences and that’s what keeps things interesting. I also understand the terrible glass mosaics in flip houses… that certainly wasn’t a good look and didn’t help the popularity of that detail. Haha!

      Yes!! I love ‘looking to history’ for inspiration. I’ll go back through old design and architecture books, or visit historic buildings in my city or when I travel. The bigger cities have the best inspiration, in my opinion- New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Charleston (not big, but charming). I love seeing original tile (penny tile, classic subway, etc) or tile that was replaced with the exact same thing. It’s always super intentional, simple, installed with impeccable craftsmanship, and I’m always very inspired by it. In addition to tile, millwork is another good takeaway from those sorts of buildings!

  • Reply
    January 30, 2019 at 10:53 am

    Sarah, I think you have chosen great photos as examples of classic tile. Tile can be enduring with good choices and quality installation. Our first house, a Cape Cod built in the 40s, had original tile in the bathroom and original floor tile to complement the wall tile and trim! The owners had remodeled other rooms and said the bathroom was next on the list. I was so glad they left the bathroom alone! And when we sold, the new owners were as appreciative as we were. Interesting that Cincinnati is on your list. I know that Cincinnati was a center for pottery arts in the first part of the last century, so it would follow that they might have some great examples of tile in homes there, probably hand made too.

    • Reply
      January 30, 2019 at 11:56 am

      Yes!! That was the best choice for your Cape Cod. I bet it was beautiful! We moved to Utah from Ohio, so I have a soft spot in my heart for Cincinnati and the design there…. Emmett and I grew up near Louisville, and that’s another good city for historic inspiration in terms of tile :)

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