Design Dilemma: Should I Hop On the Subway Tile Train?

kitchen backsplash detail

Question from Sherry: I’m curious — it seems that all of the designers go to some type of subway tile for the backsplash in kitchens (ad nauseam). Why? I am looking to have our backsplash be a small tile – 1 inch by 1 inch. But maybe there is a very solid design reason that I am not considering. Please advise. Thanks!”

Answer:  I hear you Sherry, there is a lot of subway tile out there! Designers and clients alike appreciate the lasting nature of subway tile, after all, it’s been around since 1904 when it was first used in the New York subways. It worked then and it works now for a lot of applications. Many feel the same about subway tile as they do about white inset cabinets, marble countertops, stainless appliances or even denim. Its timeless nature makes it a safe choice from both an investment and visual standpoint. That said, subway tile does not need to be a white and 3×6. It now comes in every shape, size and color of the rainbow.

Here are a few unique subway tile installations that we think are anything but ordinary.

These two kitchens use a bright color to highlight the backsplash but in the shape of a subway tile. The type of pattern in both is not a typical “staggered brick” subway pattern. In these two instances, the blue tile is set in a herringbone pattern and the green is laid straight. This creates a different feel than the more typical subway set.

subway tile design detail

Source: Jenn Feldman Designs

green subway tile kitchen design

Source: The Kitchen Studio, Michael A. Kaskel Photography

The next subway tiled space is assembled out of natural stone which coordinates with the countertops and gives this kitchen a very classic and luxurious feel.

white kitchen with subway tile walls

Source: The Kitchen Studio, Michael A. Kaskel Photography

modern kitchen design with subway tiles

Source: The Kitchen Studio, Michael A. Kaskel Photography

That said, if you find something you love that makes you happy every time you walk into your kitchen, by all means go for it! No one says you have to use subway tile. My very own kitchen does not have subway tile as I knew I wanted something more decorative. In this case I chose a tile with a motif and color that I feel are relatively neutral and timeless. My only hesitation in using the 1” tiles you are considering is that you will have a lot of grout to maintain as grout needs to be sealed just like any porous tile. In other words, it is not a low-maintenance option, so this is something to be aware of.

open space storage options in the kitchen

Source: The Kitchen Studio, Michael A. Kaskel Photography

If you are looking for something other than a typical subway tile, here are a few beyond basic backsplash treatments:

Full height backsplash.  This is where you use the same stone as you used on the countertops on the backsplash. This is a beautiful way to thoroughly appreciate the beauty of natural stone as it is much more visible on a vertical surface than on a horizontal one, but you do need to be careful to use the same lot of stone slabs for both or you may end up with a bit of a mismatch. You will want to choose a very good stone fabricator for this project because placement of veining and seams is critical in getting this to look good.

marble backsplash contemporary kitchen

Source: The Kitchen Studio, Michael A. Photography

farmhouse kitchen with marble backsplash

Source: Cortney Bishop Design/Katie Charlotte Photography

Wallpaper. Yes, you can use wallpaper on your backsplash! You will want to use a high quality cloth-backed vinyl and may want to consider using stone or tile in the area directly behind the stove, although this is not necessary. You can also use non-vinyl paper and cover it with glass panels if you find a paper you fall in love with that is not available in viny. Thibaut has some beautiful vinyl papers that would work well. As glass does come in limited lengths, you will likely have some seams in the glass. Something to consider if you go this route.

bright colorful kitchen

Source: Andrea Schumacher Design

floral design kitchen

Source: Summer Thornton Design

Paneling. Another great and budget-friendly option if you are going for a more casual feel, is to use shiplap or paneling on your backsplash.

minimal design dining room

Source: Alison Giese

modern closed storage space in the kitchen


Patterned tile. Perhaps this last option is a backlash against the subway tile of the last couple of decades — patterned Moroccan style tile. This comes in ceramic, porcelain and cement. If you are more of a maximalist, this is a great way to add vibrant pattern and color to your kitchen. This tile brings a lovely old-world warmth to a space but in an updated way, so if you are looking to incorporate wood tones into your kitchen, these patterned tiles can keep it looking fresh. The first photos shows the entire backsplash using patterned tile and the second shows it along with, guess what, subway tile!

floral backsplash kitchen design

Source: Hawkes Custom Homes/Siri Berting Photography

cooking range design

Source: Heather Ryan/H. Ryan Photography Studio

So there you have it! The what, where and how of using subway tile along with some wonderful alternatives if you are just not into it. As I always say, it’s your kitchen and it should bring YOU joy. Kitchens are as individual as the people and families using them. Good luck with your project Sherry and let us know what you decide!

No Comment
Leave a Comment


4501 Tamiami Trail N, Ste 424
Naples, FL 34103
(239) 378-6599
522 Crescent Blvd
Glen Ellyn, IL 60137
(630) 858-4848
Chicago, IL
1040 Roscoe St.
Chicago, IL 60657
(630) 488-7481