Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Subway tile

Last year, I wrote a post about items that might be considered ‘trendy’  design elements that scream the 2000s (click here to see post).  There were a few elements that my readers considered to be ‘trendy’, yet also classic given that they are elements that seem to come back into vogue every 25 years or so.   Subway tile is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon.  Given that this ‘trend’ has been around for quite a few years, I often read posts on home improvement boards that one should think very carefully about whether to install subway tile in a house, given that homeowners and designers have been using it (and maybe overusing it) for years now.  I think there might be a feeling of fatigue with this style.

And yet, it is such a clean and tailored look, and speaks to a simple, classic, and low maintenance style that appeals to me.  It can be quite economical if a simple machine made subway tile is selected, although it can be quite expensive if a hand made tile is selected (easily double the price of a nice natural stone).

Subway tile gained its name from its use in the New York City subway system, which opened in 1904.  The rectangular, white ceramic tile was selected for its durable and stain resistant nature, and the light color and high gloss were a good choice for the subterranean spaces of the subway.  White subway tile represents a vintage, early 20th century style that has seen a huge resurgence in popularity in the first decade of the 21st century.  A good write up on the history of subway tile can be found here.

I tend to be very low key about bathroom decor, and when we selected the tile for the kids’ bathrooms, my request was simple, classic, low maintenance.  Whatever goes in the bathroom now will be there for many years. Both my architect and designer like a simple bathrooms for kids, so we are going to go with subway tile on the walls of the bath/shower, and a pretty basketweave mosaic on the floor. 

Waterworks Paxton border
Waterworks Winsdor rail
Waterworks Cottage subway field tile

We were planning on adding a decorative border to add an interesting element to the simple subway tile design – the charming Waterworks Paxton border and the matching cottage field tile.  All was fine, until we realized that we needed an additional rail piece above and below to frame the border – and the combination of all of the elements puts me way over budget for the kids bathrooms.  I am mulling over switching to a simple machine made 3”x6” glossy white subway tile with no decorative border – but I have not made a definitive decision yet. 

When searching for images of subway tile, I came across this one – the simplicity of the tile, combined with the vintage character of the floor, really reminds me of the NYC subway!   Source unknown.

It is not uncommon to install subway tile with no decorative element, which makes for a very simple and clean look – but maybe a bit too tailored?  Although I like the look of this shower, somehow it seems a bit bare.  House Beautiful, image via Houzz.

An interesting floor, and in particular an interesting vintage style floor, helps to give some interest to this bathroom, where the walls appear to be simple subway tile with no decoative border. Image via Houzz – Valerie Pedersen Interior Design.

Another simple subway tile design on the walls, with a fabulous floor.  Image from Artistic Tile and Stone, via Houzz. Click here for more images of this bathroom.

A bathroom posted by a Gardenweb reader, simple with no accent border.  The grout is darker, and the subway tile is by Daltile – Rittenhouse Square arctic white 3x6 subways. Gray or dark grout is another way to make the pattern of the subway tile more pronounced (and also hides dirt quite well!).

Another look that is frequently employed when installing subway tile is a decorative border of some sort, in order to add interest to the simplicity of the design.  Image via http://www.rossingtonarchitecture.com/

This bathroom uses a small shimmery mosaic tile as a decorative element to break up the expanse of the subway tile.

The guest bathroom in designer Lori Tippins’ home is really exquisite.  The hexagon marble mosaic on the floor, the clean subway tile with white grout, the beautiful green/blue on the walls – it speaks of a spa-like serenity.    I love how Lori added a special touch to the shower space by bordering the window with a decorative tile.

Erika  @ Urban Grace Interiors uses a simple, clean subway tile, but also uses a decorative border at the top.  Via decorpad.  I am definitely a fan of contrasting the crisp whiteness of the subway tile with a pretty paint color on the wall.

I like this look – little mosaic tiles, an accent stripe, a border, and subway tiles above.  The mosaics repeated in the niche are a beautiful and effective accent.
I think a lively wallpaper works beautifully with the simplicity of the subway tile.  It appears as if a dark gray grout was used with this tile, which works quite well with the tone of the floor. Image via Remodelista – William Sofield design in the Soho Grand Hotel.
Another look that I love is subway tile in a beautiful color.  This one, via Milk and Honey, caught my eye.

Brooke Giannetti selected a beautiful green tile with herringbone accent for this bathoom.

The subtle taupe of the handmade tile, available at Renaissance Tile in Atlanta, is the perfect accent to the mosaic on the shower floor, also available at Renaissance.  I love the square drain!

A soft, spa-like look is achieved with the light blue of this subway tile.  http://www.lda-architects.com/ via Houzz.  As much as I like the look of the colored subway tile, it seems like such a color commitment.  I am more in the camp of using a neutral/white subway tile, and bringing in the color with paint.

So, readers, what are your thoughts on subway tile?  Are you tired of this trend, or do you see it as a classic element that might date to the early 2000s, but never really be out of style?

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  1. Ceramic subway tile is a classic. It looks as appropriate in a 1920s bungalow as in a new home. It is tailored and low maintenance. We dressed up our kids bath with a baseboard piece that makes a nice transition to the white hexagonal floor tile both aesthetically and for ease of cleaning. We didn't use wall tile (only around shower), but wall tile capped off with a rail-type piece is very finished looking. The only advice I would give is to use gray grout for white floors. I made the mistake of using white grout and am paying for it on my hands and knees! Grout color is impossible to change when the floor tile is small hex tiles. Or at least that's what my tile guy said; if anyone knows any differently, I'm all ears.

  2. I just used subway tile on my backsplash when I redid my kitchen and I adore it!! Definitely think it's a classic...

  3. I love the subway tiles with hexagonal marble floors--it reminds me of classic bathrooms in old European hotels--sumptuous, but sparse.

  4. I'd say its a classic and appropriate in so many settings from contemporary to traditional.

  5. I will never tire of subway tile. It is a classic and it will never date a home. There is not a safe alternative in my opinion. Can you think of any other option that does not scream a particular decade?

  6. I'm still on board with subway tile - I never seem to tire of it. That image, top, is amazing. I am sure you will make the best decision, but bet the ceramic tile would be pretty swell once installed with nifty fixtures, etc. In any event, I am enjoying living vicariously through you on this project.

  7. I love the taupe subway tiles it makes the bath look more updated and classic. I would stay away from gray grout with white tiles as it can look a tad dirty, just my opinion. Every design element says some decade so I would go with what makes you happy.

  8. I am still a fan! Who knows if that will change. I loved original subway tile in old houses before it was all the rage though.

    I really like how in the first picture they have a bead rail piece, a row of subway tile and then a decorative cap. Very simple but it adds that extra something.

    I also noticed in the SoHo Grand Hotel picture that the row of tile second from the top is slightly wider which is also a very subtle accent.

    I also agree with a previous commenter on using a grey grout for the floor. Mosaics look great when they are first installed but after about six months all the white grout looks black and dirty from all the heavy use and getting it white again is almost impossible! All the pictures you see in magazines are taken right when the floors are installed not after a family has been using the bathroom for months.

  9. Sarah Richardson of Design, Inc and Sarah's House frequently mixes cheaper subway and/or square tiles with more expensive trim to make interesting borders in shower stalls. Maybe check out her portfolio and source list for inspiration.

  10. I like it! and like one comment stated- is there a better option? I used Dal-Tile and Adex subway tiles through out my kitchen and bathrooms.I used a 4X8 beveled subway tile in my master bathroom. Adex has lots great trim pieces too. I am sure they are much less then Waterworks.


    I also love Brooke and Steve's creative use of 6X6 tiles and trim here:


  11. I'll never tire of subway tile, especially when paired with a mosaic on the floor. Love the square drain - would think it would also take the tile install less time to install as opposed to a circular one. Best wishes for a Happy 2011!

  12. White tile is timeless. I used white with just a hint of black for my boy's recently renovated bath. I didn't want the soccer ball hex pattern for the floor so we bought white sheets and hand marked where we wanted black tiles inserted to add a splash of black, as well as a thin black pencil line in the shower. Definitely use a dark grout on the floor, especially if you have boys!

  13. We used an inexpensive white subway tile in all of our children's bathrooms as well as our kitchen, and I have never regretted it. If you are looking for an added detail, you could use a subway tile with a beveled edge. Still very simple and classic.
    You need to find a place to use the paxton border. It's lovely :)


  14. GO SUBWAY TILE :) I mixed it with marble in our shower and did a herringbone insert in our son's bath. Can't wait to see your finished product!
    Mary Ann

  15. PS. I got the herringbone tile inspiration from Brooke's blog and interesting that she mentions (above) the subway with a beveled edge...as that is what I used in the master...adds a little more dimension.

  16. Thanks for all of the great comments! Just went back and looked at the SoHo Grand picture - I didn't notice the detail about the strip of bigger tile, how charming!

    Yes, I absolutely adore that Waterworks Paxton. I am thinking about making one the the kids showers (which is shower only) a simple machine made subway tile, and keeping the Paxton in two of the bathrooms - the ones that are mirror images - because I love it so much!

  17. I love subway tile and have plans to use a lot of it throughout my house, including kitchen, but I'm not the best judge of trendy vs. classic - as I sit here wearing my pencil jeans I swore I would never have on again. :)

  18. PS - a few of you have emailed about how difficult white grout can be. I have white tile in the kids bathrooms in my current house, and the walls have stayed pristine, but the floors have not. The basketweave mosaic we picked for the floor is white with a limestone dot accent - not sure what the grout color will be, but now I will be interested to find out!

  19. We remodeled our 1850's home 10 years ago and I used hexagonal white tile on the bathroom floor - with a black tile scattered every six tiles about one foot in from the wall (just a small simple pattern) - I used "darker-than-white" grout (not black and not white). I also used plain white subway tiles in the showers (above the tub). I still love it - 10 years later- and agree that it is now over-used, but would most likely use it again if we move. The tiles are a classic because they were everywhere in the early to mid-1900s.


  20. We used Dal Tile's arctic white subway tile in three bathrooms at our farmhouse. We used white grout on the walls (showers) and almost six years later, it still looks nice and white. We used hexagonal small mosaics on the floor (with black border trim) and used a dark gray grout and it has worked well too. Dal Tile is inexpensive--and good looking. I would love to have Waterworks tile, but that would have upped the cost considerably. We were trying to choose wisely where to use our $$.

    I think when it comes to bathrooms, subway tile is a classic. I can't think of a better alternative.

  21. ...love subway tile..but growing up in northern lower Michigan, I've never been on a subway...nor have most of the natives of my small city...yet this tile was found in many of the victorian and arts and crafts style homes we all have been renovating..we simply new it as vintage tile...I like how the look has been updated, it's fresher, and prettier...use it..it's a classic... maureen

  22. I have subway tile in our bath and in the boys (oyster grout in ours because we are neater and medium gray for the boys because they are not!) I didn't do it in the kitchen, because although it is a classic, I don't think it is chic--and I love a little chic! Great post. Happy New Year!

  23. I have subway tile in my kitchen and consider it classic, therefore timeless. But only you can decide if you will love it the many years bathroom tile lasts. I know what you mean about things being overused. Bottom line for me is to determine if I love a design component and then block out the chatter about whether it's "so last year"! :-)

  24. I really like how Urban Grace Interiors used theirs. (Very nice touch with the chandelier, above the bath) I know my hubby would love the look from Milk and Honey, as well as the light blue tile Via Houzz. Great finds. Really beautiful!

  25. love subway tile, and have for as long as i can remember. i'm sure it will go out of style at some point, but i consider myself to usually tire of trends long before they go of of style in the mainstream, and i'm not tired of subway tiles yet, so perhaps they'll be around for a while longer! i particularly love using them paired with hex tiles on the floor as shown in many of your photos.

    happy new year, holly!

  26. 40 years! I have been using subway tile in white.........40 years! Old houses in Pasadena was most of my work. Now, Santa Barbara...........classic; clean......and I add color with wallpaper!

    white tile, white fixtures, white sink, toilet......etc. And then........if you want red.........Red wallpaper! (tone on tone stripe!)

    Then......you get tired of red.....go green!!

    It is a lot easier to change the wallpaper than the tile.....toilet....sink.

    White subway tile has never been "out".........it is, in my opinion, a total classic!!

  27. If you have lived in or visited NYC, this tile reminds you of the smell of piss and yucky stuff. Octagon tiles, ok maybe. Don't romanticize the subways, you don't want your bathroom to be or smell like a subway. Come up with a new name for God's sake.

  28. I don't think I think of subway tile as a trend...it's popular because it's just so perfect in so many situations. I like it both plain and with a border detail or inset.

    My kitchen backsplash is a white beveled subway tile and I LOVE it!

    As for grout? White all the way! I don't like grout that already looks dirty and I don't know what to use to clean it without affecting the color?

  29. Classic like a string of pearls.
    I love subway tiles - always have, always will.
    And small octagon tile floors too.
    After all you can take the girl out of NY...
    I would not use a fancy border.
    I'm doing subway tile in my master bath renovation...
    Love you - Happy New Year!
    xo xo

  30. Your timing is perfect. I am waking up in the middle of the night with tile designs! Now I have a few more ; )


  31. Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting on my Hallway command center. "Moms Choice" is a task that Mom gets to delegate each day that is not on the list. It comes in handy :)

    What a wonderful website you have, I can't wait to check it out.

    Thanks again,
    Sarah @ theyellowcapecod.com

  32. I'm a fan and this is something that I don't seem to tire of. I am working on our new house now and I am sure white subway tile will make it's way in.

    And coming from a family tile business... neutral tile is the way to go. I tell people to bring in your color with paint--- which is much easier and cheaper to change than tile. Also, always use a darker grout on the floor...as dark as your color palette will allow you to go. White floor grout never stays white!

  33. I totally agree with you, subway tile is timeless and a classic material to use at home. Also like the fact that it's so versatile-because it can be very simple or very elegant depending on the designer/homeowner taste! Very interesting resources and photos. Thanks for sharing :) and Happy New Year!

  34. When my place converted from an apartment to a condo (and I bought), I knew the first project I tackled would be to rip out all the cheap, square field tile in the bathroom and fill the space with marble subway tile. I scrimped and saved to do it and I have no regrets. I love subway.

  35. I love the Paxton border :)! I also love the simplicity of the subway tile shower . . . particularly if you do a marble mosaic on the floor of the bathroom and carry that into the floor of the shower. I think you can fluff it up with a marble threshold on your shower and a marble threshold on your shower niche, and it will look perfect!

    Are you doing the border in the bathtub/shower combo? If so, are you doing a shower curtain? Will you keep it open? That would all go into my formula for deciding where to spend and where to save - put it where you get the most bang for your buck :) That is becoming my motto . . .

  36. Also wondering about the grout issue and how sealing helps or doesn't? I hate grout of any color :) It either looks dirty or it is dirty! I haven't ever sealed my grout but I wonder if it would help keep the white floor grout white?

  37. I am a huge fan of the subway tile pattern. Used it in one of our bathrooms in traditional white. I also love when marble is used in this pattern.

    Can't go wrong... it's timeless!

    Also, I included your sink posts in my favs of 2010 post. :-)


  38. This comment has been removed by the author.

  39. The picture I like best is Lori Tippins’ window in the shower. The window takes my eyes out of the room and into space, takes my mind off the grout.

    I'm not liking the high contrast between grout and tile. I like the subtle textures, shine, and shadows more than the grid look.

    I have grout nightmares. Dark grout: who knows when it's dirty or mildewed? With some age it always looks dirty or mildewed. We have 22 years on our grout. I've yet to find the grout miracle. Nightmares I tell 'ya.

  40. You and I are on the same page regarding bathrooms and subway tile!! I love your picks but understand how it can quickly escalate! When i renovated my last home, in my boys' bath I used an inexpensive subway tile on the walls around the tub with a thin simple colored border high up and then I splurged on the Waterworks carrera mini subway tile on the floor. The walls were a Benjamin Moore historic blue - it really looked great! But I'm sure whatever you decide will look beautiful as well!

  41. Subway tiles are a classic that should never go out of style. They should have a square, as opposed to round or pillow, edge, however. (To avoid the Coke Bottle look of typical tempered glass, use a glass of low iron content. I also use this glass for my new mirrors where a color-correct reflection is critical).

  42. I am a huge fan of subway tile, and I really prefer the white variety. The bathrooms you have posted are exactly my taste, no tumbled marble in site! Simple, clean and sophisticated will always be in style in my book. I also love this look for kitchens and have it in my own. Happy New Year!

  43. Like many others commenting here, absolutely with you on the subway tile. Classic, timeless, along with the many options can be accented to be unique in it's own way with all the other elements introduced with it.

    I have used a very soft off white crackle and another hand made same color and do not ever see them losing their appeal. Love, Love, Love....especially if combined with a small tumbled natural stone floor. Go for it....
    They say grout and the sealers that are available for them have come a really long way in the past couple of years. xo

  44. Oooo ahhh, great tile post! I linked it to mine too today - for inspiration of course!

  45. I'm in the process of renovating my boys bathroom and want to use subway tiles in the shower. I am also looking at Waterworks and was wondering if I should go with matte or glossy?

  46. I think subway tile is a classic. A few years ago when trying to help my inlaws decide on what to finish their bathroom with, I helped them pick out simple subway tile. They live in a very old farmhouse and I just could not see them putting in travertine or some of the trendy new tiles that are available. I told them to stick with an old classic. They chose white. It turned out beautiful.

  47. I am currently having a complete reno done on a 1940's bathroom using white beveled subway tile with white grout. To add some interest I'm putting in a border of glass brick tiles in shades of pale grey-blue and celadon with white carrera marble accents. Above the border will be a white cap tile. Some may be of the opinion that subway tiles are overused, but I think no other tile is as timeless.

  48. Great post! Just came across it through another site. I was wondering if you know the original source for the 10th bathroom picture down. . . the one with the little mosaic tiles, an accent stripe, a border, and subway tiles above. We are trying to replicate that look in our new shower! We've been looking online and are having a hard time discerning which products were used for the little mosaics, accent tiles, stripe and border. THANKS for any help you can provide!!

  49. For a small space like a bathroom, use white epoxy grout. Many tile installers will say you can't. Ignore them and find one that will do it. Epoxy grout is hard to do. Only top tile guys will do it.



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