Subway tiles have been a staple in interior design since the early 1900’s, when they were first designed for the newly constructed subway system in New York City. Created by designers George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge, glossy white rectangle tiles measuring 3-by-6-inches were created to decorate surfaces that could be easily cleaned, but also feel familiar, safe and friendly to city-dwellers using underground transit for the first time. As a hygienic design solution for the subways (or the filthy, rat-filled underground holes they defined), the first subway tile was born!
Back then, we bet no one knew that these rectangle tiles were about to become more than just public transport decor! In fact, rectangle tiles soon captured the public’s imagination and made their way into the bathrooms and kitchens of American homes, as well as butcher shops, bakeries, and other kinds of places you’d want to be especially clean!
History lesson aside, there's a reason why subway tile is still around: it’s clean, classic and elegant. But just because subway tile has been around for over a century doesn’t mean it’s outdated. Subway tiles have come a long way since the turn of the nineteenth century, making endless patterns you can create using subway tile! Subway tiles are more than just a hygienic solution these days – they’re an opportunity to style your floor, wall, or backsplash in unexpected ways and create a unique home that reflects your style!
If you’re wondering how much you can play around with a bunch of simple rectangles, here are some of the best ways to lay subway tiles with design inspiration to help you create designs that will look uniquely yours!
We’ll start with the simplest of all patterns: the straight pattern, a.k.a the stack bond. This grid style pattern may be the most basic, but that doesn’t mean it’s out of style! This style has made a major comeback in interior trends thanks to the renewed focus on simplicity and minimalist style.
There are two kinds of stacked patterns and both are making waves in interiors at the moment - the vertical stacked bond and the horizontal stacked bond! Let’s dive right into the impact each style can have on your interior!
Vertical Stacked Bond
As the diagram above and the beautiful example kitchen below show, this style consists of tiles that are stacked directly on top of each other so that the tile joints in one row perfectly align with those in the row above and below. The vertical version helps make ceilings feel taller if you want to emphasize the height of a space and make it appear roomier. It also looks great especially with larger tiles! It has an illusion similar to vertical stripes that creates the appearance of height – making it well suited for low-ceilinged or enclosed areas.La Riviera Blue Reef 2.5x6 ceramic tiles are dynamic any way you choose to lay them, but we love the impact the bold blue color has when stacked vertically in this minimalist kitchen that uses color to make a statement! The vertical alignment emphasizes the focus on clean lines throughout the cabinetry, and the contrasting white grout with copper details keeps the ultra-modern space feeling warm and inviting!
Horizontal Stacked Bond
Stacking horizontally is the more common subway tile layout, especially if your style leans more contemporary than traditional. This is one of the subway tile patterns that creates a pleasing linear look! Horizontally stacked subway tiles work beautifully with modern designs and open shelving, creating aesthetic lines throughout the space.
You can't get any more classic than a ceramic subway tile backsplash, but that doesn't mean you have to stick with a fully traditional look. Going light and airy with our Mallorca White ceramic tile below is a great way to lengthen a smaller space with a horizontal stack pattern. If you want to avoid an all-white effect in this pattern, choose a darker grout for contrast and some visual interest. Gray grout is usually the color of choice with a white tile to make the tile pattern pop without disrupting the lines!
Running Bond Pattern
The horizontal running bond pattern is likely the most recognizable way to use subway tiles, with a classic brick effect. Subway tiles laid in a classic running bond pattern (also called the offset pattern) are staggered by centering the end of each tile with the centerline of the tile above and below (this is called a 50-percent offset).
Easy to lay out, this popular tile pattern is for those looking for a classic and simple design. The symmetrical layout presents a cohesive look that sets a serene stage for busy environments.
Stardust Blue 2X8 Glass Mosaic Tile subway tiles displayed in a classic running bond pattern is one way to add a timeless look to your bathroom with modern materials! This style of tile can be as traditional or as modern as you want it to be, depending on how you style your accent details and other building materials! Our Glass Mosaic Subway tiles are already laid out in this classic shape and mounted on mesh to take the guesswork and measurement out of installing a running bond pattern.
While running this tile pattern horizontally will emphasize the width of the space, vertical installations emphasize the height. The vertical running bond – the rotated version of the classic brick pattern - is a unique twist which you can try when working in small spaces.
Our Recycled Glass Subway Mosaic Tile In Grey Wood Color looks just as good lain vertically as it does horizontally! The wooden grain detailing and gray color scheme are a great way to add height to an accent wall or enhance a fireplace surround! Mosaic subway tiles are a great way to make installation a snap, as you are installing sheets of mesh-mounted subway tiles instead of placing each tile directly! You can find other finishes and colors in our Recycled Glass mosaic tile collection.
You can also shake up this classic pattern with a little twist - all you do is to rotate it at a 45-degree angle! This twist on a classic will add a surprising effect that is unique and unexpected! The diagonal pattern will also help to expand the room while keeping the same classic look.
Herringbone: the most challenging to install but the one with tons of visual interest! You can create a herringbone pattern by installing tiles in V shapes at alternating 45-degree angles. The short ends of the tile fit into the next row, sort of like a puzzle. For this tile to look more elegant, keep in mind that slightly longer tiles work the best!
Depending on scale, this tile can work in a variety of spaces – both on walls as well as floors. If you’re feeling extra bold, a herringbone pattern is a great way to cover an entire wall for a visually stunning aesthetic! Just like the brick pattern, use a high contrast grout to pop up the tiles, showcase your pattern and give it a more modern look!
You’re most likely to see herringbone subway tile patterns on a kitchen backsplash. You can use the herringbone pattern to span the entirety of the backsplash or keep it in smaller sections – such as behind the sink or stove. Either way, a herringbone pattern is the perfect opportunity to add a little spice to your home!
You can create a modern monochrome kitchen that makes a stunning statement with Mallorca Black 2.5x8 tiles. Accentuate the dark color with matching grout, allowing you to maintain the elegance of a tone on tone color scheme, yet still bringing an interesting visual to the space.
Combining the pattern on our Wooden Beige Wave Etched Subway Marble Tile with a herringbone layout is a great way to create movement and flow on your wall!
While the most traditional herringbone pattern has the tiles lie in a 45 degree angle, aligning the pattern so that it lies at a 90 degree angle can create a whole new look. This stair-stepped appearance with sharp corners still retains a zigzag feel, but with a crisp edge that makes any space look incredibly modern!
Work this idea into your decor with inspiration from Sunny Circle Studio, who kept this bathroom full of light with a herringbone tile wall in a stairstep pattern! The tile tub surround was a fun pairing with a classic black and white penny round tile floor and a modern slipper tub to create an airy bathroom that is instantly Pinterest-worthy. The potted plants, woven rattan stool, and vintage bohemian rug add a little eclectic personality to the mix of classic tile patterns!
A double basketweave pattern is a modern take on the old favorite – a great subway tile pattern to give the space a familiar yet different look. This pattern involves a pair of horizontal tiles framed by a pair of vertical tiles. The biggest benefit of this pattern is that it’s so simple to install while adding something unique to the space!
The basketweave pattern provides a more updated design for the classic subway design. It adds a fresh touch and works great in large format areas such as a shower. Incorporating a basketweave pattern with subway tiles may be a small layout tweak, but arranging tiles in two-by-two grids lends a lovely pattern that is totally unexpected!
We love this all-white bathroom seen on Jen Talbot design that uses a basketweave or crosshatch pattern with white tile and pairs it with darker contrasting grout for a little bit of contrast! The bronze hardware and marble vanity decor give this minimalist bathroom a beautiful design detail! Love this look? Recreate it with our selection of crisp white subway tiles and a grout like Laticrete Permacolor in Natural Grey!
Try Mixing Things Up
Want to step up your subway tile design even more? With gazillions of colors, finishes, and patterns, the design possibilities with subway tiles are absolutely endless! Experiment by mixing a variety of tiles to make your own distinctive pattern!
This subway tile layout throws all the patterns out the window and creates something unique and modern!
Another way to do this is using multiple colors and textures in the same subway pattern to give your walls a modern and unexpected look!
A mix of our La Riviera ceramic tiles gives this modern pastel bathroom a subtle rainbow effect - the copper accents make it even more creative!
Or you can choose a grout color that will pop out your tiles with a graphic statement and make your subway tile feel extra special.
If you want the tile job to look finished and tailored, don’t forget to use trim pieces! Add a little contrast with an inset border, even in a different material.
For a futuristic vibe in an ultra-modern space, how about combining stainless steel inserts with your subway tiles?
Or for the most glamorous designs, opt for a mirrored subway tile!
You can’t go wrong with a classic shower wall like our Glacier Ocean Blue 3" x 6" Polished Glass Tile in a running bond - but it’s nice to have so many creative subway tile pattern ideas to try if you want something a little unique!
Subway tile is like a basic t-shirt – you can wear it every single day and it can look fresh and new depending on how you style it!
It will never go out of style, but can add a lot of personality if you shake it up and have some fun with patterns! Create a timeless beauty that is chic, elegant and uniquely yours!
You can recreate the look and feel of this serene bathroom with our La Lavanda tile for a cloudy blue palette with a hint of sheen! The glazed ceramic finish of these beautiful tiles adds a soothing, iridescent shines!
Frequently Asked Questions about Subway Tile Patterns -
Q. Should subway tiles be staggered and how do you stagger them?
A. We’ve detailed some of the staggered subway tile installation options above - a running bond vs. a stacked bond is a good example. It largely comes down to personal preference and if you like the brick look of subway tile over the perfectly aligned look. For a tile pattern like the running bond, you can go with the traditional 50% offset, aka the brick look, or consider a more contemporary one-third offset. This method aligns tiles with the joint offset by 33% of the tiles above and below - this is ideal for large format subway tiles as it can avoid a lippage effect more common with bigger tiles, and creates the illusion of diagonal lines. You can see the comparison in our diagram below!
Q. What kind of grout should I use with subway tile?
A. Like many of the other queries on this post, the answer really is ‘it’s up to you’! You can completely change the look of a tile depending on the grout you choose, so it comes down to personal preference. If you want your white beveled marble subway tiles to pop against your farmhouse kitchen backsplash, a gray grout will create that contrast. If you’re thinking of going for a bold and colorful accent wall with blue glazed ceramic tiles, a crisp white grout will make the blue tiles pop!
If you prefer to minimize the contrast between your tiles, try to match your grout to the material as closely as possible. See how a tone-on-tone grout with our Grey Limestone Waves Etched Subway Tile reduces the effect of the tile pattern and creates the illusion of larger tiles. This is a good way to go if you like linear tiles but don't want the focus to be on the grout lines, or if you're incorporating other patterned details into your decor.
The design options with subway tiles are endless! If you're feeling overwhelmed by choice and don't know where to start when it comes to tiles, layouts, and grout colors, take a deep breath. Scroll through and find an inspiration picture that you love looking at, then focus on the elements that came together in that design! Once you pick your overall aesthetic, it will be easier to decide on choices for materials, colors, and your ideal layout!
There you have it! A great primer on the types of subway tile patterns you can incorporate into your home to create a personal touch with a classic design! Which tile style fits your home - are you more traditional layout or are you going to get creative? We’d love to hear in the comments!