How to Spice Up Your Subway Tile Backsplash

Oh, subway tile! It's such a classic. Literally, the 3x6 tiles have been around since 1904, which is when the New York Subway station was designed. You might have seen some older home's bathrooms filled with colored subway tile. This was a classic mark of Victorian style. Want to know why they loved it so much? Because of the awesome cleanability factor. From what I read, they were impeccable people!
Well since then, subway tile has taken off. And for some reason, it transcends styles and design niches. Traditional, modern, contemporary, name it and it works! Another plus is the price point.
It works so well, in fact, that 100% of my kitchen remodels and new construction design client's homes have chosen subway tile for the majority of their kitchens and baths in the last 3 years. Holy subway tile!! Don't get me wrong, I love it as much as the next person and honestly, I think it looks so good there's almost not a better option, but when everyone is doing the same look and I promise my client's unique spaces, I want to deliver by not giving them the same standard subway tile look that their neighbor has. 
Enter this massive roundup of all my favorite ways to spice up your subway tile backsplash! There are tons of things you can do to give your backsplash a unique look, while still going with the subway style.  
1. Different Material / Stone in a Subway Tile Shape:

This one is done in a beautiful marble. Yes, the price is going to be significantly higher than ceramic tiles, but it's certainly a way to bring more elegance and style to your space. There are also faux marble tiles, but I'd be really careful with those-- they mostly end up looking fake and at that point, I'd suggest sticking to a genuine tile you can afford :)
My client's laundry room features a stainless steel subway tile and it's such a fun look. It's not over-the-top crazy, but the size and finish of the tile is different enough to give the room a special look.
2. Colored Subway Tile:

Think out of the box a bit and you might find another color that would be more effective in your design plan anyways! A lot of people want the look of a white, bright and airy kitchen, but when they choose white cabinets, white counters AND a white backsplash, sometimes it feels a little sterile. 
You can see we went with a warm greige subway in the below client kitchen of mine from a couple years ago. Doing this color pulled the greige colorway out of the countertop and pulled everything together!
Big risk = big reward! I think this blue herringbone tile pattern Young House Love did a few years ago turned out great. While I would probably only do this in a vacation home, I just love it. It's whimsical and sweet and this shade of light blue is PERFECTION to me. 
 via - blue herringbone
3. Subway Tile Laid in a Different Pattern:
The most common style subway tile is laid in is called "offset joint" or "running bond" which is where you set the tile at the 1/2 way point from the one above it, like below:
But why not mix it up and lay the tile in a different pattern?! Same product, whole new look. This one is laid in a zig zag herrinbone style. It definitely reads a bit more modern / contemporary, but in the right context, I love it!
This one is called Crosshatch and it's so cool when done right. It's a very bold look, so I love that they did it on just one wall here.
The Stacked look below can really go with any style as well, especially when grouted in a color very close to the tile color. It almost just disappears here and creates a nice sleek background.
Another herringbone pattern, but this time it's laid on a diagonal. This is gorgeous! If it was me, I'd do it in white grout to cut on how bold it is, but it's still really lovely here (especially with the amazing all glass shower and brass accents!)
4. Textured Subway Tile

So you want to do white subway tile. That's totally fine! Maybe you can think about going with a textured look to spice it up.
This first one is actually a little off white and looks a little more gray in this photo, but I LOVE this so much. Of course, it's designed by Emily Henderson!

This is one of my client's homes below and we went with a handmade subway tile, which means the tile wasn't perfectly smooth. It looks handmade, so it has an awesome texture to it, giving a really beautiful sheen when light hits it.
Stop into any Starbucks bathroom and you'll probably see the bevel tile on their walls! I was inspecting the one at my local Starbucks today and it's not grouted very well, so it's a poor example ;) But THIS bathroom, on the other hand, is gorgeous. The thing with white subway tile with a little detail, like the bevel, is that one single room can take a lot of it! It's not too overwhelming. (Also, how pretty is this tiled hardwood?!)
One of my clients just put in a bevel backsplash in her kitchen and it's so lovely. I can't wait to share!
via - bevel
5. Play with Size:
A really simple change to subway tile is going with a size other than the standard 3x6! In a shower you could go with a much bigger size (it's cheaper to lay, too!), in a kitchen you could consider doing something a little smaller like Emily Henderson's 2x6 size in her kitchen:

I helped my cousin design their kitchen a couple months ago and we did the standard 3x6" size around the whole kitchen, but switched it up behind the range with a 2x6 size in a herringbone pattern. Subtle but effective!
via - anna's kitchen
6. Switch up the Grout:
Last but not least, your look totally changes depending on the grout color you choose. I pulled lots of examples for you! A general rule of thumb is the closer the grout color to your tile, the more you'll let the tile shine as a whole. The more contrast in the grout from the tile color, the more you'll eye will see the pattern the tile was laid in and the more you'll notice the grout. Neither one is a "right" option, they're just different looks to take into consideration! Typically the more contrast, the more modern look.
White Tile / Gray Grout
White Tile / White grout
Black (Square) Tile / White Grout
Gray Blue Tile / White Grout
Marble with gray and white veining / Light Gray Grout with gold trim (Had to include this because it's so unique and I LOVE IT! I have no idea where to get this-- I'm so sorry! I wish I could find it, but after much Googling...nothing! Ha ;))
So...what's your favorite look?! Describe your dream kitchen / bathroom in the comments. I love hearing what everyone else loves!
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  1. This was so informative -- thank you! As someone with a kitchen remodel in her future, I love the textured subway tile (like in Emily Henderson's design) the most, followed by the greige tile. I can imagine white cabinets with either of those looks to add warmth.

    1. Ah, isn't her kitchen amazing?! I love the greige, too. It's just SO warm and inviting!


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