Subway tiles continue to endure as a top kitchen backsplash design, expanding long ago from their humble beginnings in mass-transit stations.

The style is simple, inexpensive and the default selection for those seeking a clean look for their kitchen.

There is nothing ostentatious or abstract about these mighty little tiles. Classic subway tiles are simply 3-by-6-inch, white glazed ceramic tiles. In kitchen design, they are traditionally installed in a half-offset pattern with white grout, most often accompanying white cabinets and white countertops

Because of their glazed, glossy surface, they are easy to clean and resistant to stains, so their bright finish will endure through the years.

Since this common tile is one of the most inexpensive on the market, homeowners continue to flock to its simple lines and clean design. However, not everyone is as enamored with the subway tile look — especially those seeking something more unique. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to transform these everyday tiles into something extra special.

There are two primary ways to add a little spice to this classic backsplash. The first is by deviating from a gloss-white finish; the second is by changing up the installation pattern on the wall.


Finish alternatives

A matte finish (instead of glossy) offers a softer look on subway tiles, while a handcut texture can bring old-world quality into a modern kitchen. Subtle white-on-white patterns or a stone-replica finish offer extra detail for those with a discerning eye. Beveled-edge subway tiles have extra dimension.

You can also try sizing down the tiles to 1-by-3-inches, or opt for a larger or elogated proportion.

There are also a limitless number of colors options. From off-white to bold primaries, subway tile is available in a rainbow of colors.

Not sure you want to go with a vibrant color? Consider changing the color of the grout instead. In the past few years, “farmhouse-chic” and similar trendy kitchen styles have featured white subway tiles with black grout to boldly highlight their pattern. This is a no-cost upgrade: Where deviating color or texture often comes with a price hike, there is rarely a price difference between grout colors, unless you use a metallic grout. (By the way, gold grout would be a great complement to white subway tiles, especially in a white kitchen with brushed-gold hardware.)

Pattern alternatives

Aside from altering the color, texture or grout, there is another easy way to dress up these ubiquitous tiles with one simple, but significant, change: their installation pattern. Some patterns to consider:

Half-offset: The classic subway-tile pattern in kitchen backsplashes is half-offset. This horizontal pattern is also one of the most popular in brickwork (and is known in masonry as a running bond).


1/3-offset, continuous: Rather than each new row of tile being lined up symmetrically in the middle of the row below and above, the 1/3-offset, continuous, pattern creates clear movement in your backsplash. Anytime there is direction in a tile pattern, consider which direction you want the eye to move (the example on the left goes left to right, with the example on the right goes right to left).

1/3-offset, zipper: For a variation on the classic that has movement but not direction, the 1/3-offset, zipper, pattern is a symmetrical twist on the half-offset.

Diagonal half-offset: Such a simple change, but a remarkable difference! Angling the classic pattern by 45 degrees creates a lot of drama and direction in your tile design.

Stacked: A stacked pattern draws the eye to the uniformity of the tile. This pattern leans more contemporary and creates clear, uninterrupted lines across your backsplash.

Herringbone: A classic in its own right, herringbone (either standard or diagonal) is a complex pattern with natural movement that can be rotated for a sense of vertical direction instead of placed side-to-side.

Vertical half-offset: As a contemporary style, the vertical half-offset disrupts the status quo with clear vertical or horizontal movement, depending on how you orient the tiles.

Other vertical patterns: Classic subway tile patterns are horizontal, but a vertical stacked pattern or vertical half-offset pattern offers a modern take. Consider rotating any of the aforementioned horizontal patterns by 90 degrees for a fresh look.

Stephanie Brick is the owner of Stephanie Brick Design in Baltimore.