The Continued Rise of Subway Tile

Written by Alaina Stocker


Posted on January 22 2020

Subway tile basically marks the beginning of modern tile history. Love the style or hate it, but it is here to stay. Thinking of utilizing subway tiles in your home? It's very likely a perfect choice for almost any space. You're sure to come across a size, color, and texture that keeps to your personal style and budget while honoring the era of your home.

First of all, what is subway tile? For most people, 3x6 glossy white wall tiles come to mind. Coined after the use of square and rectangle glazed ceramic tiles in the New York City subway, the modern definition is far more broad than just one size and finish. It has expanded to include elongated sizes like 2x8 and larger like 4x12 and 6x18. It's not really defined what size stops it being called a subway tile. Just glance through our subway tile pages and you'll see what we mean.

We wanted to make a post covering the most popular and notable lines we currently sell. It's nice to have a starting point, as just glancing through collections can be overwhelming.

Let's start with the basics.

The most familiar and by far most popular version of the 3x6 white subway tile is from Daltile. The collection name was recently changed from Rittenhouse Square to Color Wheel Classic. The basic white is the White Gloss 0100, which is the warmest white available from this line. Arctic White 0190 is available as a cooler option in gloss, and Matte Arctic White 0790 if looking for less shine. This collection is popular partly because the edges have built-in spacers. When set up against each other they create a 1/16" grout joint, making installation easier.

Subway tile Color Wheel Classic from Daltile on Seattle Tile Direct

Color Wheel Classic has companions of the square variety as well as the larger and more elongated. Color Wheel Linear features modern and elongated wall tiles in many of the same colors as available in the Classic.

Handmade tiles are all the rage...

...but they often come with a high price tag. This is why manufacturers have begun creating intentionally imperfect tiles utilizing many different molds, ultimately achieving an installation indistinguishable from actual handmade tiles.

Tencer Handmade in nude color from Tierra Sol on Seattle Tile Direct

This is the (aptly named) Tencer Handmade collection from Tierra Sol. Modern elongated sizes 2x10 and 2x20 lend themselves well to new installations, but the undulating surface offers sophistication and timelessness.

Another uniquely handmade look is Retroclassique from Florida Tile. The soft speckles on each tile concentrate in different sections piece to piece, creating a fascinating field when combined. Plus, they offer a lovely avocado green that's hard to find elsewhere.

Retroclassique ceramic wall tile in Pewter handmade look

Finish matters.

Meaning, do you want glossy or matte? Do you need more reflected light in your space? Are you hoping to go ultra-modern but still love the subway look?

Many collections offer both gloss and matte choices, but one of our favorite all-matte lines is Boston from Pental. It manages to look handmade, modern, and sleek with surface undulation and soft, velvety finish.

Boston Petrolio wall tile blue on fireplace

On the other hand, striking gloss can add drama to a space. The reflections can indeed add light but can also be incredibly modern in a dark color like this from Pental's Brick Atelier line.

Brick Atelier beveled black on a wall

What size works for you?

Even with the advent of high performance grouts, many people desire larger tile sizes so they don't have to deal with grout lines. It is worth noting, though, that smaller sizes are once again desirable because of these grouts that never need sealing.

Hawthorne beveled wall tile from American Olean

American Olean-Marazzi's Hawthorne collection features unique elements, both bevel and large format available in three neutral colors. This collection does a great job of being both classic and contemporary by simply enlarging a popular small subway tile style.

Then there's squares! Subway tile doesn't necessarily have to be limited to rectangular sizes, and squares have become so much more popular lately. For example, Pental's Clasico collection, offered in a 5x5 size, fulfills the handmade as well as classic square looks.

Clasico tile in white gloss from Pental on a backsplash wall

You might also consider...

Color! Or perhaps a different texture! Got a space that needs a statement, but nothing too busy? Subway tile can create a lovely solid swath while being fairly easy to install on a wall, so manufacturers will often offer one or two unique colors in an otherwise neutral line to add appeal and boost sales.

See Manhattan from Pental with its gorgeous "Jeans" color and solid 4x12 size:

Manhattan Jeans tile on the wall in a bathroom

It all comes down to subway.

There's many ways to choose tile, and you may already be well on your way after visiting showrooms or mining the internet for design ideas. There's not much that can replace the experience of having someone help you choose options in person, but we figured guidance from real tile people like us would ideally be a close second, as there's so many subway tile choices out there. You can even combine the experiences by visiting showrooms that display our products. Can't find something online you saw in person? Get in contact, we might still be able to source it.

As always, follow us on Instagram and Facebook for inspiration, ideas, and product features.



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