Ask Maria: What’s Next After Subway Tile?

AskMaria

“I’m a big fan of your blog, and your e-book helped me choose paint colors I love when we bought a house last year.

I love the look of subway tiles, but I’ve noticed they’ve been around for awhile. I know here in New York, I’ve been seeing them for about 10 years (they could have been around for longer but that’s when I first became aware of anything related to design or decorating!). In fact, the other day I was watching a rerun of Sex and the City (which ended in 2004), and I noticed that Carrie’s bathroom had subway tiles. These days, they are ubiquitous. So I worry that if I were to redo a bathroom in New York in 2014 using subway tiles, it would be outdated in 5 years?

So my question is: what’s coming next? Surely there must be some up-and-coming trend that hasn’t reached the masses yet but will be the next big thing?” Debbie

This is such a great question! I’m sure Debbie isn’t the only one wondering about the very same thing. So here’s my answer:

No.

The current trendy tile is always out there and available. Right now that’s all those laser cut geometrics (third) image below. Before that it was that horizontal pencil tile (first image below) and before that it was mosaics (second image below).

backsplash trends

Subway tiles are ALWAYS in movies and TV shows because they are what most bathrooms should basically be tiled in. Classic and timeless. Set designers try hard to create spaces that don’t scream a particular era, unless that’s what they are trying to show of course.

Carrie's Bathroom & closet

Carrie’s bathroom on Sex & the City seen through her closet.

Ask Maria: What's Next After Subway Tile?

If you inherited this bathroom (above) would you immediately want to rip it out?

No.

And, except for the larger hex tiles which make this bathroom current, it’s actually hard to say if it’s been in this house for 25 years or one year.

What makes a bathroom personal and interesting and different from everyone else’s is a dresser you might incorporate as a vanity.

Ask Maria: What's Next After Subway Tile?

A fabulous mirror (or two) you fall in love with.

Funky light fixtures.

Subway tile should be one of a very small selection of tile anyone sells. If that were the case, there would be way less waste in the world with everyone installing what they think their trendy bathroom or kitchen should look like and the next person ripping it out.

Is all this trendy tile bad and wrong? Should you get upset if you have it in your house? No, of course not. This is not an attempt to make everyone feel bad that your bathroom isn’t some variation of the ones I’ve shown.

This post is for someone who is about to renovate or choose finishes and you haven’t had time to make the mistakes we’ve all made at some point. If this is you, listen up. You might be someone who will love your bathroom for a very long time.

If you have a question for an Ask Maria post, email me here.

 

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Is your Bath Perfect or Perfectly Nice?

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  1. Well said Maria. Subway tiles look great & depending upon how they are laid, can be a contemporary vibe or more traditional. I’ve seen beautiful homes 100 years old with subway tile. It is a classic detail that never goes out of style. Give me acres of subway any day over the cutesy floral accent tiles or subdivision builder specials “busy fake marbles” embellishing woeful numbers of kitchens & baths. Subway tiles are a sigh of relief in my book.

  2. I wish people would realize that the only reason new trends appear in kitchens and baths is through the efforts of manufacturers, who need us to feel that our spaces are outdated so that they can sell us new, trendy stuff. We are being manipulated as consumers. A well designed bathroom using classic materials should look good forever.

  3. As a person that has just recently installed subway tile in my 2nd brand new kitchen, I am happy to hear this. My husband wanted trendy glass tiles, but I stuck to my guns and fought for plain white subway tiles. I contemplated doing a herringbone pattern with them but in the end went for a traditional installation. A

  4. I also agree with “subway tile rules” and thank you for stating it so emphatically, Maria! Over the years I’ve been tempted by many trendy tiles, but not sorry that we’ve ended up using the classics. I think subway tiles will always be current, and plan to do a whole wall of them in the kitchen remodel (our house is from late 1920s so a “sanitary kitchen” would be period-appropriate as well as timeless).

  5. In RI there are many neighborhoods with housing stock from the late 1800s thru 1920s. The homes that have not been gutted or remodeled invariably have white subway tile in their bathrooms. It looks as fabulous now as it must have then. White subway tiles definitely have passed the test of time!

  6. “except for the larger hex tiles which make this bathroom current” made me smile. My last house, built in 1966, had those tiles. Cleaned/painted the grout lines and off to market “the updated bath”, went (and sold!)

    • That’s interesting, I recently tried to specify some larger hex tiles for a client and being that I live out in the ‘country’ the tile store just looked at me blankly when I asked for them and I have never seen the larger ones myself and I’ve been in literally thousands of homes.

      Anyway, I clearly stand corrected. Thanks! Maria

      • I might add that they were very common in higher-end california Arts and Crafts. In fact you had a pic of one last year. I also have them in my 100yr old original kitchen. what goes around comes around it seem. I also have the square perfectly flat subway tile in all my l bathrooms walls and small herringbone tile flooring…all original. What goes around comes around apparently!

  7. I sorry to have to say this but every time I see subway tiles I think of the dirty London Underground stations. Or maybe a TV show depicting a Morgue. They are not so bad if the grout is done in white, I just don’t understand what the fuss is about them.

    • EXACTLY!
      Everytime Maria writes about subway tiles and shows photos, all I can think of is how ugly they are. In a shower in a bathroom where the curtain will hide them, maybe ok.

      But really…why would anyone pick something so ugly? Better to have something you like and change it in 10 years than to live with that forever!

      Maybe these people have never been to London, LOL.

  8. I prefer subway tile for many homes, but don’t think it fits well for some contemporary ones. In that case I might recommend a larger rectangular tile, still simple, sometimes satin or matte. I think some of the pencil tiles work well too if subdued.

    In my own contemporary home for an odd bathroom that has the tub and commode in one room and the sink in another, I used larger, square tile to cover the wall behind the commode and the tub walls to the ceiling. It’s a Crossville matte white (powdered sugar) with such faint horizontal lines carved in you barely see them but they add depth.

    So I agree with simple, and often white, but there are different ways to get there.

    And for my clients who want wow tile? We have a serious talk about they’ll feel five years later, and about resale, and if they still want it – they have to be happy. I just make sure we don’t have feuding counter tops and tiles, which I see all the time.

  9. I work for a kitchen company and LOVE seeing white subway tiles appear in our installations! For me they stand out from the crowd, showing just how effective simplicity in design can be. They look really fresh, clean, and as you said will withstand the test of time.

  10. Hi Maria…subway tiles are still so classic and I love them. Recently, I had a woman ask me to help her with her kitchen backsplash. I brought several tiles with me and several pictures of what she could do based on her cabinets and granite. The subway tile looked the best – but she said she didn’t want to do anything predictable…although her kitchen, granite and the rest if her house was predictable. Out of left field she says she might want tin ceiling tiles. I showed her a few pictures of kitchens like hers with real tin ceiling tiles- and she said she loved it. I ordered some samples…only to get a phone call the next day that she was buying faux tin ceiling tiles from Home Depot and her son was going to install them.

    Oh well, you can lead a horse to water…

    Linda

  11. Maria, I have been reading your blog for years and also have your e-book. Can’t wait for the time I get to attend your course! I am planning a kitchen/bath remodel in the next year- But I just don’t like subway tiles! What do you recommend as an alternative?

  12. This is a hard one for people to embrace – because they want to do something “different” and “unique.” But the trendy thing that they think is unique at the time ends up looking dated in 3-5 years. It’s just too expensive a mistake to make for most people. If you are going to re-do your bath every 5 years, then go for it. Like you said, you can choose other interesting things for the bath to make it your own, then change them up in 5 years, with less reno and less pain! And, of course, paint color can change everything!

  13. As you said in another post, Maria, boring now means timeless later. You are so clear in today’s post. I totally get it. Thank you.

  14. Well…first of all, I like subway tile, however, to me, it depends on the architecture you’re working around…my log cabin does not “feel right” with subway tile. Just sayin. 🙂 franki

  15. I just completed two bathroom renovations and I did subway tile in both and I love it! I am so happy with it. I also did just what Maria said and did a very unique mirror in one and a unique dresser/vanity in the other. I also know that both could be changed with minimal effort if I want to update years down the road but the subway tile and white fixtures will always look great.

  16. I am so happy with the subway tiles in my new kitchen, selected because of your advice, Maria! People with more trendy kitchens come into mine and quietly say, “That tile is beautiful.” Various sources talk about how outdated subway tile is becoming, but how outdated can something be that has been in use for a hundred years?

    Our bathroom update was done pre-Maria, nearly nine years ago, and we did not use subway tile. However, we used two-inch square ceramic tiles in a silvery gray (this was pre-gray trend) edged in the same size white tiles, including on the counter, and small white hex tiles on the floor and shower floor. Everyone who has seen our bathroom has absolutely loved it, and it looks as fresh and timeless today as it did when it was installed. So for anyone who really dislikes subway tile, there are other classic options.

  17. A question for Maria et al: Would changing the grout color ruin the “timeless” appeal of white subway tiles? We have a white bathroom with white square tile (90’s build). We would like to change it in the future to white subway tiles, however, maintaining white grout has been a nightmare over the years. Could we choose a darker grout without dating the look? Thanks!

  18. I went shopping with a neighbor looking for new kitchen countertops and backsplash. $10,000 budget for a four year old home. We toured some model homes and an upscale tile store. Their counter will be quartz (hooray!) but they are considering a 4×4 travertine tile backsplash with metal inserts. On the diagonal, of course.

  19. I just finished a bathroom remodel and never considered anything but subway for the shower since it’s what looked best. In my kitchen remodel, I choose a trendy herringbone marble. 5 years from no, if I don’t like it, I will save $ and hire one of you designers to change it. Life is too short to be stuck with safe, get what you like!
    Always look forward to hearing what you have to say Maria 😉

  20. Personally love subway tile, especially in older or traditionally styled homes. However, just spent some time traveling in New Zealand, and was impressed at the terrific style shown in bathrooms and kitchens with a more contemporary flair, using mostly large square white or cream, sometimes taupe, matte tiles. I saw this in many different permutations, mostly NOT high end, and it seems a different flavor of classic to consider.

  21. I’m in the middle of adding a powder room as I write. I love white, subway tiles and use them in every house. They’re classic and you can always add some of the ‘trends’ to update your look, like glass or marble trim. I absolutely agree with you Maria.. on most things actually. Love you blog, loved the web course I just took and looking forward to the next one in Feb – ENFP!!

  22. I would love Maria’s take on subway tile in cream, taupe or gray tones. Are there many shades of white subway tiles? (I usually only see one or two-have to get those undertones right with my white cabinets!) Do you match the counters to the cabinets, have the counters installed and then add the subway tile backsplash? (Since you can’t see counters in your actual room and lighting until they are installed.) Thanks in advance for responses.

  23. For me subway tiles have always reminded me of public toilets. I cannot understand why they are so popular. Most of my clients have a glass splash back for their kitchens. I have never specified subway tiles. Bathrooms are normally white square tiles. I have seen subway tiles in older homes, but never in new. Perhaps it’s not so popular in NZ & Australia.

  24. I love the look of subway tiles. I have spent much time in North America so have seen them in person and not just on line. However I cannot help but think that keeping them clean particularly in the kitchen would be a lot of work. I feel I would need a splash guard behind the stove to protect the grouting. Glass is the only way to go for me, at least behind the stove. It can be any colour and so easy to clean. I currently have mirror glass which looks spectacular as it reflects the trees outside but wouldn’t have it again as not as easy as the plain glass to clean. We don’t see many subway tiles here in Australia, perhaps too much grout to grow mould in the heat. Interesting to note that the cost of a kitchen here is probably three times the cost of one in Canada/US. Hope you all going ok with the weather.

    • I also like glass, including back-painted larger glass tile or sheets, though that can be spendy. I’m considering that for our own kitchen. Our granite cracked badly (!) and since I have to replace it (with an off-white quartz probably), the backsplash will be re-done too.

    • Many Americans don’t have tile at all and don’t realise that cleaning grout is a PITA. Showers are usually a shower/tub combo and are lined in a flat moulded plastic board. People are very excited to “upgrade” to tile, often teeny tiny tiles with acres of grout.

      In the kitchen, you could do a glass backsplash (and high gloss cabinets?) in a very small proportion of homes, mostly flats in big cities. It’s not popular at all. Some people say it’s because the housing stock here is mostly old, but modern Australian style does beautiful things to an old stone worker’s cottage (for example). I think it’s the prevalence of the big box stores (where you buy everything from taps to tile to curtains to carpet to vanities and appliances), the stuff you see in these before pictures is way way WAY cheaper than the sorts of things you’re describing. Wages in the US are crazy low, so most people have nowhere near as much money as Australians do, and their houses are worth a fraction of Australian houses.

      Personally, I wonder if the insecurity of the very low wages and lack of social safety net is what makes people cling to familiar furnishings or it it’s just the cheap corporate dictates of Target, JC Penney and Lowes. Big corporations are very very powerful in the US because it’s truly a capitalist society.

      • Hmmm. An interesting response. Actually, as far as I could find numbers from different sites on the internet, average salary and cost of living are pretty similar overall for the US and Australia. However, I know that in the US, these can vary greatly by the city and state in which you live. The same may be true for Australia.

        As far as tile goes, for many years, tile was very, very common in the US. Yes, cleaning grout is indeed a PITA. Which probably explains the popularity of acrylic and fiberglass showers and tubs which are one seamless unit–along with the fact that they’re very cost-effective. Also, in upscale homes, sheets of solid surface (like Corian) were popular in baths for awhile in place of tile.

        However, acrylic and fiberglass can scratch, they can be dulled by the wrong cleaners, etc. I suspect this is one of the reasons tile is making a big comeback. Besides which, tile is available in all price ranges, and grout (while still a pain to clean) has been much improved.

        As an American, I wouldn’t say that the big corporations “are very, very powerful.” That’s not quite accurate. I think a better way to put it is that many people buy in too much to being trendy and “in style” and looking successful. Conspicuous consumption. Which of course the marketers eat up! We do have very heavy advertising here, which some people unfortunately buy into a little too much.

        For many of us, though, we’ve been through the style ups and downs long enough to know that the trendier it is, the more likely you are to think it’s ugly in 10 years. It truly is wasteful in my mind to use a really trendy surface in something which (if cared for properly) could be a permanent finish – like tile. I think this is why some of us strive for things that are more “timeless.” Having said that, everyone can make their own decisions, and if you have the money (and fortitude) to change out your tile every 10 years, then far be it from me to stop you!

  25. Couple questions I had were also in the above comments, about grout color, and someone asked about other colors-like cream/off white. I also wondered if subway tile would be a chameleon that could go with different styles of bathrooms? If you have a tub with a surround, can you do subway tiles on the walls of the bathroom?

  26. I did say I liked white clean bathrooms but, change up the pattern of the white subway tile or add an accent tile in white. Just try to change it up a little. Then, of course you can spark it up with accessories for color and texture to your timeless bathroom.

  27. Hello Maria, your expert teachings have really helped with my kitchen renovation a year ago. I followed your advice about how to coordinate the kitchen counter and the wall tiles and I picked glossy soft grey subway tiles. I know you love white but does the color of the tile, grout and size of the tile take away from the timelessness ? I had my larger 15 inch by 3 3/4 inch tiles stacked since this reduced any lippage with the tiles and they look great ! I hope to send you some before and after pics.

  28. I am in the midst of planning our new kitchen reno and have chosen stacked while tiles as a back splash for plain ‘unadorned’ cabinet doors, as I feel this configuration has a modern, clean look. I am curious to know why the ‘brick laying’ look is more popular: I am worried that I have made the wrong decision.

  29. Hello Maria

    Like everyone love reading your blog, I recently did a reno of my kitchen. We previously had white thermofoil cabinets, which started peeling, after years of use, and the heat. We opted for darker colored cabinets, espresso, in the shaker style cabinets, with silver modern 10″ pulls and since you had somewhat approved it, in a post. I felt a bit safe, in choosing that option. Just so that it does not feel overwhelming – we did four of our upper cabinet doors in frosted glass,(Btw, the kitchen can handle the dark cabinets with the amount of light that comes in- the pictures will soon be posted) with a granite counter top (very similar to Kashmir White), but was called River white, its not busy, and very, its got a clean look for the most part – with gray streaks that run in the long lengths, to which I matched my glass subway tiles. They give a blue green tint that the matches the counter top streaks as well as the wall color and looks fabulous with the espresso cabinets. I was torn between the white one and the one we installed finally. Its a solid color that shows up. I’ve gotten many compliments for the way I planned the kitchen. The floor is ceramic tiles, which I am compromising with but when we do get wood flooring done – hopefully I would be able to change the kitchen flooring.

  30. I love simple, white tiles and I love subway tiles… but I really don’t love the squat-looking, pillowed-edge tiles that remind me of the girls’ bathrooms at my 1930’s-era primary school.

    Everywhere I look, I see the standard-fare 3×6 or 4×8 glossies and can’t help but think that they are artificially (and sadly) shortened versions of their true self.

    On the other hand, I swoon when I see a hand-crafted 2×10 or 3×12 white, matte finish tile.

    After too many hours googling online and soul-searching for just the right tile… I found some amazing 3×9 white glossies for the kitchen. Then I steeled myself to pay the bill for a blend of 2×6, 2×8, and 2×12 white matte tiles from Heath Ceramics for the bathroom.

    So thrilled with the results of the skinny subs- still has that clean and simple subway look, but with just a little something different.

  31. I think subway tile is a great, inexpensive, and timeless choice, but definitely not the only option. My mom, for example, did one bathroom in crema marfil and one in carrera back in the 80s, and the rooms only needed a change of faucets to look brand new.

    In my own house, I try to think about what I really enjoy looking at, and unfortunately, subway tile isn’t it. I am careful not to pick the newest trend though, no matter how cute that geometric tile looks right now.

  32. What are your thoughts on Calcutta or Carrera subway tiles? I’m redoing a guest bathroom and trying to decide between those for the shower walls or just plain white subway tiles.

  33. Timing is everything… I was just meeting with a designer for our bathroom and was leaning this way. I am curious about your opinion on the gout as well and what do think of penny tiles as flooring option? Too busy or trendy? What flooring would you match for subway shower and ??? Flooring…

  34. My kitchen granite has a large wave design …in Greys with some light and sand color. I think a grey subway might look the best but I’m afraid of the grey being slightly off color. Would white subway tile look better. I know white is timeless. Is grey subway timeless too. Help!

  35. Love the black/white bath w wainscoting!
    Lots of drama w/o the big bucks. I think tile is overrated, in large, well-ventilated baths, except in separate shower. LOVE beadboard, if your home is not uber-contemporary. Adds interest w/o being expensive. My H installed it..smallish backsplash of kitchen..looks great. (we didn’t want to rip out the builder granite; it was ‘good enough!’) (for now.)

  36. Sorry, but I HATE SUBWAY tiles! Maybe I’m different because I live in the UK and therefore have a different background, but to me, subway tiles remind me of public toilets, definitely not a look I want in my home, and I hate to say it, but if I bought a home that had them, they would be one of the first things I would rip out. However, I do believe that keeping tiles white is the way to go, I just can’t bear the subway look.

  37. OH GOD. When we were house hunting last year, every new house and flip had that awful tan & brown bathroom mosaic/pencil tile combo that’s ubiquitous at Home Depot and Lowes. No. One. Is going to like that combination in 10 years.

    Once we finally bought, we had to re-tile our main bathroom, and quickly. Bright white subway tile. White grout. Easy. Done. Beautiful. I smile during every shower.

  38. After traveling the NYC subway system for many years in my youth, for years whenever I’d see white subway tile, I’d detect the smell of urine in the air- that musty mix of garbage and urine/feces that pervaded the underground rail system. Seeing so many beautiful spaces in the white tile, however, is slowly changing my association. I think if I installed it, it’d have to be in a herringbone pattern or in a cream color…I do love, though, how you stick to your guns on this Maria!