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Remodeling 101: White Tile Pattern Glossary

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Remodeling 101: White Tile Pattern Glossary

April 4, 2017

Simple, unpretentious, and cost-effective, white ceramic tile is the white T-shirt of the kitchen. It’s often called subway tile, because it was developed for New York City subway stations back in the early 1900s and can still be seen there. Durable and adaptable, it works equally well in traditional and modern settings. But what we really like about subway tile is the way it allows for design creativity: You can achieve a multitude of patterns and textures with just one low-cost material. Here are some variations on the theme to consider for your next tiling project.

The Classic Subway Tile

Subway tiles can be square, but the most familiar size and shape is the three-by-six-inch rectangle.

Classic white subway tile in an inset backsplash from Steal This Look: Minimalist English Kitchen.
Above: Classic white subway tile in an inset backsplash from Steal This Look: Minimalist English Kitchen.
In this kitchen, subway tiles are laid horizontally in an offset brick pattern, also called running bond. Photograph from A New England Kitchen by Way of LA.
Above: In this kitchen, subway tiles are laid horizontally in an offset brick pattern, also called running bond. Photograph from A New England Kitchen by Way of LA.
A backsplash with offset subway tiles, here laid vertically instead of horizontally. Photograph from Kitchen of the Week: A Six-Week Transformation in Los Feliz.
Above: A backsplash with offset subway tiles, here laid vertically instead of horizontally. Photograph from Kitchen of the Week: A Six-Week Transformation in Los Feliz.
White subway tile in a laundry room from Kitchen of the Week: The Ultimate Staff Kitchen in NYC.
Above: White subway tile in a laundry room from Kitchen of the Week: The Ultimate Staff Kitchen in NYC.

Alternate Subway Tile Patterns

Subway tiles take on a fresh look when they’re laid in a herringbone pattern that runs diagonally.
Above: Subway tiles take on a fresh look when they’re laid in a herringbone pattern that runs diagonally.
The tiles in this backsplash are twice as long as standard subway tiles. The size variation combined with the horizontal herringbone pattern creates a different texture. Photograph by Nicole Franzen.
Above: The tiles in this backsplash are twice as long as standard subway tiles. The size variation combined with the horizontal herringbone pattern creates a different texture. Photograph by Nicole Franzen.
Los Angeles designer and blogger Sarah Sherman Samuel finds yet another way to do herringbone, laying subway tiles at right angles, parallel to the walls and ceiling. Call it perpendicular herringbone. Photograph from Rehab Diary: A Spare Bedroom Turned Glam Master Bath.
Above: Los Angeles designer and blogger Sarah Sherman Samuel finds yet another way to do herringbone, laying subway tiles at right angles, parallel to the walls and ceiling. Call it perpendicular herringbone. Photograph from Rehab Diary: A Spare Bedroom Turned Glam Master Bath.
You can even buy parallelogram-shaped subway tiles and lay them in a chevron pattern. Photograph via Mod Walls.
Above: You can even buy parallelogram-shaped subway tiles and lay them in a chevron pattern. Photograph via Mod Walls.

Square Tile

In a London kitchen, designer Charles Mellersh laid square tiles with a matte finish in an offset pattern. For more about how Mellersh chooses his materials, check out The Designer Is In: An Optimist at Home in Notting Hill. Photograph by Chris Tubbs.
Above: In a London kitchen, designer Charles Mellersh laid square tiles with a matte finish in an offset pattern. For more about how Mellersh chooses his materials, check out The Designer Is In: An Optimist at Home in Notting Hill. Photograph by Chris Tubbs.
White square tiles in a Swedish kitchen from Kitchen of the Week: An Industrial Yet Romantic Swedish Kitchen.
Above: White square tiles in a Swedish kitchen from Kitchen of the Week: An Industrial Yet Romantic Swedish Kitchen.

Mixing Patterns

In this kitchen by the Australian architecture firm Own & Vokes, subway tiles were laid vertically in an offset pattern. A subtle variation occurs in the window niche at right, where large square offset tiles flank a narrow strip of subway tile. Go to Urbane in Brisbane to see the rest of this project.
Above: In this kitchen by the Australian architecture firm Own & Vokes, subway tiles were laid vertically in an offset pattern. A subtle variation occurs in the window niche at right, where large square offset tiles flank a narrow strip of subway tile. Go to Urbane in Brisbane to see the rest of this project.
A backsplash with alternating rows of horizontal and vertical tiles from Kitchen of the Week: A Striking Before/After in Venice, California.
Above: A backsplash with alternating rows of horizontal and vertical tiles from Kitchen of the Week: A Striking Before/After in Venice, California.
While most of the tiles are offset in this kitchen by Netherland designers Ina Matt, a stacked row of different-sized tiles creates a patterned band on the island. More of this project can be seen in Architect Visit: Studio Ina Matt.
Above: While most of the tiles are offset in this kitchen by Netherland designers Ina Matt, a stacked row of different-sized tiles creates a patterned band on the island. More of this project can be seen in Architect Visit: Studio Ina Matt.

Can’t decide which white paint to use? If you’re in the throes of remodeling—or thinking about it—browse our Remodeling 101 series.

N.B.: This post is an update; the original story ran on May 5, 2014.

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