Love them or hate them, white subway tiles have ruled the scene for quite some time. Considered a timeless and neutral option, they have also been the on-trend choice for backsplashes and showers for the last several years.
When white subway tile became popular, its most popular use was in the trend of all things farmhouse that took the design world by storm as the modern version of the country home. We often saw it paired with darker grout for an aged and rustic character (to the chagrin of many, who didn’t see the brick patterns of actual subways as a thing of beauty).
But white subway tile was also the welcome answer to years of busy — and often randomly selected — stacked accent tiles that have already dated the spaces they were installed in. Those busy thin strips of glass, metallics and stone, popular in the first decade of the 21st century as the companion backsplash to granite countertops, were often seen as the star of the show but left spaces feeling cluttered as soon as they were installed, and became dated very quickly.
White subway tiles reflect light, create white space and contribute to a light and airy feel.
In short, they are a great choice in many kitchens and baths! They aren’t going to become dated, even as trends come and go, which is what makes them timeless.
But we aren’t here to talk about white subway tiles, are we? Surely there must be some good alternatives to installing white subway tile in every kitchen, right?
With the shift from the gray and white trend to a slightly warmer and more natural palette in the 2020’s, all eyes are shifting to greige. It’s the new cream – one that is just grayed down enough to be relaxed and calming and comfortable, but not dreary like an all gray house can be. Just the opposite, in fact!
Where greige really shines is when it is intentionally paired with white and with natural wood tones, and where texture is the star of the show. So while a white subway tile can still be used beautifully in a greige and white kitchen, a warmer and more textural approach can elevate the design.
Note: there are plenty of circumstances in which a color can and should be used for a backsplash, but in this case we are talking about what to use instead of white subway tile to elevate the design but keep the same light and airy feel.
Here are my top 5 alternatives to typical white subway tile:
Zellige tile is a glazed clay tile that has irregular thickness and an opalescent or pearlescent sheen, which will often read as a high gloss, reflecting light in every direction. It is designed to have a minimal, pretty much invisible grout line, and will create a lot of texture. Zellige is not a new thing — it actually predates subway tile by about 1000 years, roughly speaking. Traditionally, it featured vibrant colors and was hand-chiseled into many shapes to create multicolor mosaic patterns.
In the current trend, Zellige tiles are typically either 4×4 squares, subway tiles and hexagonal (hex) tiles, in a variety of colors but the one most relevant to this conversation is a cream color. Because of the way these tiles are made, the color is variegated within each tile and differs from tile to tile, which are all highly reflective. Depending on the way they are installed, the uneven surface creates a lot of texture and can create a very rustic effect, given the raw exposed tile edges that are visible with the varying tile thicknesses.
Do a web search for the word “Zellige” and you’ll get plenty of results that are not actually Zellige, but have a similar look. While only a true clay tile can create this unique look, a similar look can be achieved using a ceramic tile.
2. Variegated tile
Glazed ceramic or porcelain tile
My personal favorite is a glazed ceramic tile with variegated colors that is influenced and inspired by the look of Zellige but with a more uniform thickness, and without the opalescent or metallic quality. It uses a more typical grout application and is somewhat glossy, but less reflective than Zellige tiles.
There are also some ceramic tiles available that look remarkably similar to Zellige but cost less, such as this one from TileBar:
Variegated ceramic tiles create a softer and more natural feel than a typical white tile, as the “white” version often includes creams and grieges, and have somewhat of an ombré pattern when installed. They work well with quartz countertops that have a marble look, because they contain many of the creamy tones in the quartz field and veining.
Also available in multiple sizes and shapes, fireclay tiles often have a higher concentration of color around the edges, which creates a textural look when installed. They also have subtle color variegation within each tile and from tile to tile, which can vary depending on the color selected. Fireclay tiles offer more choices between glazing (gloss/ sheen), crazing (subtle cracks), or matte, and color, which can make it easier to find just the right shade.
A note about mixing tile and stone or quartz: Always order samples and compare them with your slab before confirming your selection to make sure one doesn’t go yellow and the other pink, which will happen if the undertones aren’t a match. The same advice holds true for white subway tiles – we may call off white and cream “white” for the sake of simplicity, but it’s important to use the right one.
3. Shaped tile
Whether you prefer a glossy or matte white (or somewhere in between), sometimes changing up the tile shape is all you need to create textural interest without introducing a tile with color or pattern.
Arabesque tiles are softened diamond shapes that evoke a more romantic, traditional or transitional feel.
Hexagonal (hex) tiles are 6-sided (as their name would imply), and are available in a variety of sizes.
A common variation of the hex tile is an elongated hex. If it’s only slightly elongated, it may be referred to as “hive” or “beehive”. If it’s significantly elongated, it is commonly called “picket” tile. These variations are typically installed with a vertical orientation.
4. Marble tile
Marble is a beautiful alternate to white subway tile, and is available in several shapes, including subway, hex, arabesque or picket.
Since tile is even more noticeable than countertops are from across the room, the backsplash is a vital component of the overall look and feel of the space. If you absolutely love the look of marble (and are committed to living with its characteristics and maintenance), it is a beautiful choice.
Choose a Thassos (white), Carrara (pale gray with gray veins), Calacatta (creamy white with gray and gold veins), or even a Ming (pale green) to give color, pattern and texture in just the right dose.
5. Stone slab
Using a stone slab instead of tiles is one way to create a striking focal feature on a wall. Whether you’re using a slab below floating shelves, or in a range hood alcove, or on an entire wall, a stone slab can bring in the organic look of natural materials while adding drama.
Marble and quartzite are beautiful choices here. Choose a stone with strong veining for more drama or subtle veining for a softer and more romantic look. There are also a number of newer products on the market, such as porcelain slabs, that can be used instead of natural stone.
Caveat: always, always, and I mean *always* view the slab in person and get a detailed preview of what to expect before having a slab installed.
Your slab may need to be seamed, and the seam location(s) will need to be well planned. Your particular slab may have a splash of pattern or color that can offset the balance of the room, so definitely take the time to work out the details of what portion will be used (and what the cost ramifications are) before signing off on the selection. Also, if it’s going on a full wall and you decide to have the stone book matched, proceed with caution. No one wants to be caught off guard when they walk into their new kitchen or bathroom and the wall looks — ahem — anatomical. Just do a web search for “book matched stone wall” and consider yourself properly warned!
One more option!
Still love white subway tile, but want a different approach? Here’s a bonus alternative!
Consider changing the layout and/or tile orientation.
Rather than running the tile horizontally in a “brick” pattern, run it vertically instead, or stack it straight (vertically or horizontally) instead of offset.
Or consider a herringbone or basketweave pattern.
Whichever layout you choose, consider using a grout color that is well-matched to the tile body color to avoid creating grid lines. Let the shape and pattern of the tile layout serve to create texture and create that beautiful backdrop for real life.
If you’re ready for some professional advice on your specific project, book a kitchen refresh consultation with me! We’ll create a plan of action so you can plan your kitchen remodel with confidence and create a space you love!