While many might believe subway tile came back into style thanks to farmhouse kitchens, it began in the early 20th century. The design trend is still going strong today.
Initially designed for New York City subway stations, these small square tiles were ideal for sanitary spaces where cleanliness was paramount. Their sleek appearance and easy-to-clean surface satisfied germophobic Victorian homeowners.
While some design trends come and go, others have a staying power that transcends passing fashions. Subway tile is one such trend, surviving numerous design periods to remain functional and aesthetically pleasing for over a century.
It first emerged in the early 20th century as a sleek, easy-to-clean cladding solution for subway stations. The 3 x 6-inch rectangular tiles were the brainchild of architects George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge, who worked on the first New York City subway in 1904. The designers wanted something clean, compact, and attractive to deflect dirt and withstand heavy traffic.
As a result, they chose a ceramic tile with a clean and shiny surface that was resistant to damage. This new tile was glazed in a brilliant white color that helped brighten the underground spaces and bounced light from the yellow-tinted incandescent lights and any daylight that could find its way into these subway tunnels through multiple skylights.
Today, subway tiles can be found in everything from farmhouse kitchens to minimalist bathrooms. Their clean lines and classic configuration have become a standard for many modern home designs. In addition to the traditional brick pattern, homeowners increasingly branch out with herringbone and vertical arrangements that add visual interest to their kitchens. Additionally, subway tiles are now available in various colors, shapes, sizes, and textures, allowing homeowners to customize their kitchens with the perfect style to suit their tastes.
While you may think that subway tile is just another trendy home decor fad, this versatile product has a long history of adapting to changing tastes and uses. This timeless beauty started as a practical, low-cost, easy-to-clean cladding solution for subterranean spaces beneath New York City streets.
When the first subway lines opened in 1904, designers George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge knew they needed a hygienic yet attractive design solution for the above-ground control houses, turnstiles, gates, staircases, and subway platforms. The sleek look of ceramic tile was a good choice, and the white, dirt-deflecting glaze helped brighten the dim underground stations.
Heins and La Farge were participants in the Arts and Craft Movement, and they used their design aesthetic to embellish the three-inch by six-inch tiles with decorative motifs. The resulting linear pattern was ideal for showcasing the station names and integrating alluring artistry into a suitable cladding material.
While today’s manufacturers offer old-school versions in white and off-white, the wide selection of color, texture, finish, and size options has contributed to the enduring popularity of subway tile. From herringbone patterns to textured surfaces and glass-like finishes, these tiles are versatile enough for kitchen backsplashes, bathrooms, and even hardworking rooms like laundry rooms and mudrooms. They come in various hues, from earth tones to vibrant, high-impact colors.
The subway tiles we know and love today have evolved from the 3×6 glazed ceramic field tile used in NYC subway stations. The originals arose from a 1904 obsession with hygiene, offering a sleek surface that was easy to clean and could reflect the sparse daylight that made it down to the tunnels below Manhattan streets. They also harkened back to the Arts and Crafts movement, with Heins and LaFarge choosing a simple rectangular shape that was pleasing to the eye and could be embellished with decorative mosaics.
Over a century later, these same hygienic and attractive tiles are a mainstay in many residential bathrooms.
These days, subway tiles can be found in several sizes (although they usually measure three by six inches) in materials like glass, stone, and various colors. Yet they remain recognizable as a distinct tile with a unique history worth incorporating into any space.
Those who want to see the original subway tiles can visit the NYC Transit Museum and the 145th Street and Bleecker Street stations, where restored examples can be seen in the control houses, platforms, and track walls. And for those who want to add a classic look to their homes, JBC has a wide variety of traditional white subway tiles available.
When subway tile hit the scene in NYC train stations in the early 1900s, its popularity exploded. Today you can find it in farmhouse kitchens and minimalist bathrooms alike. The standard 3 in x 6 in size remains popular, but you’ll find them in extended, skinny, more modern-looking options. You can even get creative with patterns and layouts. Laying the tiles in herringbone, for example, adds a design element that is unique and visually interesting.
In 1904, designers George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge were tasked with decorating the first NYC subway stations. They sought a cladding that was easy to clean and reflected sparse light in the dark underground tunnels. Heins and La Farge chose the iconic white glazed tiles now known as subway tiles.
The hygienic qualities of subway tiles and their ability to reflect light helped them become popular in the 1920s as wall coverings for baths and kitchens. In the 21st century, they’re a go-to for bathrooms and kitchens because of their sleek appearance and durability.
They’re also known for being inexpensive and relatively simple to install. Unfussy hardware-store varieties can cost as little as $1 per tile (or $8 per square foot), but handmade, artisan interpretations can run upwards of $60 a square foot.