From NYC Subways to Modern Homes: The Rise of Subway Tile

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Home Decor

Subway tile has become a popular choice for modern kitchens, adding a touch of urban sophistication. While shiplap and barn doors are more specific to certain tastes, subway tile has a range of colors, patterns, finishes, and sizes to suit anyone’s preferences. Here are some interesting facts about this beloved tile.

Origins in the NYC Subway System

The name “subway tile” comes from the fact that it was originally created for use in the New York City subway system in 1904. Architects George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge designed the distinctive 3-by-6-inch (7-by-15-centimeter) brick-like tiles that were not only stylish but also easy to clean. They later became popular in residential design in the 1920s and have remained a favorite choice ever since.

Size and Shape Variations

While the classic subway tile ratio is 2:1, the tile has evolved beyond the original 3-by-6-inch (7-by-15-centimeter) format. Today, any small-format rectangular tile with a standard 1:2 or 1:4 ratio is considered subway tile. Sizes now range from 4-by-8-inch (10-by-20-centimeter) to 4-by-16-inch (10-by-40-centimeter) and even smaller rectangles.

Subway tiles at the Shepard Avenue station in Brooklyn, NY.

Not for Every Home

While subway tile is versatile, it may not be the best fit for every home. It’s more commonly associated with retro or modernist design and may look out of place in a country kitchen. If you’re a fan of mid-century modern furniture or Art Nouveau design, subway tile is likely a good fit for your home.

Best for Indoor Use

Modern subway tiles made for residential use are not as durable as the originals that were designed for the subway system. They are not recommended for outdoor use and should be confined to indoor wall-only locations to ensure they last longer.

Outdoor-Specific Subway Tile

As outdoor kitchens and living spaces become more popular, the demand for outside-specific subway tile increases. However, it is important to ensure that the correct tile is used and never to install them as a floor tile. According to Fasan, most of these tiles have delicate glazes, making it best to keep them off the floor unless specific technical information such as PEI ratings for glaze abrasion resistance and DCOF for slip resistance is available.

Installation Made Easy

Subway tile projects are typically easy to install and require only a few materials such as grout, tile, adhesive, water, and a tile cutter. The positioning of the tiles also offers flexibility, allowing for horizontal, vertical, or L-shaped designs. However, Fasan warns against attempting complex patterns like herringbone without proper planning. It is essential to ensure that the dimensions are modular, with smaller tiles being equal divisions of larger ones to avoid a messy installation and uneven sizing.

Interestingly, a new trend is to create a bold contrast by using sharply contrasting grout colors, such as white tiles with black grout. Fasan suggests testing the grout on the tile first to avoid surface penetration from deep pigments.


1. What is subway tile?

Subway tile is a type of ceramic tile that is typically rectangular in shape and measures 3 inches by 6 inches. It is called subway tile because it was first used in the early 1900s for the walls of the New York City subway system. The tile was chosen for its durability and ease of cleaning, and it became an iconic part of the subway’s design.

2. When did subway tile become popular in homes?

Subway tile first started to gain popularity in homes in the early 2000s, as homeowners sought to recreate the clean and classic look of the subway system in their own kitchens and bathrooms. The simplicity and versatility of subway tile make it a popular choice for both modern and traditional design styles, and it is now a staple in many home renovation projects.

3. What are the benefits of using subway tile in home design?

Subway tile is a durable and low-maintenance material that is resistant to water and stains, making it a great choice for high-traffic areas like kitchens and bathrooms. It is also a versatile material that can be used in a variety of design styles, from modern to traditional. Subway tile is available in a range of colors and finishes, allowing homeowners to create a custom look that suits their individual taste.

4. How is subway tile typically installed?

Subway tile is typically installed in a brick or running bond pattern, with each tile offset from the one next to it. It can be installed on walls or floors, and it is often paired with contrasting grout to create a bold visual effect. Subway tile can be installed by a professional installer or by a confident DIYer, but it is important to follow proper installation techniques to ensure a lasting and professional-looking result.

5. What are some creative ways to use subway tile in home design?

While subway tile is most commonly used in kitchens and bathrooms, it can also be used in other areas of the home to create a unique and stylish look. Some creative ways to use subway tile include using it as a backsplash in a laundry room or mudroom, creating a feature wall in a bedroom or living room, or using it to create a statement fireplace surround. With its versatility and timeless appeal, subway tile is a great choice for any home design project.

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