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Subway Tiles: History, Design Ideas, and Selection Tips

Subway Tiles: History, Design Ideas, and Selection Tips

In the world of interior design, did you know that only a few elements evoke as much nostalgia and timeless appeal as subway tiles?

In a similar vein, a 2024 Subway Tiles Market Report claims that this kind of design element “is projected to experience significant growth soon.

Well, that wouldn’t be surprising. It’s because originating as a functional necessity in New York City’s underground transit system, these humble rectangular tiles have transitioned into beloved design staples that would also surely adore your home and business establishments.

With these kinds of tiles, international and prestigious home magazines like Architectural Digest, Elle Decoration, and Vogue Living, to name a few, are sure to feature your living place for inspiration due to their classiness and style.

So, join us on our journey through the fascinating history, versatile designs, and modern applications of subway tiles—your guide to unlocking the potential of this enduring classic.

History of Subway Tiles

Here’s how it all began. The story of subway tiles starts in the early 1900s when the architects George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge envisioned a durable, easy-to-clean wall surface for New York's bustling subway stations.

White subway tiles on New York’s Subway StationsWhite subway tiles on New York’s Subway Stations

The result? The astonishingly iconic 3" x 6" glazed ceramic tile you now see elsewhere is synonymous at present with the term "subway tile." Henceforth, fast forward to today, these tiles have transcended their utilitarian origins to become a hallmark of chic urban design.

And so, what’s even more interesting is that the term "subway tile" refers not only to its use in subway stations but also to its unique dimensions—perfect for creating your area’s clean, uniform appearance.

Here’s what it means.

Design and Material Evolution of Subway Tiles

Over the years, subway tiles have undergone a remarkable evolution beyond the classic 3" x 6" rectangle that first adorned the walls of New York City's subway stations. Today, homeowners and designers like you have a myriad of size and style options to choose from—elevating now your would-be subway tiles from functional necessity to stylish statement pieces.

Let’s take a look at how you’ll leverage this fact.

Size Evolution

While the traditional size remains iconic, larger format subway tiles like 4" x 8", 6" x 12", and sleek, elongated planks are gaining popularity for their ability to impart a modern aesthetic.

In fact, these larger tiles can visually expand your living spaces and lend a contemporary flair to any of your establishment’s settings. So, if you’re after the sizes of these tiles, doing a comprehensive survey of their available sizes would give you more peace of mind.

Blue-green subway tiles on a classic kitchenetteBlue-green subway tiles on a classic kitchenette

Pattern Play

Classic subway tile installations often featured a stacked or brick pattern. However, today's designers are pushing boundaries with creative layouts like herringbone, chevron, basketweave, and vertical stack patterns.

White subway backsplash tiles on a gray kitchen wall backdrop and floating wooden shelvesWhite subway backsplash tiles on a gray kitchen wall backdrop and floating wooden shelves

Interestingly, these intricate designs add depth and visual interest to your area, transforming your walls into captivating focal points. So, if you’re into bringing out the Picasso, Bernini, or Michelangelo in you, discovering inspiring bathroom tile patterns and layouts like these would surely give you inner peace in your design process more than their aesthetic value.

Color and Finish

While white subway tiles have stood the test of time, the design landscape nowadays embraces a spectrum of colors and finishes. Fascinatingly, bold hues, metallic sheens, and patterned motifs are making waves in contemporary interiors. If you now want to add more life and vibe to your room, explore a range of colorful subway tiles that allow you to express your unique style and personality.

Cornsilk Rectangle Subway Backsplash TileCornsilk Rectangle Subway Backsplash Tile

Edge and Trim

In the past, subway tiles were often finished with a simple bullnose edge. Today, the options are limitless with various shaped trims and contrasting accent tiles that frame your installations with artistic flair.

So, if you’re enhancing now your project with the perfect edge treatment and exploring creative ways to personalize your subway tile design, choose the right grout color to complement your tiles.

Nevertheless, the evolution of subway tiles only showcases that their versatility and enduring appeal in modern design gives you a boost in your creative process. In a word, you’ll have more cards in your hands to play with.

That’s why whether you prefer classic simplicity or crave bold innovation, subway tiles unhesitatingly give you limitless possibilities for transforming your space.

Material Types for Subway Tiles

Subway tiles have transcended their origins from ceramic to encompass a diverse range of materials, each offering you distinct aesthetics, textures, and performance characteristics. This means that you have a variety to choose from in terms of material types for your subway tiles.

So, whether you're drawn to timeless grace or contemporary flair, there's a subway tile material to suit every of your style and functional requirements.

Here’s the catch:

Beyond Ceramic

While ceramic remains a classic choice, your subway tiles come in a variety of alternative materials. Glass subway tiles, with their luminous quality and reflective surfaces, add depth and sophistication to any of your space.

Grey Random Linear Glass subway tiles on a minimalist kitchenGrey Random Linear Glass subway tiles on a minimalist kitchen

Natural stone subway tiles, such as marble or travertine, exude natural beauty and texture, perfect for creating a luxurious ambiance for your hotel lobby or restaurant kitchen, for example.

More so, porcelain subway tiles combine durability with versatility, available in a range of finishes and colors. Similarly, metal subway tiles introduce an industrial-chic vibe, offering you a sleek and modern aesthetic.

x12 Hudson Grey Matte Porcelain Backsplash Subway Tile under white cabinetsx12 Hudson Grey Matte Porcelain Backsplash Subway Tile under white cabinets

Thus, whether you’re into glass subway tiles or metal subway ones, you’re sure that these different kinds of subway tiles are beyond the ordinary—that is, beyond ceramics.

Eco-friendly Options

Sustainability is a growing concern in design, and subway tiles are no exception. Meaning to say, those who are in the tile industry know that not only are the subway tiles’ materials designed to last, but they must also contribute to the reduction of waste in the environment.

So, if you’re an environmentalist and concerned about saving the earth, explore eco-friendly options like recycled glass tiles, crafted from reclaimed materials to reduce environmental impact.

Lastly, porcelain tiles (or those made with recycled content), provide a durable and sustainable alternative, ideal for eco-conscious homeowners and designers like you who are committed to green building practices, especially in this time of extreme global warming.

Performance Considerations

Each subway tile material offers unique performance benefits tailored to your specific applications. Glass tiles, with their non-porous nature, are perfect for your high-moisture areas like showers, providing you with easy maintenance and resistance to mold and mildew.

Sapphire Lagoon Random Interlocking Glass Subway Tiles on a small bathroom wallSapphire Lagoon Random Interlocking Glass Subway Tiles on a small bathroom wall

Stone-look porcelain subway tiles, on the other hand, lend natural beauty to both your indoor and outdoor spaces, while porcelain tiles excel in your high-traffic areas due to their durability and scratch resistance.

Hence, if you’re considering your subway tiles’ performance while not sacrificing their beauty, glass tiles, stone subway tiles, and porcelain tiles are the best for you, depending on your needs in your area of concern.

Matte Black Rectangle Undulated Subway Tile on a commercial wall spaceMatte Black Rectangle Undulated Subway Tile on a commercial wall space

Role of Subway Tiles in Modern Design

Subway tiles have emerged as versatile design elements, revolutionizing contemporary interiors with their adaptability and sustainability. Let's now delve into their role in shaping modern architecture and sustainable practices.

Current Design Trends

Subway tiles are experiencing a resurgence in modern design, showcased in innovative applications across homes and commercial spaces. From traditional layouts to creative patterns like herringbone and chevron mentioned above, subway tiles offer you endless possibilities for creating those stylish and unique environments that you’ve always been craving for.

Here’s what it means:

Sustainable Architecture

Subway tiles contribute to sustainable architecture in several ways:

Durability and Longevity

Classic ceramic or porcelain subway tiles are renowned for their durability and longevity. With proper care, they can withstand decades of use, reducing your need for frequent replacements and minimizing environmental impact.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

Understanding the life cycle of your subway tiles is crucial in your sustainable design. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) evaluates the environmental impact of your product from extraction to disposal, helping homeowners and designers make informed choices about your material selection.

Low Maintenance

Subway tiles are inherently low maintenance, requiring you simple cleaning materials with non-toxic products. This reduces the use of harsh chemicals, promoting a healthier indoor environment for your space and minimizing your ecological footprint.

Reflective Surfaces and Energy Efficiency

Lighter-colored subway tiles, especially glazed varieties, possess reflective properties that enhance natural light in your interior spaces. This reduces reliance on artificial lighting, leading to energy savings—especially in terms of electricity consumption—and improved sustainability.

Reclaimed and Recycled Options

The reclaimed or recycled subway tiles market is expanding, offering you sustainable alternatives to new tiles. Salvaged from renovation projects, these tiles add character and history to any of your living spaces while reducing your waste and resource consumption.

How to Choose the Right Subway Tiles

Choosing the perfect subway tiles involves considering various factors to ensure they meet your aesthetic preferences and functional needs. Here's a short comprehensive guide to help you make informed decisions:

Material Selection

Subway tiles come in different materials such as ceramic, porcelain, glass, and others. Each material has its pros and cons:

• Ceramic: Affordable and versatile, suitable for most of your indoor applications. However, may be prone to chipping and scratching.

• Porcelain: Highly durable and water-resistant, ideal for your high-traffic areas and wet environments like bathrooms and kitchens.

• Glass: Offers a unique, glossy finish and is resistant to stains. Great for creating a reflective, modern look but requires more care to prevent visible smudges and fingerprints.

Durability and Maintenance

Consider your tile's durability, water resistance, and ease of maintenance. Your porcelain tiles are generally more durable and low-maintenance compared to ceramic or glass ones.

Application Suitability

Determine where your subway tiles will be installed. For example, if you're tiling a shower wall, opt for tiles with excellent water and slip resistance.

Brand Comparison and Quality Standards

Research different brands and compare their quality standards. Reputable brands often offer superior craftsmanship and product consistency.

PEI Rating

Understand the PEI (Porcelain Enamel Institute) rating system, which grades ceramic tiles based on their wear resistance:

• PEI II or III: Suitable for your wall applications like backsplashes.

• PEI IV or V: Recommended for your floors and high-traffic areas.

Flatness and Consistency

Inspect your subway tiles for flatness and consistency in size to ensure your smooth installation. Irregular tiles can result in uneven surfaces and poor aesthetics.

Glaze Quality

For glazed tiles, check for a uniform glaze without cracks, chips, or pinholes. High-quality glazing enhances durability and appearance.

The Future of Subway Tiles

As technology advances, especially with the prominence of Artificial Intelligence nowadays, so does the evolution of the different landscapes in subway tile design. Well, as a pro tip, speculate on emerging trends and materials that promise to redefine this beloved classic.

This means to say that whether you’re into innovative manufacturing techniques or eco-friendly innovations, the future of subway tiles is as exciting as more than you have ever imagined its storied past.

Moreover, according to a 2023 Subway Tiles Market Research Report, the market’s compound annual growth rate (CAGR) during the forecasted period is projected to be promising or significant, as highlighted also in this blog post article’s introduction.

In conclusion, subway tiles remain a cornerstone of tile design nowadays—bridging the gap between functionality and aesthetic appeal.

Luckily, at Otile, we're committed to helping you discover the perfect subway tiles for your project, whether it's your kitchen backsplash, shower niche, or statement wall. In this regard, don’t hesitate to explore our curated selection and let the timeless charm of subway tiles unhesitatingly transform your living spaces.

So, ready to dig in? Unlock the potential of your subway tiles with us now—where history meets modern design, one tile at a time.

Written by:

Ali Eftekhari 

Results-driven MBA Professional with 15+ years in the stone, slab, and tile industry.
Expert in strategy, operations, and global relations. Extensive international experience in Brazil, China, India, Turkey, Peru, and the USA.

View LinkedIn Profile

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