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The History Of Subway Tile

By Melissa Colabella

subway tile 2

Subway tile lines the walls of New York’s old City Hall subway station, which opened in 1904. Image from the Library of Congress

You may know that subway tiles received their eponymous name after the distinctive 3″ x 6″ was selected as the choice design by George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge who designed the very first station of New York’s then brand-new subway in 1904.

Heins and LaFarge were participants in the Arts and Crafts Movement, and wanted a design beyond a simple ceramic motif for the subway tunnels of New York City. They wanted to create the image of cleanliness while also combining alluring artistry that was the style of the time so they embellished the linear tile with decorative mosaics.

Tiles, which are relatively easy to clean, had been embraced in the 19th century Victorian era and were a hygienic design solution for the new subway with the added benefit of light reflectancy. The white glazed tiles helped to reflect sparse light in the subterranean space.

Heins and La Farge may have become famous for the 3″ x 6″ but they didn’t invent the style and they weren’t the only designers decorating the public spaces of NYC with these linear shapes. Rafael Gaustavino, a Spanish architect and builder patented the Gaustavino “Tile Arch System” in 1885.

Gaustavino tile

Wikipedia – Gaustovino Tile

Guastavino vaulting is a technique for constructing robust, self-supporting arches and architectural vaults using interlocking terracotta tiles and layers of mortar to form a thin skin, with the tiles following the curve of the roof. Guastavino tile is found in some of New York’s most prominent Beaux-Arts landmarks and in major buildings across the United States. The Guastavino terracotta tiles are standardized, less than an inch (25 mm) thick, and approximately 6″ by 12″ across. They are usually set in three herringbone-pattern courses with a sandwich of thin layers of Portland cement. Unlike heavier stone construction, these tile domes could be built without centering.

Victor Horta, a Belgian architect and a leading influencer of Art Nouveau in Belgium designed the dining room of his house, Ixelles (1898), now the Horta museum, with white enameled “wall-bricks” to create a warm, elegant and unpretentious interior. That’s right, they were “wall-bricks” before they were “subway tile.”


These white enameled bricks covering the walls instead of wallpaper were an especially unusual feature for the time. For the floor covering, Horta chose, not carpeting, but wood parquet with a border of mosaic with copper inlay, to echo the clear cut linear motifs of the painted iron work arch supports. It is believed that his interior tile mimicked the style of exterior buildings, in an effort to blend organic forms and soft lines.

In many ways, the trends we see today originated over 100 years ago although today the application that has become an overdone trend is less sophisticated, lighter, and mass produced (also more affordle). Horta’s Art Nouveau style was influenced by William Morris, a British icon for the Arts & Crafts movement who valued honest craftsmanship and artistic presence. Arts & Crafts can be considered the most important design reform movement to affect interiors in the nineteenth century. His own influences can be traced backed to medieval times, before the European industrial revolution in the second half of the eighteenth century.

If you consider the history, “subway tile” doesn’t seem so trendy, does it? This pedigreed tile never “came back” because it never went away. So why is it everywhere?

Following the debut of subway tile in NYC, it began to appear in all kinds of interiors, including commercial interiors. There’s in implication of NY metropolitan style now in the subway tile motif that is a modern sentiment. There’s also a bit of nostalgia that speaks to a more elegant time.

The mass production of “subway tile” as we know it is exactly the opposite of the inventors intentions. What was intended to be an elegant look can now look cheap, a first choice for house flippers and DIY-ers. Yet as with all design, current aesthetic is influenced by past aesthetic and disputably, good design can be a contemporary evolution of the past. So how do we align the design philosophy that was intended for subway tile without it looking cheap?

For designophiles who want to pay homage to the arts and crafts origination, below are some derivatives of subway tile that stay true to the form, pattern and linearity but with a contemporary twist.