"Tapping into California's rich ceramic tradition," San Francisco-based Fireclay Tile produces a dazzling range of hand-painted tile. (Photo: Fireclay Tile)

Interior Designers Are Rethinking the Classic Subway Tile

The long-serving ceramic subway tile, invented in 1904, is versatile, attractive, and easy to clean. But the classic three-by-six tile has inspired some compelling alternatives.

At once timeless and fresh, elegant and every day, subway tile is one of the most employed décor elements in modern interiors. While the style staple is nearly synonymous with at-home design in 2019, its legacy dates back more than a century — to 1904. It was then that architects George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant Lafarge created the tile specifically for the first New York City subway station in 3-by-6-inch rectangle form.

In the ensuing 115 years, design devotees have flocked to the bathroom and kitchen catch-all for a variety of reasons — namely its budget-friendly prices and practicality. Not to mention its inimitable minimalistic appeal.

White is so 1904: Playing with color in the kitchen at 12 East 81st Street, a townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side represented by Corcoran Agents David Cox and Oliver Brown. (Click photo to explore this home.)

“Practicing style restraint is important when the scope of design and application is full of possibility,” says interior designer Laura Helveston of Belong Economy. “Simple ceramics like the subway tile become outstanding when pattern is employed.”

Although the classic version is still a sound choice, Helveston shares six alternatives that should only help to extend this enduring design element’s following:

1. Stone

Bianco Carrara Polished Marble Tile, Wayfair, $20/square foot

Designer Take: “This Carrara marble option satisfies designer taste and cost consciousness. Apply a vertical herringbone pattern to the shower surround with a cool grey grout for a classy edge.”

2. Hand-Painted

Mayan Blue Tile, Fireclay Tile, $28/square foot

Designer Take: “This tile boasts deep heritage and artisan quality, and its hand-glazed crackle finish offers interest and depth. Use it for a striking kitchen backsplash, with crisp white shaker cabinets and brushed gold hardware to complete the look.”

3. Glass

Loft Ash Gray Frosted Glass Tile, TileBar, $13.95/square foot

Designer Take: “A masculine take on delicate glass, this tile is great in a stacked brick pattern behind a minimalist master bathroom vanity. Brass fixtures and concrete basin sinks will help to hone its modern aesthetic.”

4. Cork

Stick Bricks, Sustainable Materials, prices available upon request

Designer Take: “Sustainable sourcing meets strong design in cork tile, which can bring natural vibes to the wall of a Hollywood Regency-inspired dining room. Add lush tropical foliage and a hint of fuchsia with velvet chair cushions for a vibrant, rich feel throughout.”

5. Vintage

Green Beveled Edge Rectangular Tile Set, Old Good Things, $400 for lot of 68

Designer Take: “Musky green beveled subway tiles work well as a focal point above the cooktop. Surround the reclaimed green goodness with glossy white subway tile for a balanced kitchen backsplash, and employ rustic wood base cabinets and white uppers with minimalist hardware to complete the look.”

1920s Reclaimed White Tile, Etsy, $4.75/tile

Designer Take: “It doesn’t get more ‘subway’ than this 1920s white 3-by-6 variation. I envision it perfectly with a claw foot tub, which is situated amidst this vintage tile wainscoted glory. Roll out a saturated Persian rug for a stunner of a bathroom.”

Subway tile gets its name from — you guessed it — the New York City subway, for which it was created. Manhattan’s long-closed City Hall station was one of the more dazzling applications of these simple 3-by-6-inch tiles. (Image: New York Public Library)