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Will Subway Tiles Ever Go Out of Style? A Deep Dive Into the Ubiquitous Tile Trend

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Surprisingly, one of the trendiest trends in home decor emerged from the deep recesses of NYC subways. A stark contrast to their namesake, subway tiles are classic, clean, light, and bright. Given that subway tiles have remained a ubiquitous staple in residential design for the last century, it begs the question: Are subway tiles out of style?

To get to the bottom of this trend’s trajectory, we dove deep into the history of subway tiles and spoke to several home design aficionados, including top-selling real estate agent Melanie Giglio, who works with 74% more single-family homes than the average agent in Chicago.

A subway stations with subway tiles.
Source: (Csaba Pap / Unsplash)

Origin story: The makings of the subway tile trend

The masterminds behind NYC subway aesthetics, Christopher Grand La Farge and George C. Heins, faced with the herculean task of designing a public transportation system that was both easy to maintain and aesthetically pleasing (i.e., magical enough to make the city’s shadowy underground seem less menacing).

In 1904, the two men (or design geniuses as we like to call them) debuted their answer: 3×6 glazed white ceramic tiles with a high gloss finish. Regarding hygiene — a prized value in the Victorian era— subway tiles were the perfect material since they are easy to clean and stain-resistant. Style-wise, subway tiles boasted the added benefit of effectively bouncing light to brighten dark tunnels destined never to see the light of day.

It took some time, but by the 1920s, subway tiles found their way into kitchens and bathrooms everywhere, precisely for the same reasons that they worked in the subways; they were easy to clean, durable, and effortlessly stylish.

Subway tiles fell out of style until the new millennium

In the decades that followed, the subway tile’s popularity waned. In the late ‘20s and ‘30s, homeowners replaced white subway tiles with colorful variations suiting Art Deco style (pink, lavender, and burgundy were all the rage). Tile trends shifted throughout the second half of the century, though the square tile shape and colored finish continually trumped the 3×6 white subway tile.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the subway tile began popping up again in trendy metropolitan restaurants and cafes. Suddenly, the crisp design felt fresh again with its contemporary yet retro aesthetic. With this duality, the subway tile was effortlessly incorporated into farmhouse design, the lived-in country style popularized by HGTV Fixer Upper star Joanna Gaines. Riding on farmhouse design’s coattails, the subway tile spread through homes across the nation like wildfire throughout the 2010s.

Predictions: Subway tiles will stay in style for the next five years

Today, the subway tile is still in style, with its simple sophistication almost guaranteeing the trend’s longevity.

“Subway tiles are classic and timeless, yet versatile, which is why they are so great. They aren’t going anywhere in 2021 or beyond,” shares Erin Davis, lead designer at Mosaik Design & Remodeling in Portland, OR. “What we’ll continue to see is creative applications or versions of the subway tile. For example, applying them in unexpected patterns such as vertically, instead of horizontally, and stacked instead of staggered.

Top real estate agent Melanie Giglio agrees: “I think subway tile will always be here. But I think it’s going to be a much more toned-down look. I do believe that the subway tile is such a classic look. I see it going on for a very long time — definitely for at least five years.”

Factor your home sale timeline into your design choices

Despite her belief that subway tile will undoubtedly remain popular for the foreseeable future, Giglio advises homeowners to consider how long they plan to live in their home when making design choices. If you plan to sell in the near future, opt for classic white, horizontally stacked subway tiles “to appease the masses.”

In contrast, homeowners who don’t plan to sell for the next 20 to 30 years can go bold and choose tile designs sheerly based on personal taste. Chances are, you’ll need to update the kitchen or bathroom again to align with what’s trending during the time you sell. There’s no crystal ball to tell us what buyers will want in the future, so planning that far ahead is futile.

A herringbone pattern of subway tiles.
Source: (R_Branham / Shutterstock)

Mix it up: Make subway tiles shine in your home

While subway tile is a safe bet for resale, homeowners with a penchant for flair may find this style too predictable for their taste. Thankfully, there are several options for those looking to jazz it up, so the tile doesn’t look quite so, shall we say, “pedestrian”?

While we don’t recommend you go crazy with colors or placement (these tiles belong in wet areas, end of story), you can play with patterns and material for a fresh take on this timeless classic:

Classic staggered stack

The classic subway tile pattern arranges tiles in staggered horizontal rows. For subtle interest, consider using glass subway tiles in this traditional arrangement. The reflective properties of glass will make your room look bigger, brighter, and all-around more divine. You can also jazz up the classic subway tile pattern by choosing a colored grout. For instance, pair black grout with white subway tile for a striking contrast, perfect for a modern kitchen backsplash.

Vertical stack

Get the clean, classic feel of subway tile with a fresh modern feel by laying subway tiles in a vertical stack instead of the standard horizontal placement.

Herringbone pattern

Layout subway tiles in a herringbone pattern to add movement and texture to your space. Since herringbone is a fairly classic pattern, this layout will still appeal to the majority of buyers. You can also opt for a 90-degree herringbone pattern, ideal for floor-to-ceiling tiling in showers. This pattern creates visual interest and draws the eye up, elongating small spaces.

Geometric pattern

Laying subway tile in a geometric pattern with two horizontal tiles next to two vertical tiles gives this classic tile a bold, artistic twist.

Cash used to pay for subway tiles.
Source: (lucas Favre / Unsplash)

Get the look: Estimating the cost of subway tile

The price of installing subway tile can vary widely. According to HomeAdvisor, subway tile can cost as much as $15 per square foot or as little as $0.15 per square foot, averaging out somewhere around $7 to $13 per square foot.

Here are some factors that determine the final cost to add subway tile to your home:

  • Square footage
  • Type of tile (e.g., glass costs more than ceramic)
  • Type of grout
  • Pattern
  • Labor rates in your area

The verdict: Subway tiles are still in style

So there you have it, folks, the subway tile isn’t giving up its seat at the table any time soon. And it stands to reason — subway tile is extremely versatile, beautiful, and easy to maintain.

Header Image Source: (Callum Hill / Unsplash)