The History And Evolution Of Subway Tiles In Home Design

April 28, 2023

Subway tiles have become a staple in contemporary home design, adorning kitchens, bathrooms, and beyond with their sleek, simple, and timeless appeal. However, the origin of these ubiquitous rectangular tiles can be traced back to the early 1900s, when they made their debut in the subterranean transportation systems of major cities.

In this blog post, we'll journey through the rich history and evolution of subway tiles, examining how they've remained a popular choice in home design throughout the years.

Birth Of Subway Tiles: New York City's Public Transportation

The story of the subway tile begins in 1904, when the first underground transit system in New York City was being constructed. Designers George C. Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge were tasked with creating a durable, low-maintenance, and visually appealing tile for the subway walls.

The resulting 3" x 6" white ceramic tile, known as subway tile, quickly became synonymous with the subway system.

The Expansion Of Subway Tiles In Public Spaces

Subway tiles quickly gained popularity for their clean lines, bright appearance, and ease of maintenance. They were soon adopted in other public spaces, such as hospitals, schools, and commercial buildings, due to their sanitary and practical qualities.

Transition To Residential Spaces

It wasn't long before subway tiles made their way into residential design. In the 1920s and 1930s, homeowners embraced the subway tile aesthetic, using it in kitchens and bathrooms to create a clean, modern look. The classic white tile with dark grout lines became a symbol of urban sophistication.

Mid-Century Modern Influence

In the mid-20th century, subway tiles began to take on a new life as designers experimented with different colors, materials, and patterns.

The mid-century modern movement saw a shift towards bolder, more vibrant hues, with subway tiles being produced in various shades of blues, greens, yellows, and reds.

This period also saw a surge in popularity for glass subway tiles, which added a touch of elegance and depth to the design.

The 1970s: A Shift To Larger Tiles

The 1970s brought a departure from the traditional 3" x 6" subway tile, with designers opting for larger format tiles in a range of materials. The standard subway tile took a backseat to more prominent, eye-catching tiles, which often featured intricate patterns and textures.

The 1990s And 2000s: A Return To The Classics

In the 1990s and 2000s, subway tiles made a comeback in home design, as homeowners and designers sought to recapture the simplicity and elegance of the original subway tile aesthetic.

The classic white 3" x 6" tile was once again a popular choice, as were variations in size and color, such as the 4" x 8" and 4" x 16" formats.

The 2010s: A Modern Take On Subway Tiles

The 2010s saw the subway tile trend evolve even further, as designers began experimenting with new materials, such as marble, metal, and stone, as well as unique installation patterns.

This decade saw the rise of the herringbone and chevron patterns, which added a modern twist to the classic subway tile look.

Additionally, the popularity of beveled and textured subway tiles allowed for a more dimensional and intriguing design.

Today: An Ever-Evolving Trend

Today, subway tiles continue to be a mainstay in home design, with countless variations in size, color, material, and pattern. From traditional 3" x 6" white ceramic tiles to larger-format marble and glass options, subway tiles have proven their versatility and adaptability in the world of home design. Designers continue to push the boundaries, experimenting with unconventional materials like wood-look porcelain and metallic finishes, as well as unique patterns such as vertical and diagonal installations.


The history and evolution of subway tiles in home design is a fascinating tale of innovation, adaptation, and enduring style. From their humble beginnings in the New York City subway system to their modern-day applications in homes around the world, subway tiles have proven themselves to be a timeless design element that transcends trends. Their versatility, ease of maintenance, and aesthetic appeal make them a beloved choice for homeowners and designers alike, ensuring that subway tiles will continue to grace the walls of kitchens, bathrooms, and beyond for years to come.

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Carlos Diaz
I believe in making the impossible possible because there’s no fun in giving up. Travel, design, fashion and current trends in the field of industrial construction are topics that I enjoy writing about.

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