Subway tile rises to the height of farmhouse chic
It's Season 4, Episode 11 of HGTV's smash hit, "Fixer Upper," and Joanna Gaines is walking her husband, Chip, through her vision to transform a vacant turn-of-the-century flower shop in Waco, Texas, into a Parisian-inspired cupcake cafe.
The camera pans across a dilapidated interior, featuring peeling white paint and chartreuse wainscoting.
"But all of this would be, like, subway tile, from the floor up," she says, conjuring a great wall of glossy, 3-by-6-inch ceramics.
As any loyal viewer can tell you, subway tiles -- along with shiplap and farm sinks -- hold a special place in the holy trinity of "Fixer Upper" renovations. But how did something eponymous with one of the most utilitarian urban spaces in America become synonymous with cozy farmhouse chic? And what is it about these basic white rectangles, which debuted more than 100 years ago, that obsesses modern homeowners?
"It does feel post-recessional," says Lindsey Waldrep, vice president of marketing at Crossville Tile. "Our lives are crazy, and there's something about those classic shapes and traditional styles that are soothing."
This calming effect is precisely what drove architects George Heins and Christopher Grant La Farge to cast the tile in its original breakout role. Tasked with creating an inviting space for potentially fearful passengers, the men behind the design of New York City's first underground rail stations chose the white glass field tiles -- named because they create a monolithic field of color -- to keep the subway stations bright, said Rebecca Haggerty, a research archivist at the New York Transit Museum. Inspired by Beaux Arts design and the City Beautiful movement, the architects infused the stations with 3-by-6-inch glass tile to unify the various mosaics and terra cotta units.
"The tile had many design options, was considered to be hygienic, and was affordable at the time," she said. "They were also selected as they are easy to be rinsed off, which is why there are so many round corners and smooth finishes."
That sounds like something any practical homeowner would want. And it's likely the reason the popularity of the tile surged in the 1900s and made the jump from underground tunnels into the kitchens and bathrooms of America -- everywhere from New York City apartments to those original Victorian farm houses.
Keith Bieneman, managing director of Heritage Tile, says in the early 1920s, the tile we now so fondly refer to as "subway" was not only popular, but pretty much the only option. "It was used virtually everywhere at the time -- kitchens, bathrooms, it was the utilitarian tile of America," he says. "It was absolutely more ubiquitous than it is now."
According to Bieneman, the pace of growth in America at the time required precise synchronization across tile production and installation practices. This resulted in a mutual agreement among about 20 tile companies that decided upon specifications, such as a uniform size and thickness, rectified edges, flat surface and pencil-thin grout. But technology soon disrupted all that.
"Things became more mass-produced, and it changed the character of the original tile work," said Bieneman, who seized upon a business opportunity to produce and distribute tile with those original specifications. In addition to commercial and residential projects, he is currently working with the Enhanced Station Initiative to restore the tilework in 33 New York City subway stations.
Even though homeowners now have limitless options when it comes to tile, there's still really only one choice for those looking to restore an older house to its prewar glory, Bieneman said.
"This is an enduring surface," he said. "If you choose something historic or authentic to that period, you know you can live with it for years to come."
But does the longevity of these historical tiles translate to a modern loft or a home that is more "Brady Bunch" than "This Old House"?
"Subway tile has become a neutral in our industry that goes with anything," said Elle H-Millard, certified kitchen designer and trend specialist with the National Kitchen and Bath Association. "It's almost like investing in low-risk stock, it is so timeless. It isn't going to date itself."
Classic styles are maintaining their popularity because people want their renovations to last longer, she said. That's why she predicts that the deluge of white, stainless steel -- and subway-tiled -- kitchens overwhelming our Houzz and Pinterest streams won't slow down anytime soon.
Waldrep agrees subway tile will always be classic and emphasizes it "is not dead" but, she admitted, "A lot of people are over it." What excites her now is that designers are continuing to reinterpret the classic look with variations on the tiles' size, texture and color.
"You're seeing wider planks, like 3-by-12 and 3-by-8, and it's getting more textural with some variations raised more like a Georgian brick," she said. "Colors vary from boldly saturated to subtle, watercolor glazes."
When it comes to grout, experts agree choosing something darker will take your design in a more modern and industrial direction that may become dated a little faster than the more traditional white grout and rectified edges.
Shea McGee, the Salt Lake City interior designer who's behind the Instagram-famous brand Studio McGee, said those torn between a classic look and something more unusual should opt for just one of the variations (size, color or texture), with texture perhaps being her top pick: "It adds interest and a thoughtful detail without being too trendy."
And for those concerned the end of "Fixer Upper" will mean the sunset of America's infatuation with subway tile, take heart from Gaines, who vowed in a Q&A after Season 1: "I liked subway tile 10 years ago, and I will like it for years to come."
Story by Marie Elizabeth Oliver