Subway Tile: Versatile and Classic

A classic since the early 1900s, subway tile continues to be a classic go-to for kitchen and bathroom remodels. The simple rectangular tiles were named for their use in New York City’s underground transit stations and range in size from small to medium.

Much like Lego bricks, the basic rectangular shape of the subway tiles make them a perfect building block for applications anywhere from the ceiling, wall and/or floor. Able to be placed horizontally or vertically, the subway tiles became elevated to a work of art by a Valencian (Spanish) architect Rafael Guastavino in the late 1880s. Guastavino patented the tile arch system in 1885 that used rectangular subway tiles to create self-supporting arches and structural vaulting that followed the arch of the ceiling.

Used in an overlapping method, the tiles were layered two to three tiles deep to create a shell that was nearly as strong as reinforced concrete. Today many of Guastavino’s architectural feats have been lost or are closed to the public, but a revival of interest in Guastavino Tiles is awakening in major cities such as Boston and New York, where Guastavino and his son made common places like train stations, subways and office buildings into architectural wonders of beauty and engineering.

Influence of Guastavino in the Home

While not many of us are creating tiled archways worthy of Guastavino, it’s hard to miss the continuing appeal of the versatile subway tile. Everywhere from HGTV to Pinterest and Houzz glorifies the versatility and classic simplicity of the tile. While the traditional white continues to be a favorite for use on tubs, floors and backsplashes, there’s also a growing use of colored tiles in glass and ceramic.

The color of grout used in the subway tiles is also evolving. Home remodelers are substituting basic white for both cleaning reasons as well as a way to invoke a particular look. For instance, white subway tile is being used with light gray grout for a distinctive vintage look. Those looking for a more traditional look with a modern twist are choosing colored tile with white grout. Like Guastavino, there are few limitations when it comes to decorating with subway tile.

Subway Tile Patterns

  • Offset
  • Grid
  • Diagonal
  • Herringbone
  • Diagonal Offset
  • Basketweave
  • Ashlar
  • Corridor
  • Soldier Course Grid

When it comes to keeping your subway tile and grout looking like new, use Rock Doctor Tile and Grout cleaner. The product is perfect for removing dirt, oil, grease and soap scum from glazed and unglazed tile and colored and traditional grout. Regular use of the cleaner restores the color and appearance of the tile and grout, so it always looks like it did the day you installed it. Look for Rock Doctor Tile and Grout Cleaner at Lowe’s Home Improvement stores. Plus, earn a $2 mail-in rebate with the purchase of each Rock Doctor Item. Just scan the original receipt and email it to Rock Doctor at For more details about this rebate offer, click here.

This article was brought to you by Rock Doctor, which offers a line of specially-formulated stone cleaner, stone polish, and stone sealer products. Rock Doctor stone care products can be purchased through a number of fine retail stores, including Wal-Mart, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Bed Bath & Beyond, Ace Hardware, Do it Best Hardware, Hy-Vee, and Wegmans.