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Playful plates
Classic subway tile endures


April 2016

There are few design essentials that transcend interior styles as effortlessly as the subway tile. It is as equally at home in a contemporary bathroom as it is in a traditional country kitchen. But to say subway tile is making a comeback may be disregarding its endurance throughout a century of American design.

Also called "metro tiles," the 3- by 6-inch ceramic plates became ubiquitous with the urban landscape beginning in the early 1900s, when they were plastered throughout New York City homes, buildings and travel stations. Noted for their simplicity, durability and uniformity, the tiles soon garnered wide appeal, and they’ve never quite fallen out of fashion.

"It is quite possibly the hardest working surface covering in America," says Kate Shortall of Blackstone International Inc. in Waukesha.

"Today’s subway tiles come in a variety of colors and materials, including ceramic, stone and glass," says Robin Swernoff, president of Lakeside Stoneworks LLC in Brown Deer.

While the tiles can be positioned in countless ways — including crosshatch, stack bond and herringbone patterns — classic horizontal variations remain the most popular approach, she says.

That doesn’t mean a backsplash has to be boring, however.

Subway tiles’ versatility makes incorporating them an incredibly easy way to add personality to a room. For example, owners can reveal a modern edge with metallic tiles, or get a little artsy with a trio of colors arranged in blocks or stripes.

"Anybody can find a look in their budget," Swernoff says.

Though some homeowners may attempt to install tiles DIY-style, Swernoff recommends hiring a professional. It can be difficult to get tiles lined up just right, she says.

With so many subway tile styles to choose from, the design possibilities are seemingly endless.

"Whether a modern, traditional or historical project, the subway tile withstands," Shortall says. "It is still, and will always be, a classic." M



This story ran in the April 2016 issue of: