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Subway tile rises to the height of farmhouse chic

By: Marie Elizabeth Oliver, The Washington Post
April 14, 2018 Updated: April 14, 2018 at 8:49 am
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photo - Studio McGee suggests adding dimension to standard subway tile by using ceramic tile
with a beveled edge, such as Ice White Beveled Subway Tile from Mission Stone & Tile. (MUST CREDIT: Jessica White Photography)
Studio McGee suggests adding dimension to standard subway tile by using ceramic tile with a beveled edge, such as Ice White Beveled Subway Tile from Mission Stone & Tile. (MUST CREDIT: Jessica White Photography) 

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 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 more utilitarian urban spaces in America become synonymous with cozy farmhouse chic? And what is it about these basic white rectangles, which appeared 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 why the tile's popularity 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 farmhouses.

The tile we so fondly refer to as "subway" was pretty much the only option in the 1920s, said Keith Bieneman, managing director of Heritage Tile. "It was used virtually everywhere at the time - kitchens, bathrooms, it was the utilitarian tile of America. It was absolutely more ubiquitous than it is now."

Even though homeowners now have limitless options for tile, there's still really only one choice for those looking to restore an older house to its prewar glory, he 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."

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