Subway Tiles? Not in My Kitchen

White subway tiles in Budapest's Oktogon subway station. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Subway tiles — and grimy grout — in Budapest’s Oktogon station. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Subway tiles. You see them everywhere — in people’s houses and all over TV shows like “Property Brothers,” “Flip or Flop,” and “House Hunters Renovation.”

But there’s one place you’ll never see them — in my kitchen. And one other place — my bathroom. That’s because subway tiles remind me of actual subways — the oily, greasy, steamy, sooty, jam-packed subways of my New York city young adulthood.

A Pop of Glamour?

For me, subway tiles and the century-old subterranean transit systems they evoke are no way to add a pop of glamour to a kitchen or bath. Subway tiles 

The stairway and entrance to Budapest's Oktogon subway station features white subway tiles and black tile borders. Photo by Barbara Newhall

The entrance to the Oktogon station features white subway tiles with decorative black tile borders. The station dates to 1896. Photo by Barbara Newhall

suggest grim, florescent-lit underground caves where once-shiny tiles are now chipped around the edges and held together by grout that’s been grimy for decades.

Some of the world’s undergrounds make a valiant attempt at art — Moscow’s is one. Other subways are relatively new and sleek — San Francisco’s. But most metro stations are battle scarred and antique. New York’s. Budapest’s.

Still, subway tile evokes a certain nostalgia for me. A 2015 visit to Budapest took me

A battered balustrade and subway tiles on a sidewalk entrance to a Budapest subway. Yellow paint is peeling away. Photo by Barbara Newhall

A battered balustrade on a sidewalk entrance to the Oktogon station. Photo by Barbara Newhall

on a sentimental journey back in time to my car-less youth as a twenty-something New Yorker. I caught a train at Budapest’s Oktogon station built in 1896 and there they were — the battered metal balustrades, the low ceilings — the subway tiles.

As a young, impecunious New Yorker, I needed to get where I was going fast and cheap. So I, along with millions of other New Yorkers, was happy to crowd myself, into shabby, pre-World War II subway stations and trains. Subway tiles — cheap, sanitized, institutional — were part of the commute experience, to be suffered through. Endured, not admired.

Trendy Subway Tiles

Avocado green appliances were a thing in the ’70s. Hollywood vanity lights made it big in the ’90s. Granite countertops (like mine) scream the 2000s. And now, subway tiles are all the rage. They’re popular today, but in 2030 will subway tiled walls look as dated and pathetic as an avocado kitchen range does in 2017?

More about home decorating at “Getting a New Kitchen? Here Are the Five Things I Like Best About Mine.”  Also, “The Dracena Is Dead. Long Live the Dracena.”

Experience the subway tile trend at “Househunters Renovation,” “Flip or Flop” and “Property Brothers.” 

Up close shot of subway tiles in Budapest metro station with grimy grout and Oktogon station sign. Photo by Barbara Newhall



  1. Diane Erwin Sundholm says:

    I agree with you. To me, hey bring back memories of sitting in the tunnel from Detroit to Windsor, with icky looking water leaking down the side. Always kind of creepy thinking about those leaks becoming torrents of water pouring in. The tiles are, or were, bile green and some unknown shade of yellow. You may have been experienced this yourself.

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