New York City Subway tiles

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Faience plaque with beaver at Astor Place

Many New York City Subway stations are decorated with colorful ceramic plaques and tile mosaics. Of these, many take the form of signs, identifying the station's location. Much of this ceramic work was in place when the subway system originally opened on October 27, 1904. Newer work continues to be installed each year, much of it cheerful and fanciful.[1][2]


Atlantic Avenue – Barclays Center station identification

Heins & LaFarge (1901–1907)[edit]

The earliest ceramic work was done by Heins & LaFarge (artists George C. Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge), starting in 1901 and continuing up to 1907. Heins and LaFarge were both relatives of John LaFarge (brother-in-law and son, respectively), a leading stained-glass artisan of the day. They were part of the Arts and Crafts movement and worked in the Beaux-Arts architecture style, both of which were very much in vogue at the turn of the Twentieth Century. At the time of their hiring they had completed large projects at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Bronx Zoo. As well as designing the artistic motifs, Heins & LaFarge also did much of the architectural work that determined the overall appearance of entire subway stations.

They knew what materials would stand up well to heavy-duty cleaning and scrubbing; they worked with the ceramic-producing firms Grueby Faience Company of Boston and Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati. Their ceramic artwork includes colorful pictorial motifs relevant to a station's location, for example:

Their bas-reliefs in the subway have been likened to the work of the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Della Robbia. Much of their tile work was station-identifying signs to guide passengers. Besides serving an aesthetic function, the images are helpful to New York City's large population of non-English speakers and those who can't read. A traveler can be told to "get off at the stop with the picture of a beaver."

As well as pictorial plaques and ceramic signs, Heins and LaFarge designed the running decorative motifs, such as egg-and-dart patterns, along station ceilings.

Squire Vickers (1906–1942)[edit]

In 1906 Squire J. Vickers, then a young architect, was hired. Vickers showed much respect for Heins and LaFarge, but his work consists much more of mosaics; he did not use bas-relief, citing the need for easy cleaning. In his pictorial work, Vickers emphasizes actual buildings as landmarks, such as his colorful depiction of Brooklyn Borough Hall (1919) at the station of that name, rather than Heins & LaFarge's beavers and sailing ships. He describes his technique:

Vickers continued to work on subway projects for 36 years, until 1942.

IND tiles[edit]

The tiles used in the Independent Subway System (IND) are all in a specific pattern. With one exception, these groupings follow the same order: (going outbound): Purple, Blue, Green, Yellow, and Red. The exception is on the IND Fulton Street Line: Utica Avenue/Ralph Avenue/Rockaway Avenue (red family) is followed by blue family stations, Broadway Junction, Liberty Avenue, Van Siclen Avenue, and Shepherd Avenue, then purple (Euclid Avenue), then green (Grant Avenue). As one goes away from Manhattan, the color of the tiles changes; thus, a local station that comes directly west of an express station has the same color tiles as the next express station away from Manhattan. This is presumably to facilitate transfers for travelers going away from Manhattan. Express stations have wider tile bands than local stations, except on certain stations on the lower portion of the IND Eighth Avenue Line, where the station walls have been refurbished. Tablets are simple, with a common design, and black tile with white letters spell out the station name on the wall.[3][4]

Most pre-1955 IND stations have tile plaques with the station name, as well as a colored stripe with black borders, on the platforms or track walls. Tile plaques only exist in stations where there is a wall next to the platform. The number of tiles between the stripes are 2 tiles for local stations and three for express/transfer stations. Several original stations that were renovated, such as Lexington Avenue / 53rd Street, have no color.

The IND Crosstown Line, having no express stations, uses three forms of green in its tile bands, with light green indicating transfer stations. (Broadway was planned as a transfer to an IND Second System line; thus, the walls at Broadway have three rows of tiles, rather than the two rows of tiles found on other Crosstown Line stations' walls).

Exhibition (2007)[edit]

Two exhibitions, one celebrating the work of Heins & LaFarge and one for Vickers, were mounted at the New York Transit Museum's Gallery Annex[5] at Grand Central Terminal during 2007.

Bilingual Canal Street (BMT Broadway Line) station ID

Future stations' tiles[edit]

New stations on the Second Avenue Subway will have porcelain tiles and built-in artwork.[6]

The walls adjacent to the tracks at new 34th Street station have white tiles arranged in sets of three columns of 3 tiles each. There are two-tile-high gray squares containing white "34"‍ '​s in the middle of each set of columns.[7]

South Ferry station has white porcelain tiles separated by rows of metal.


Several subway stations have new ceramics and mosaics, bringing color and cheer underground.


Further reading[edit]

  • Sapulding, Lee (2010). Subway Mosaics: New York City, CreateSpace. ISBN 9781453730881
  • Stookey, Lee (1994). Subway Ceramics. North Haven, CT: William J. Mack Co.

External links[edit]