The point has often been made that the material never actually becomes dated or ceases to be in style but rather its use in the context of the original structure can change from traditional to tacky or elegant to antiquated as the surrounding environment is updated by newer and contrasting styles. I tend to agree with this point as a general principle of organization, especially when considering remodeling projects. There are many developments going up everywhere that make use of currently popular natural rock materials such as slate, marble, or lime-stone based tiles like travertine. For the modern house it seems as if subway tiles are not top picks but I think that this stance is very problematic.
House-flippers usually pay little attention to the overall style of a house they want to remodel because they tend to favor newer, more popular materials in their remodeling projects. This however, does not imply that they don’t take style into account just that they favor minor changes that contrast with existing styles. Their goal seems to be to update the whole style of the house by changing the areas that are damaged. This strategy, while seemingly cost-effective limits the purview of the renovation away from the overall style of the house. If the house was originally built with subway tiles (say white 2x6 for example), the tiles fit into a general theme that corresponds to the original distribution of material. Of course, even if it is originally done, it can be done poorly but my point is that part of a renovation project should be to assess what place (if any) do traditional subway tiles have in the new look of the home. In order for this assessment to be complete, one would have to look at the contrast created by new materials against the original style of the home and consider the financial ramifications of having to replace the old for the new or attempting a workable mixture of the two worlds.
My hope is that more developers, homeowners, first-time buyers, and flippers take notice of the need to assess what styles should be preserved and at what cost we get rid of them. The case of subway tiles is a perfect example of this dilemma. As with anything in home décor, it is placement that determines the beauty and continuity of a product. So how does one decide if a material really is fading away from usefulness? I think that there are roughly three ways of quantifying if the material is on its way out or if will still endure: beauty, versatility, and adaptability. Beauty simply stated is the ability of that material to generate a general response of appeal or desire from the onlooker. Versatility and adaptability may seem synonymous but what I mean by the former is the ability of the material to preserve its element of appeal under different forms, patterns, and uses while the latter means its ability to stand as part of a style and blend in rather than contrast sharply against other material. In the end, subway tiles pass all three tests of durability. They have had mass appeal for a very long time due to all three factors and yet their employment goes even further. When we consider that our times are largely times of reproduction of old styles and recycling of old forms, subway tiles seem likely to endure as they have often been a choice of tradition and elegance.