Signage as Art: The Mosaics of the NYC Subway

Mosaics of the NYC Subway

Though signage can certainly be artistic, we don’t often think of it as true “art. New York City is a great place to find millions of signs, many of them true works of art and technology. But to find some of the most beautiful signs, those that combine art and function and also speak of a rich, storied history, visitors go underground to the subway.

When the New York City subway system opened on October 27, 1904, each station was delineated with a mosaic-tile identification sign. Creators George C. Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge thought that the ceramic tile signage would be long-lasting and easy to keep clean. Which they obviously were: they still grace each subway stop, more than 100 years later.

Some of the mosaics are pictorials that connect each subway stop to its geographic features.

For instance, the South Ferry Loop station is decorated with a mosaic that depicts a ship sailing on water.

South_Ferry_IRT_stair_jeh

The Astor Place Station has an identifying mosaic sign:

Astor_Place_IRT_006
Faience name tablet by Heins & LaFarge / Grueby Faience Company, 1904.
Courtesy WikiCommons, author Gryffindor.

…and also has a cool bas-relief that featuring a beaver, which represents the beaver pelts that made John Jacob Astor wealthy. The featured beaver apparently hasn’t been trapped and skinned and made into a man’s hat yet.

Astor_Place_IRT_004_crop
Courtesy of WikiCommons, author Gryffindor.

The Columbia University station at 116th Street has an original mosaic by Heins & LaFarge…

116th_Street_Columbia_University_IRT_002
Courtesy of WikiCommons. Author Gryffindor.

… and also has a plaque of the seal of Columbia University:

116th_Street_Columbia_University_IRT_007
Courtesy WikiCommons. Author Gryffindor.

The Delancey Street station has an identifying sign and also features a glass mosaic called Shad Crossing by artist Ming Fay. The Hudson river was once a home to the fish and was a diet staple for immigrants who settled on the lower east side.

delancey-street-new-york-subway-station-fish-mosaic-bfw
Delancey Street NYC Subway Station Fish Mosaic. Courtesy of Sheila Scarborough.

Some of the original mosaic signs provide directions:

18th Street
Courtesy WikiCommons. Author Gryffindor.
NYC_subway_Pennsylvania_34
Courtesy WikiCommons. Author Gryffindor.

Some of the tile mosaics are just for beauty.

NYC_subway_Pennsylvania_36
Pennsylvania Station. Courtesy WikiCommons. Author Gryffindor.
NYC_subway_Time_Square_54
Times Square Station. Courtesy WikiCommons. Author Gryffindor.

No matter what its origin, artist or purpose, each mosaic in the subway stations of New York is a unique bit of artwork… that also functions as a sign.

 

Nelson James

Nelson James is the chief operating officer of Signs.com and is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company. Prior to joining the Signs.com team, Nelson was the president and co-founder of SEO.com. For over 6 years he helped to grow the company from 2 to over 85 employees. Nelson managed many large accounts during his tenure at SEO.com, including Dell.com. In early 2011, Nelson was recruited to Lendio Inc., where he was VP of marketing and was responsible for the creation and management of a marketing team as well as the strategy, tactics and programs to create interest and demand for Lendio’s products and services. Prior to his work experience, Nelson graduated Cum Laude from Brigham Young University in marketing and advertising from the communications department. Nelson lives in Lehi, Utah with his wife and three children. He currently holds leadership positions in scouting and volunteers in his church and community.