Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
London Transport Museum’s wonderfully nerdy archive commemorates an aspect of the city’s appearance that has long been both omnipresent and scarcely noticed.
Designing a practical and attractive seat covering for public transit has never been the easiest of briefs. When designer Enid Marx was commissioned in 1937 to create textiles for use on London’s Tube and Buses, she was told it had to look fresh “at all times, even after the bricklayers had sat on it.” It also had to look bright and attractive, but avoid what the network called “dazzle”—the potentially nauseating effect a garish, busy design might have on passengers eyes when in motion. The brief—and Marx’s and others responses to it—helped to create a visual identity for London’s public transit through textile design, one that still continues today.
Over the past year the London Transport Museum has been exploring this visual legacy as part of a project called, Celebrating Britain’s Transport Textile. Diving into the museum’s archive of over 400 moquettes, its researchers have created a new online resource compiling designs and photographs, as well as recorded interviews with designers instrumental in their creation. The results are a rich and wonderfully nerdy archive that has unearthed some forgotten designs, vividly commemorating an aspect of London’s appearance that has long been both omnipresent and scarcely noticed.
The collection reveals some clear trends. Since the 1930s, London Underground’s chosen designs have become more muted, their print components smaller—textiles such as the Joy Jarvis shield design are somewhat punchier than those favored today. By contrast, their awareness of visual branding—already present and somewhat radical in the 1930s—has grown stronger. TfL experimented, for example with creating distinctive moquettes to identify each line in the 1990s, creating vibrant coverings like one from Warwick Design Consultants that was deployed on the Jubilee line in 1996. More recently, actual city landmarks such as the London Eye have started appearing on the moquette.
Despite these shifts, there is nonetheless a degree of continuity that makes many textile designs immediately recognizable to Londoners as belonging to the city. Checked and gridded patterns appear consistently, gradually evolving over the years to resemble a sort of pixelated plaid. Another largely unsung phenomenon appears as well: a highly significant contribution to the network’s identity by women designers. Just as female artists created many of the network’s best loved poster designs, women such as Enid Marx, Joy Jarvis, Marion Dorn and Marianne Straub played a central role in deciding just how train and bus interiors would look, working alongside talented male designers (including Paul Nash and Douglas Scott) to help define a British vision of modernity.
The kind of work they created rarely leads to stardom or major exhibitions, but millions of riders have sat on these objects for years without a second thought. And in that process, these designs have sneaked into the subconscious of Londoners and their understanding of the city’s visual identity.