As head of the London Underground in the 1910s and 1920s and of the newly merged London Transport in the 1930s, FRANK PICK (1878-1941) was instrumental in establishing the world’s most progressive public transport system and an exemplar of design management.
From the red, white and blue roundel that has symbolised the London Underground since the 1910s and the diagrammatic map which enabled 1930s Londoners to find their way around the fast-expanding underground train network, to publicity posters and upholstery fabrics created by famous artists such as Man Ray and Edward Nash, many of the best known – and best loved – images of London were commissioned by one man, Frank Pick.
Hailed by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner in 1942 as “the greatest patron of the arts whom this century has so far produced in England and indeed the ideal patron of our age”, Pick disdained formal honours and refused to accept both a knighthood and a peerage. His working days were long and arduous, often ending in the early hours of the next morning with a ‘spot inspection’ of a far flung station to check that the staff had followed his specifications down to the tiniest detail of the signage and litterbins.
Frank Pick’s modesty, drive and diligence stemmed from his childhood in a devout Congregationalist family in the Lincolnshire town of Spalding, where he was born in 1878. Pick studied law at London University and qualified as a solicitor in 1902 when he joined the North Eastern Railway as a management trainee. After a stint in the traffic statistics office, he became personal assistant to the general manager Sir George Gibb. When Gibb was appointed chairman of the Underground Group, which ran the London Underground, in 1906 he invited his ambitious young assistant to accompany him.
Two years later Pick was appointed publicity officer with responsibility for the marketing of the Underground Group. He had no experience in the field, but Gibb gave him the job after Pick had complained that the company’s marketing strategy was inconsistent. Pick began by deploying a successful promotional strategy of the North Eastern Railway, which used coloured lithographic posters to persuade people to travel to seaside resorts, like Scarborough, on its network. As so many Londoners had no choice but to use the Underground to get to work, Pick realised that the easiest way to increase passenger traffic was to persuade them to use it in their leisure time for day trips and weekend jaunts to parks, museums, cinemas, suburban beauty spots and historic houses.
Pick set aside some of the advertising poster hoardings in Underground stations for the company’s use and filled them with colourful images of London’s attractions. The first posters were designed by freelance commercial artists employed by the printers. Pick recognised that the posters would be more effective if each was designed in the same graphic style, and that it would be less confusing for passengers if they were positioned in particular parts of the stations. He installed illuminated boards at the entrances for London Underground’s own posters and maps. Other advertisements were restricted to special grids on platforms and passages to distinguish them from Underground signage. “After many fumbling experiments I arrived at some notion of how poster advertising ought to be,” Pick recalled years later. “Everyone seemed quite pleased and I got a reputation that really sprang out of nothing.”
Emboldened by this success, Pick commissioned the calligrapher Edward Johnston (1872-1944) to develop a typeface specifically for use by London Underground in 1916. He asked Johnston for a font with “the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods” while “belonging unmistakably to the 20th century”. Inspired by classical letter forms, Johnston Sans consists of plain block letters of Roman proportions in which the main strokes are of equal thickness and there are no end strokes or serifs. Designed to optimise legibility for passengers who would see it across crowded platforms or walking briskly, Johnston Sans is based on squares and circles. The capital M is a square with the diagonal strokes meeting in the centre and the O is a perfect circle. The first version of Johnston Sans was unveiled in 1916 and applied to signage and posters throughout the network. A variation of the original, named New Johnston, is still used by London Underground today.
Impressed by his work on the new typeface, Pick asked Johnston in 1918 to redesign the roundel symbol originally introduced by the Underground Group in 1907. Johnston replaced the solid red disc with a white circle framed by red and applied his Railway lettering to the station name in the same palette on white on a dark blue bar. Again this was introduced throughout the network to ensure that all Underground signage was as clear and consistent as possible.
The posters too became more ambitious. Pick’s strategy of persuading commuters to visit London’s attractions during their leisure time had proved extremely successful. Dissatisfied with the posters produced by the commercial artists hired by the printers, he started to commission them himself, from established and emerging artists, who soon considered it prestigious to be invited to work for the Underground Group.
Some commissions were given to celebrated poster artists, notably Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954) who worked for the Underground from 1915. Having begun by working in a decorative style, he swiftly absorbed the influence of the emerging cubist movement and, during the 1930s, introduced many Londoners to modern art in his work for the Underground. Pick also persuaded famous artists to accept commissions, including the US-born surrealist Man Ray (1890-1977), whose juxtaposition of planets at night with the roundel symbol is among the most beautiful of the posters commissioned by Pick, and the eminent British painter Graham Sutherland (1903-1980).
Pick was proud of his posters and saw them as part of the network’s responsibility of educating the public. To this end he organised exhibitions of modern art and design, including the posters, in the booking hall at Charing Cross Underground station. “No exhibition of modern painting, no lecturing, no school teaching can have anything like so wide an influence on the educationable masses as the unceasing production and display of London Underground posters over the years,” pronounced Nikolaus Pevsner.
Pick’s achievements were recognised not only within the UK – where he became a founder-member of the Design and Industries Association in 1915 and, in 1932, founding chairman of the Council for Art and Industry, a forerunner of the Design Council – but internationally. He was invited to advise foreign governments on the construction of underground networks, including Stalin’s regime in the then-Soviet Union, which awarded Pick an honourary badge of merit in 1932 for his work on the Moscow Metro.
For years, the Underground Group had taken over smaller companies running bus and tram networks in London. In 1933, all the city’s transport companies – five underground railway companies, seventeen tramways and sixty-six bus companies – were merged into one, the London Passenger Transport Board and Frank Pick was appointed as managing director. The challenge of merging these companies into a coherent network, which could then expand to meet the fast-growing city’s future transport needs, gave him an even bigger canvas to work on.
Adopting Edward Johnston’s roundel as the symbol of the new LPTB – or London Transport, as it was called for short – Pick proceeded to instil the new company which the same high design standards that had proved so successful at the Underground Group. The German-born graphic designer Hans Schleger (1898-1976), who had created witty collaged posters for Pick, was commissioned to convert Edward Johnston’s roundel symbol into the bus stop signs which were being introduced throughout London, as it was no longer practicable for buses to stop wherever passengers hailed them.
Determined that every element of London Transport’s activities should be designed – and maintained – to the highest possible standard, Pick insisted that even apparently minor fixtures were specially made for the new network, including the fabrics to upholster the seats of its buses and trains. Helped by his publicity officer Christian Barman, Pick approached prominent designers and artists including Marion Dorn, Norbert Dutton, Enid Marx, Paul Nash and, later, Marianne Straub, to design distinctive upholstery fabrics for the network in durable moquette. Many of their fabrics were used by London Transport until the late 1950s, when plainer, less obtrusive designs were introduced.
Another priority was helping passengers to navigate the new network. By the early 1930s, the London Underground network had expanded so much that it was increasingly difficult to squeeze all the new lines and stations into a geographical map. Passengers complained that the existing map was crowded, confusing and hard to read. Having decided that the network was too big to be represented geographically, Pick commissioned Harry Beck (1903-1974), who worked for London Underground as a draughtsman, to devise a new diagrammatic means of doing so.
Basing his map on an electrical circuit, Beck represented each line in a different colour and interchange stations as diamonds. The crowded central area was enlarged for legibility and the course of each route was simplified into the form of a vertical, horizontal or diagonal. Concerned that a diagrammatic map would be too radical, Beck’s colleagues suggested that it be introduced on a trial basis as a leaflet in 1933. It proved so popular that it was swiftly adopted as the standard Underground map and Beck continued to refine it until the late 1950s. Variations of his original design are still used by the undergrounds in New York, Stockholm, Sydney and London today.
Throughout his time at the Underground Group and then London Transport, Pick championed the network’s expansion by building new lines and new stations out into the suburbs wherever new housing developments emerged. At a time when public buildings in Britain were still designed in a traditional monumental style, Pick was determined that the architecture of the new stations should reflect the modern, progressive spirit of the rest of the network. Working closely with the architect Charles Holden (1875-1960), he commissioned a succession of landmark stations in the modern style. He and Holden travelled in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands to seek inspiration there and to define a modern architectural style for Britain.
Their showpiece was the extension of the Piccadilly Line to the north and west from 1930. The new stations at Sudbury Town, Arnos Grove, Southgate, Oakwood and along the rest of the Piccadilly Line adapted the geometric detailing, exposed brickwork and sweeping curved, cylindrical and rectangular structures that Pick and Holden had admired on their travels. Other stations were rebuilt and expanded, notably Hammersmith, which was designed by Stanley A. Heaps with the walls, columns and ceiling of the ticket hall made from exposed concrete – a daringly modern statement for the time.
Firmly of the belief that every element of a building should be coherent in its design, Holden ensured that the ticket kiosks, lighting, benches and even the litterbins at the stations were integrated with the architecture. Pick also commissioned state-of-the-art trains, trams and buses for the network, each of which was more spacious and streamlined than its predecessors with wider doors and windows, more storage space and more comfortable seats.
Frank Pick resigned from London Transport on a point of principle in 1940 and was appointed director of the Ministry of Information, an important post in Britain’s war effort. Having already marshalled the sprawling London Transport network to evacuate tens of thousands of children from central London to less dangerous wartime homes in the countryside. Pick tackled his new post with characteristic zeal and courage, often clashing with senior politicians, including the prime minister Winston Churchill. Sadly he held the post for just a year before his death in 1941, after the publication of his book, Paths to Peace, a personal manifesto of his beliefs and approach to planning.
1878 Born into a Congregationalist family in Spalding, Lincolnshire.
1902 Qualifies as a lawyer and joins the North Eastern Railway in York as a management trainee.
1906 When Sir George Gibb, general manager of the North Eastern Railway is appointed deputy chairman of the Underground Group in London, he takes Pick with him as his assistant.
1908 Pick is appointed publicity manager of the Underground Group.
1915 Edward McKnight Kauffer starts to design posters for the Underground Group. Posters are later commissioned from other eminent designers and artists including Man Ray, Graham Sutherland, Hans Schleger, Tom Eckersley and László Moholy-Nagy.
1916 Commissions the typographer Edward Johnston to develop a super-legible typeface for use throughout the Underground – Johnston Sans.
1918 Edward Johnston begins work on the redesign of the roundel symbol used by the Underground Group since the late 1900s.
1925 Pick invites the architect Charles Holden to design stations for the Morden line extension.
1928 Charles Holden designs a new headquarters above St James Park tube station.
1930 Work begins on the extension of the Piccadilly Line to the north and west.
1931 Sudbury Town opens as the first landmark Piccadilly Line station. The draughtsman Harry Beck starts work on the design of a diagrammatic map to guide passengers around the sprawling Underground network.
1933 The Underground Group merges with four other underground companies and numerous bus and tram companies to form the London Passenger Transport Board with Frank Pick as managing director. Edward Johnston’s roundel is adopted as the new network’s symbol and Harry Beck’s map is piloted as a leaflet.
1935 Bus stops, designed by Hans Schleger, are introduced throughout the network, as it is no longer practical for buses to stop randomly.
1938 Introduction of new streamlined, more spacious tube trains, which remained in service on the Bakerloo and Northern Lines for fifty years.
1939 Man Ray completes the London Transport – Keeps London Going poster juxtaposing Johnston’s roundel against a planet in a night sky.
1940 Pick resigns from the LTPB on a point of principle and is appointed director of the Ministry of Information.
1941 Death of Frank Pick.
Visit the London's Transport Museum website at ltmuseum.co.uk
Christian Barman, The Man Who Built London Trasnport – A Biography of Frank Pick, David & Charles, 1979
James Laver, Art For All: The Story of London Transport Posters, Shenval Press, 1949
Nikolaus Pevsner, Frank Pick, Studies in Art, Architecture and Design, Vol 2: Victorian and After, Thames & Hudson, 1968
T. C. Barker and Michael Robbins, A History of London Transport, Vol 2: The Twentieth Century to 1970, Allen and Unwin, 1974
Laurence Menear, London’s Underground Stations, Midas Books, 1983
Oliver Green, Underground Art, Studio Vista, 1989
Ken Garland, Mr Beck’s Underground Map, Capital Transport Publishing, 1994
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain