From the 1918 red, white and blue roundel symbol, to the 1933 diagrammatic underground train map, and the 1956 Routemaster bus, many of the most familiar design icons of Britain belong to LONDON TRANSPORT in its heyday during the first half of the 20th century.
Now the butt of stand-up comedians’ jokes for scruffiness and inefficiency, in the 1930s the London Transport network of underground trains, buses and trams was regarded as the world’s most progressive public transport system and a role model of enlightened corporate patronage of contemporary art and design.
The red, white and blue roundel symbol designed by Edward Johnston for the Underground in 1918 and adopted by the newly founded London Passenger Transport Board in 1933 has come to symbolise the whole of London, not just its transport system. The same can be said for the diagrammatic London Underground map devised by Harry Beck in the early 1930s, which has since been imitated all over the world as a model of modern map design.
In its golden era of the 1930s, London Transport was also an important patron of contemporary art. Eminent artists such as Man Ray and Graham Sutherland created publicity posters, while Paul Nash designed upholstery fabric for the seats of trains, trams and buses. London Transport commissioned work from noted designers, such as Hans Schleger and László Moholy-Nagy; while the poet, John Betjeman, wrote its tourist leaflets.
Many of the most famous examples of London Transport design were commissioned by Frank Pick (1878-1941), a Lincolnshire-born solicitor, who joined the Underground Group in 1906 and became managing director of the LPTB in 1933. Convinced that London Transport should be an exemplar of design excellence, Pick commissioned work of the highest quality for everything from station architecture, to litter bins. He ensured that it was implemented with great rigour, regularly travelling the length and breadth of the network, often late at night, to check that every detail was up to scratch.
After Pick’s departure in 1940, his work was continued by the publicity manager Christian Barman. Yet standards slipped. With the exception of occasional flashes of inspiration, such as the introduction of the Routemaster Bus in 1956 and the construction of landmark Jubilee Line stations in 2000 – notably by Foster & Partners at Canary Wharf and Michael Hopkins at Westminster – London Transport has lost its reputation for design excellence. It is now best known for the vestiges of its early 20th century design projects.
THE ROUNDEL, 1918
Among the earliest – and most enduring – manifestations of London Transport design is the bar and circle of the roundel symbol, the first version of which was introduced in 1908 with a solid red circle at the centre. In 1918, Frank Pick commissioned the typographer Edward Johnston to revise the roundel so that it was suitable for use both as a company logotype and in station signage.
Johnston replaced the solid red circle with a circular frame and introduced Johnston Sans, the typeface he had designed for the Underground Group two years previously, to spell out the company or station name in white across the central blue bar. The proportions of the new roundel were defined by those of Johnston’s typeface, which had been designed with legibility in mind to be read by busy passengers across crowded platforms. The resilience of Johnston’s roundel was proven in 1935 when the graphic designer Hans Schleger adapted it for use in the first bus stop signs.
DIAGRAMMATIC UNDERGROUND MAP, 1931
By the early 1930s, the London Underground network had expanded so considerably that it had become 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. It was decided that the network was now too large to be represented geographically and Harry Beck (1903-1974), who worked for London Underground as a draughtsman, was commissioned 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. The diagrammatic map was produced on a trial basis in 1933 as a leaflet and Beck continued to refine it until 1959. His design has inspired the maps of underground networks from New York to Sydney, and a variation of his original design is still used by London Underground today.
1930s UPHOLSTERY FABRICS
Obsessed by the need for every element of London Transport’s activities to be designed – and maintained – to the highest possible standard, Frank 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.
When the London Passenger Transport Board was formed in 1933, most of the upholstery fabric used in its vehicles was moquette, woven by the jacquard process from wool and nylon backed by cotton. Moquette was exceptionally durable, but the designs were purchased off-the-peg from the manufacturers. Pick and Barman decided to commission designs specifically for London Transport. They approached prominent designers and artists including Marion Dorn, Norbert Dutton, Enid Marx, Paul Nash and, later, Marianne Straub. Many of their designs – such as Nash’s 1936 Alperton, Marx’s 1937 Brent and Dorn’s 1938 Leaf – were used by London Transport until the late 1950s, when plainer, less obtrusive fabrics were introduced.
1930s PUBLICITY POSTERS
Personally passionate about the visual arts and firmly of the belief that a responsible organisation like London Transport should inspire and educate the people who used its services, Frank Pick was characteristically ambitious in his choice of artists and designers to create posters for the network. Many of the most famous artists of the time, including Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash, accepted his invitation and passengers looked forward to seeing their latest work. Pick organised exhibitions of the posters – and other examples of modern art and design – in the booking office at Charing Cross Station.
Among the first artists to create posters for London Underground was the US-born painter Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954) who was commissioned by Pick in 1915, a year after his arrival in London. Obsessed by cubism, Kauffer introduced many elements of the emerging modern art movement to his posters in a bold, but fluid style. An exceptionally beautiful poster was created by the US surrealist Man Ray in 1938, when he juxtaposed the roundel against an image of a planet in the night sky.
The 1930s was an invigorating period when the British modern movement was enriched by European émigrés fleeing Nazi oppression. Pick and Barman were swift to commission them, including the Hungarian-born László Moholy-Nagy and the German designer Hans Schleger whose 1935 depiction of the refugee ‘Zero’ in Thanks to the Underground is one of the most memorable posters created for London Transport.
1930s STATION ARCHITECTURE
The foundation of London Transport as a new entity in 1933 coupled with the expansion of its network, notably the extension of the Piccadilly Line, offered a rich opportunity for Frank Pick and his team to embark on an ambitious programme of construction and reconstruction of stations, ticket offices and termini. Pick employed the architect Charles Holden (1875-1960) to create a new architectural idiom for the network. “Nothing shall be built, which has not been specifically designed to conform with the architecture scheme,” decreed Pick, who insisted that the design of station signage, furniture and even litter bins should be in keeping with that of the building.
He and Holden made several foreign trips to investigate the modern architecture of Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. The result was a succession of uncompromisingly modern buildings such as the gleaming brick and glass stations at Boston Manor, Sudbury Town, Arnos Grove, Southgate and Oakwood. The chief characteristics of their British take on continental European modernism were sweeping curves with geometric detailing, exposed brickwork and concrete which, at the time, seemed daringly modern.
ROUTEMASTER BUS, 1956
The double-decker bus, which has become such an evocative symbol of London, was first introduced in 1925 when the London General Omnibus Company finally secured official approval for buses with covered top decks. The first double-decker was the NS-type, but the most memorable was introduced thirty years later when the Routemaster took to the road.
Developed over nine years from 1947 to 1956 by a team led by the industrial designer Douglas Scott (1913-1990) and bus engineer Albert Arthur Durrant, the Routemaster was designed with mass-production in mind. By constructing a bus from the maximum number of interchangeable parts, they cut the cost not only of the initial tooling and manufacturing, but of repairs and maintenance too. They also equipped it with the latest automotive engineering innovations such as power steering, an automatic gearbox, hydraulic brakes, independent springs and heating controls.
Passengers loved the Routemaster for Scott's distinctive ‘brick’ silhouette, with a flatter front and less prominent engine than its predecessors, and for its appealing interior features. Scott styled the interior in tartan moquette, red leathercloth and Chinese yellow with soft tungsten lighting and shiny stainless steel fittings. He also finessed such details as the ‘lovers’ seat’ at the back and wind-down windows. The Routemaster remained in active service for nearly fifty years. After several reprieves, it was finally withdrawn in 2004.
1906 Frank Pick arrives at the Underground Group as assistant to Sir George Gibb, the new deputy chairman.
1908 Pick is appointed publicity manager of the Underground Group. The first version of the roundel ‘bar and circle’ symbol is introduced with a solid red circle.
1915 Edward McKnight Kauffer starts to design posters for the Underground Group.
1916 Pick 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 1908.
1925 Architect Charles Holden starts work on the design of stations for the Morden line extension. Introduction of the first double-decker bus in London, the NS-type.
1928 Charles Holden designs a new headquarters for the Underground Group above St James Park tube station at 55 Broadway.
1930 Construction begins on the extension of the Piccadilly Line to the north and west.
1931 Sudbury Town opens as the first landmark Piccadilly Line station. Draughtsman Harry Beck starts work on the design of a diagrammatic map to guide passengers around the sprawling Underground network.
1933 Merger of the Underground Group 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.
1934 Introduction of the bus shelter to protect passengers from the wind and rain.
1935 Bus stops, designed by Hans Schleger as a variation of Johnston’s roundel, are piloted on the route between Euston Road and Seven Sisters Road, then introduced throughout the network.
1938 Introduction 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 dies the following year.
1947 Work begins on the design of the Routemaster bus.
1956 The Routemaster bus is introduced to service.
1962 The government gives the go-ahead for the construction of the Victoria Line with then-radical automatic ticket machines and barriers and one-person trains.
1979 Opening of the first stretch of the Jubilee Line.
2000 Opening of the landmark stations of the Jubilee Line extension – notably Southwark, Bermondsey, Westminster and Canary Wharf – to link the West End with South East London and Docklands. London Transport is replaced by the newly constituted Transport for London.
Visit the London's Transport Museum website at www.ltmuseum.co.uk
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 + Michael Robbins, A History of London Transport, Vol 2: The Twentieth Century to 1970, Allen and Unwin, 1974
Christian Barman, The Man Who Built London Trasnport – A Biography of Frank Pick, David & Charles, 1979
Laurence Menear, London’s Underground Stations, Midas Books, 1983
Oliver Green, Underground Art, Studio Vista, 1989
Douglas Rose, The London Underground: A Diagrammatic History, Douglas Rose, London 1986
Les Burwood + Carol Brady, London Transport Maps: A concise Catalogue, Burwood + Brady, Woking, 1992
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