Date
10 February 2020
Reading Time
7 minute read
Tags

What’s under your bum? The importance of moquette design on the London Underground

Have you ever noticed what you’re sitting on on a London Tube or bus and thought about why it’s that colour, pattern, or size? Well, suffice to say, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.

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Date
10 February 2020
Reading Time
7 minute read

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God knows how many times I’ve plonked myself down on the battered seat of some form of London transport. Not to bore you with the ins and outs of my life, but all in all, through my school life (Jubilee and Northern lines), party life (Victoria and Central lines), unemployed life (the bus because it was cheap) and current working life (Overground), the tally is currently very high. By the time my working life is over (probably the day I die from chronic crisp consumption or appalling posture), I will have spent approximately 15 per cent of my life on those seats.

Like me, I’m sure many of you have spent hours reading, sleeping, listening to the Wicked soundtrack or drunk on London transport. But how many of us actually know anything about the things we spend so much of our lives sitting on?

GalleryImages © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

The history of moquette is a long and complicated one. Meaning “carpet” in French, it’s the intricately woven fabric designs that line all of the seats in London’s buses and Tube carriages. First introduced to the capital at the turn of the 20th Century, the heavy fabric provides an extra layer of resilience through its hardy tufts. Adorned with a repeat pattern – often a geometric one – in many ways, moquette design is evidence of the various trends that ebb and flow over time.

Away from design, though, the seats of London signify much more than a zeitgeist aesthetic or a point on the Tube map. For many of the capital’s long-term residents, seeing an old design can transport you back to an almost-forgotten memory. For instance, there was a moquette called D78-Stock that upholstered most of the seats of the old Route Master buses, as well as those on the District line in the 80s. Its satisfying design sees neatly stacked bricks of colour alternating between rectangles of burnt orange, black, brown and murky olive green.

When I look at this fuzz of a design, I find myself transported back to my six-year-old self. Having hopped on the back of an open double-decker bus and jostling upstairs beside my equally hyper sister, I’m sitting on the now-defunct moquette design, D-78. I have a feeling I was on my way to the Disney store in Oxford Street, which would explain why I still remember this otherwise insignificant memory to this day.

GalleryImages © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Incidentally, D78, designed in the 70s by Jacqueline Groag, is also the top-seller amongst London Transport Museum’s moquette products. It’s a fact relayed to me by the writer and all-round transport enthusiast Andrew Martin, author of the recently published Seats of London: A field guide to London transport moquette patterns. Andrew, a Yorkshireman by birth, possesses an abundance of knowledge regarding all things trains; a fascination he’s held since his boyhood in York, where he would ride the railways during the late 70s.

“When I was at the [London Transport] museum,” Andrew tells me down the line, “there was a man next to me, looking at a sample of D78 on display. He started talking about it, saying, ‘This was on the bus that I used to take to school and I used to have a silly blazer, which was purple and the girls on the bus used to take the mickey out of it.’”

When Andrew turned to the speaker, thinking he was the intended recipient of the conversation, he quickly realised that the man only a few steps away was talking to himself. “He was taken back in time by seeing this moquette, which he associated with his childhood,” recalls Andrew. As both my own and this nameless onlooker’s experiences relay, moquettes exist powerfully on the periphery of memory. Whether we know it or not, millions of London’s inhabitants have or will form some kind of connection with these patterns, even though there is not that much public knowledge surrounding them.

Andrew thinks about it like this: “If you travel on the Tube every day, and say you have a working life of 30 to 40 years and you use the same line, you will probably see about five different moquettes because they change every five or six years. So the history of moquettes is sort of the story of London in a way that you can associate them with different periods of your life.”

Since moquette was first introduced more than a hundred years ago, it has seen a number of styles curry favour, much like the modes of fashion above ground. In the Victorian days, for instance, it was common for a moquette to feature large floral patterns or sycamore leaves. “If you saw that now, you would freak out,” says Andrew, pointing out how today’s designs are smaller and less adventurous.

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Images © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

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Images © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection: Lozenge on lower deck K-type

Above

Images © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

But back in the day, moquettes were picturesque and figurative. The colour palettes were lighter, a design choice that was quickly erased when transport bigwigs realised it failed to mask dirt. From the 20s, designers were also briefed to create more complicated patterns with a tighter repeat to be more hard-wearing, as in those days, manual workers would board the Tube or bus covered in all sorts of debris that wouldn’t pass health and safety regulations nowadays. Things got really exciting in the 30s though, when a man called Frank Pick came to power as CEO, in turn instigating a design heyday for London transport and changing its public face forever.

Under his hand, London Transport was transformed into a visual system of high design. Also from York, Pick devised the iconic Underground roundel, commissioned the now-ubiquitous typeface Johnston and recruited the leading designers and architects to make work for his beloved underground network. Paul Nash, Enid Marx and Marianne Dorn were just a few of the contemporary giants asked to try their hands at moquette design in that decade.

They were part of Pick’s vision to democratise design, planting it everywhere; under the every man’s bum or across the city’s walls in the form of Art Deco poster art. It’s an era of design that is now synonymous with London, a vintage throwback to the early 20th Century Britain with its hand-painted signage and understated cream coloured posters.

GalleryImages © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

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Colour transparency interior view of a D78 District Line carriage, circa 1980

Pick favoured red and green, Andrew tells me, because it symbolised the town and countryside respectively. “He thought green was soothing because it reminded people of the country. He liked to think that the tubes took people from town, out to the country,” and the colours red and green hinted to this modern life balance. From Andrew’s point of view, the Tube was most confident during the 20s and 30s, in part because there were barely any cars to compete with. “There was a very strong public service ethos,” he reiterates. “It was basically this slightly socialistic idea. Even though it wasn’t a nationalised company (it was a public corporation), there was a strong sense of altruism to do the best for the public, especially in the design. Nothing was too good for the ordinary Londoner.”

Before the societal upheaval of the Second World War, design on the London Underground was distinctly considered. The public toilets were conveniently situated near station entrances and the colour of every bench was carefully planned. The beautifully designed transport system was “like a gift to London from this public corporation,” he adds, “and the moquettes in the 20s and 30s reflected the seriousness with which they took the idea of quality in design.”

GalleryImages © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

As the 20th Century unfurled with war and social and political tensions of all kinds, the dedication to London’s Underground’s design system started to fade. Designers of the day were no longer commissioned, and with this anonymity came a banal distance to the work gone into each design. Wallace Sewell, for example, the leading designer behind most of London’s moquettes today, is barely known for its public-facing work. Made up of Emma Sewell and Harriet Wallace-Jones, the designers see moquette as utilitarian in the sense that it shouldn’t be noticeable. On the other hand, whether this is down to the skill of the design or a sheer lack of curiosity is another question entirely.

It was during the 90s, in Andrew’s opinion, that “moquette design lost its way a bit.” One moquette, Tube Line, is an example of this. You can still see it today on the worn and sunken seats of the Piccadilly line. Especially unpopular due to its haggard blue-gone-murky-grey worn-out areas, the moquette epitomises “commuter drudgery” with its tired scruffiness. “It suddenly came in at a time where there’d been quite a lot of new and refurbished trains. Yet there was no firm idea of what a moquette should look like.” Lacking the coherence of the pre-war decades, the moquette ceased to possess the same grid-based satisfaction or matching interior colour schemes of its previous cohorts.

Elsewhere, another moquette still in use today is Barman. Designed by Emma Sewell, it depicts the London skyline with St. Pauls and Big Ben clearly in sight. In fact, the composition is inspired by Russian constructivism, “a bit of a joke in a way,” says Andrew of the design which features London’s iconic structures rather than tractors or combine harvesters.

Although I have seen this moquette what feels like a million times before, I was indeed taken aback by the amount of thought behind something I’d consistently disregarded up until then. If moquette can teach us anything, it’s to have a little more consideration for the things around us that we take for granted. As Andrew puts it: “If you live in London and you travel on the Tube every day, you should pay attention to it, you should know about it. Otherwise, you’re wasting time.” Maybe the next Frank Pick will arise as CEO in the coming years and commission Grayson Perry or Tracey Emin to design a new moquette, representing the current state of affairs over aestheticism. Moquette holds power in its ubiquitous visibility. If we gave it the chance, it might have the potential to empower communities and inspire thought through its design, and all from right under our bums.

Above

Images © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Above

Images © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

GalleryImages © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

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Images © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

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Further Info

Seats of London: A Field Guide to London Transport Moquette Patterns by Andrew Martin is published by Safe Haven Books at £12.99. It is also available from the London Transport Museum.

About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.

jo@itsnicethat.com

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