London’s Rich History of Transit Textiles
February 1, 2019 10:42 AM   Subscribe

SL CityLab 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.
posted by Bella Donna (19 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I love the concept, but the one hard requirement of a transit seat to me is that I can tell if it is wet just by looking.
posted by advicepig at 12:44 PM on February 1, 2019 [13 favorites]

People get worked up about the cleanliness of a seat, and I get it, but the only time I had a problem was when I stowed my backpack under the seat of an airplane (where it was supposed to go) and someone in front spilled a soda and got it all soggy. I've never had a problem with a seat, though I have occasionally had problems with fellow passengers. (Says frequent SF F-train rider.)
posted by sjswitzer at 1:41 PM on February 1, 2019

anyone else think the district line moquette looks like a small green creature eternally rushing about distraught looking for, and occasionally being reunited with, a precious lost pet
posted by mosswinter at 1:42 PM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I get "Space Invaders."
posted by sjswitzer at 1:51 PM on February 1, 2019

No dazzle, please - we're British.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:23 PM on February 1, 2019

Back in November, Metafilter's own garius gave the world a very informative (horrifying) thread about bedbugs on the Underground and commuter trains
posted by knapah at 4:05 PM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeeeahh. When I was in London, there was an article about just how filthy fabric seats get. The average tube seat has NINE different body fluids on it (which led to the question of "Jebus, how many different body fluids are there?", and to the Wikipedia page that lists like 40 of them. Humans are disgusting.). I just tried to find that article but instead found: Sun>'train seats are over 6 times filthier than toilet seats' (including 'semen, faeces, and rat urine') Evening Standard>'Nine of the world’s deadliest superbugs found on Tube and Victoria line's the worst', and the Independent>'how dirty is the tube?' has video of brown dust (made of human skin and god kows what) coming out of the seats when hit with a rubber mallet. (Picadilly lIne was the worst in that test)
So yeah, the textiles might be pretty, but they are nowhere near good design.
posted by sexyrobot at 4:23 PM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

So yeah, the textiles might be pretty, but they are nowhere near good design.
I’m not sure what would be good design, though. Hard plastic is easy to clean and uncomfortable as crap. Fabric holds dust and can get wet. Maybe something that’s mildly radioactive so it self-sterilizes over a few hours? No? Well, see, there’s no pleasing some people.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 4:53 PM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Everything biological turns into dirt. You have to accept dirt in your life if you are not a bubble-boy
posted by sjswitzer at 5:14 PM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

(At the same time, I do worry somewhat about lice and bedbugs. But not enough to worry about them on public transportation. I do worry about them on shared helmets, though.)
posted by sjswitzer at 5:19 PM on February 1, 2019

Everything biological turns into dirt.

Makes me think of the funeral song from Cymbeline.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:23 PM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

People get worked up about the cleanliness of a seat, and I get it, but the only time I had a problem...

I get worked up about the cleanliness of seats because I saw someone pee on one.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:22 PM on February 1, 2019

I get worked up about the cleanliness of seats because I saw someone pee on one.

Fair enough. I have not had that unfortunate experience. :(
posted by sjswitzer at 6:30 PM on February 1, 2019

So yeah, the textiles might be pretty, but they are nowhere near good design.

I would argue that many of the textiles are good design based on what the designers were asked to create. The London transit system, like many (most?) transit systems, decided to use textiles for its seating. You cannot blame the textile designers for responding to their actual charge nor the textiles for acting like ... textiles.

That's not a bad-design problem. That is an issue about function and the need to come up with a medium that is naturally cleaner and/or more forgiving based on what we apparently now know about humans, transit, and gunk. If the gunk is not potentially infectious or dangerous but simply disgusting, then maybe the problem is not the material, the problem is the human disgust reflex.

Airlines tend to have bigger budgets than public transit systems. I wonder what they know about textile use and abuse that we don't know.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:38 AM on February 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Perhaps we should lobby our local transit systems for this kind of transit textile, because I am on board with anything that is resistant to fungal growth (it's more boring than the historic London transit designs, however):

Lantal has developed a material with noble, leather-like looks that offers numerous advantages versus conventional leather and artificial leather products: TEC-Leather. The material’s unique cleanability is particularly noteworthy. The surface of TEC-Leather is highly dirt-repellant, which reduces the cleaning effort. Ball-point pen marks and stain residues can be simply whisked away with just a moist cloth. TEC-Leather causes no skin irritation, features good thermal properties and is resistant to fungal growth. Additionally, the suppleness of the soft surface delivers enhanced comfort for the passenger.
posted by Bella Donna at 11:37 AM on February 2, 2019

I have been on public transit where the design of the textile covering the seats has given me so much pleasure and I always thought that I should track down the textile designer to let them know, but of course never had the initiative to do so.

I am a sensitive introvert who is also a graphic designer, so sometimes the small design details that please the eye are lifelines for me in otherwise stressful situations (like public transit, where I have been harassed far too often by men). Sometimes something like a beautiful carpet pattern in an otherwise remarkable public space can lift up my emotions in an almost overwhelming way.

I think for many people they think “who the fuck cares about the textile design?” or they recognize that hiding dirt is the name of the game. But I like to think that textile designers know that there are people living mostly in their head like me who can be profoundly moved by their work. (Though, to be honest, I never think about whether there’s anyone out there who sees my careful design work in the wild and appreciates it beyond the average person, it seems too much to hope for.)

Wonderful post, Bella Donna. I’m enjoying clicking through immensely and that TEC-Leather link was supremely awesome as well!
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 12:30 PM on February 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

Whoa, looking through the online catalogue is a popping candy mouthful of little recognitions. There are a lot of lovely designs there. I'm always impressed by the ones that have a really brief repeat, but somehow manage to look random at a distance. That's hard.
posted by lucidium at 1:28 PM on February 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thank you, TTBHR! (I hope you don't mind the abbreviation.) The subway trains here in Stockholm use a fabric that includes the iconic City Hall and other landmarks as part of the pattern, and it makes me happy whenever I notice.

I found something else about the London transit system and its textiles under the headline Why is train-seat fabric so ugly? (um, it's not always): Moquette (from the French for “carpet”) is the famous weave of most British public transport, and is the choice for other mass transit around the world. “Transport for London has historically adopted a wool moquette fabric,” says Harriet Wallace-Jones, co-founder of Wallace Sewell, UK-based design studio whose scarves and throws are featured in art museums and chic boutiques, and who also design for TFL. “Wool is naturally flame retardant, and moquette is a pile fabric which has more durability than a flat woven cloth. The fabric is usually a mix of cut and uncut pile, which also makes it more durable.”

Meanwhile, Los Angeles has upgraded some of its transit textiles (warning, bedbugs are mentioned): For decades, Metro’s fuzzy fabric seats — rare among major U.S. transit systems — have drawn fascination and disgust from bus and train riders. Novice passengers learn quickly, and often the hard way, to check seats for liquids before sitting down, and to avoid the one unoccupied seat in a crowded car. But not for much longer. Propelled by years of complaints and a sizable dry-cleaning bill, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is preparing to swap out the wool and nylon seats on the subway for sleek, patterned vinyl with a drainage hole to prevent liquids from pooling.

Um, yuck. Also, glad you are enjoying the post, lucidium!
posted by Bella Donna at 1:43 PM on February 2, 2019

I suddenly thought "they should sell cushions with these!" and sure enough they do have a selection of furniture, at some eye watering prices though.
posted by lucidium at 1:52 PM on February 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

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