Bottom Line: Upholstering the Underground
Image: Refurbished 1967 Victoria Line tube stock c 1993
On this day in 1909 one of Britain's most influential designer/ weavers was born. To celebrate the birth of Marianne Straub, who will be the subject of an online talk by the Gordon Russel Design Museum tomorrow, we take a look back at the article Bottom Line: Upholstering the Underground from Issue 19 Home Grown. Even 90 years after her birth, in the year 2000 Straub's ubiquitous designs were still in use on some London tubes and buses. Read on, or view the article in its entirety here.
The Underground network carries almost a billion passengers a year and that figure represents an awful lot of wear and tear on the rolling stock. Of course every passenger is keen to rest their feet but what kind of fabric can withstand that many bums on seats?
The answer is moquette (French for carpet), a durable wool fabric with a structure particularly suited to transport systems around the world. Its basic advantage is a combination of cut and loop piles that make it extremely hard wearing – a property reinforced by the distinctive coloured patterns that conceal dirt and stains the origin of which it is best not to dwell on, or if you can help it, sit on. Patterned moquettes also suffer less from the problem coyly referred to in the industry as “seating”– when areas of flattened pile reflect more light and display the clear outline of passengers’ derriéres – when it does occur apparently a thorough steam clean can raise the pile and remove the image.
Image: Moquette designed by Marianne Straub c1965 and used in 1972-1973 tube and London buses, c 1966 - 1970s.
Before the widespread use of moquette fabric on London Transport, a variety of seating materials had been tried, including unpadded timber benches, sprung seats upholstered with cotton and silk velvets, leather and imitation leather, rexine (a robust laquered cloth); even rattan was once used on trains and buses – you can imagine how swiftly vandals would dispense with cane woven seats today. All of these alternatives were gradually superseded by mass-produced moquette.
The earliest fabrics were bought off the peg from the manufacturers, who employed their own designers. The moquette they produced in the 1920s and early '30s reflected current fashions in home furnishings and were usually floral or art deco in style. The first moquette design to be created specifically for Underground trains was called 'Lozenge' and was produced in 1923 by Firth's Furnishings Ltd in Yorkshire. It soon became the standard moquette used on the trains, buses, trams and trolleybuses owned by the Underground Group. Practicality was its biggest selling point; Lozenge had been designed with a small motif offering savings on cutting and pattern matching. By 1926 all new Underground Group cars were fitted with Lozenge pattern moquette.
Image: Piccadilly line carriage featuring Straub's moquette, 1975.
Utilitarian thought its adoption might have been it was the aesthetic potential that inspired London Transport's Chief Executive, Frank Pick. In 1936 he turned his attention to the interiors of buses and trains. He invited artists and textile designers to submit their ideas for new seating upholstery. These designers had no specific experience of designing moquette but Pick persuaded manufacturers and designers to work together to produce not only hard wearing, but also aesthetically pleasing materials. Pick and his Publicity Officer, Christian Barman, began by commissioning artists such as Marion Dorn, Norbert Dutton, Enid Marx and Paul Nash to create designs for the new Underground trains.
Bottom Line: Upholstering the Underground was originally published in Issue 19 Home Grown
Find out more about the Gordon Russell Design Museum's talk here: Marianne Straub RDI: A Designer's Designer - an online talk by Mary Schoeser - Gordon Russell Design Museum - Art Tickets