Think of public transport in London and in short order you’ll be thinking of great design. The Roundel, the London Underground map, and the Routemaster bus are all design classics. And then there’s the work of Frank Pick, who defined the brand of the London Underground in the early 20th century. It was Pick who asked Edward Johnston to design the Underground’s distinctive typeface, which will be 100 years old in 2016 and is an icon of London to this day, and Pick who established London Underground’s relationship with artists and designers, commissioning posters from eminent figures of the day including Man Ray, Graham Sutherland, Tom Eckersley and László Moholy-Nagy.
Pick’s work, and that of those that followed him, has left Transport for London with an unusually rich design collection. Part of this is on show at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, which showcases heritage buses and trains as well as a selection of classic posters and other memorabilia. The rest is housed in an old tube depot in Acton Town, containing over 320,000 items.
BELOW: Projects created out of TfL’s licensing department, including an Aga cooker featuring the LU Roundel; Mr Men in London books; Pop-up London Transport Canteen; Kirkby Design sofa, inspired by moquette fabrics used historically on the tube; Nike trainers featuring a pattern inspired by Misha Black’s textile designs.
It’s easy to think of TfL’s relationship with design as a heritage story. Pick looms so large that even though the organisation continues to commission striking artworks for its advertising and messaging, the classic posters are the ones that tend to stick in the mind. But TfL continues to have an interesting ongoing relationship with contemporary art and design today, through programmes such as Art on the Underground, which commissions new artworks for spaces in the Underground, and also through its licensing programme.
BELOW: The Lost Collection, an art show held at KK Outlet in 2011 featuring artworks found on London Transport; Photo from the Lost Collection show; More Kirkby Design furniture
The latter is less lauded than Art on the Underground, but has thrown up a series of eclectic and unusual projects, often created in collaboration with brands. Usually licensing is associated with souvenirs – and there of plenty of tube-themed items around – but TfL also looks for other, more exceptional projects to work on too, to help emphasise its heritage but also support emerging designers.
This programme is run by Saskia Boersma, brand development manager at TfL, who describes her work as a search for “brand extension opportunities”. On the surface this might sound pretty corporate, but take a look at the kind of projects she has commissioned and it becomes obvious it is anything but.
All are rooted in the TfL collection. At times this link is obvious – a pair of Nike trainers featuring a pattern inspired by Misha Black’s distinctive 1970s London Underground textile designs, for instance – while elsewhere it is obscure. In 2011, the KK Outlet in London held an exhibition titled ‘The Lost Collection’, featuring artworks that had washed up in the Lost Property Office after being left on public transport in London, created in collaboration with Boersma’s department. The exhibition worked as both a fun conceptual art show but also as an oblique ad campaign for TfL’s lost property services.
“I took KesselsKramer [who run KK Outlet] to the lost property office in Baker Street, which is amazing, and they had an idea,” says Boersma. “It was a campaign for the lost property office but it was the most unusual campaign that we’d ever done. Sometimes you find other people to work with that can bring a new dimension.”
Without having a large budget to commission new works, Boersma and her team have to be imaginative in searching out partners to work with on projects. The aim is always to create revenue, so the works created are primarily commercial, and are nearly always objects or experiences that can be sold. But alongside making money, they also always reinforce TfL’s relationship with design.
“My job has been to look at the portfolio of what we have, look at who we can work with, who we can join forces with,” she continues. “It’s a revenue generating exercise, but I think more broadly than that it’s to do with brand values and about keeping alive a tradition that would die otherwise…. Frank Pick believed in great design, he believed that great design made the customer experience better, that’s what we’re aiming to do again.”
Several of the projects produced by the licensing department are also used to promote an aspect of TfL’s history that may have been forgotten. TfL joined forces with Aga to create a limited edition series of cookers featuring the LU roundel, for example, with the link there being Douglas Scott, who designed both the Routemaster bus and the Aga cooker.
Another historical project saw TfL collaborate with the restaurant chain Canteen to create a pop-up TfL restaurant at Clerkenwell Design Week in 2013. TfL had canteens until the 1970s and the company even had its own cookbook, created in the 1950s, which the Canteen chefs drew on for inspiration for the menu at the pop-up.
“There are all these little bits of history that it would be nice to bring to the forefront if we can find the right partners to work with,” says Boersma. “It’s about looking at how you can rework an old idea to bring it to the contemporary market. You have to look for people who have synergy – Canteen has synergy with our brand because it serves classic British food, which is what the TfL canteens did as well. So you have to find a good fit.”
More recent projects commissioned out of the licensing department include a new series of Oyster card wallets to promote the forthcoming night tube, which feature illustrations from the likes of Morag Myerscough, Noma Bar and Kristjana S Williams, and a life-size London Underground station created in wood by artist Camilla Barnard. This was on show at the recent designjunction exhibition at the London Design Festival and, according to Barnard, was intended to make visitors reconsider the Underground stations they use every day without thinking. “[My work] makes people think slightly differently about what they’re seeing,” Barnard explains, “hopefully people will have more of a smile on their faces using the Underground after visiting mine.”
BELOW: Oyster card wallets celebrating the forthcoming night tube service commissioned in collaboration with Outline Artists and featuring illustrations by various artists
Boersma is always on the look out for new people to work with, and new brand collaborations. While linked to souvenirs and the classic museum shop – some of her commissions are on sale at the London Transport Museum – her work is primarily about innovative design and an imaginative use of the TfL collection. “It’s about taking the heritage and reinventing it,” she says. “We don’t just want to have cups with a logo on it. People don’t have to just take the original design and work with it, they have creative freedom … what people forget is even if it’s the most banal property you can imagine, in the hands of the right designer, it can be transformed.”