The Subterranean Modern
A most singular aspect in the creation of the London Underground was its intended design as a classless modern space. The guidelines outlined in designer Enid Marx’s first brief in 1936 by Frank Pick and Christian Barman emphasized a combination of social issues and the totality of form, through the design of attractive modern prints on functional hardwearing moquette that adorned the tube seats. Pick’s desire was to create a utopian social space, what Michel Sadler describes as ‘Earthly Paradise… the Underground would be a model of aesthetic integration and communal service, a catalyst for a more harmonious London of the future’. Yet despite this initially the underground network entered popular imagination (through pulp fiction) as an inferno, with entrances acting as the opening to a hell-mouth. The lack of class-based zones in the tube actually exposed real cultural fears: people were genuinely afraid that the mingling of the classes would lead to contamination.
The original stark white underground environment was humanized through the injection of carefully selected design, illustration and advertising applied to the tube carriages and station walls. Through the curation of succinct briefs, the London Underground became a platform for young designers (including many women such as Enid Marx and Marion Dorn) to showcase their talent and create functional, versatile designs for the public. I will examine the use of posters, tiling and fabrics in creating what Henri Lefebvre would describe as ‘abstract space’, considering the physical and metaphysical qualities of the tube network as a place of transience and temporality. Georges Perec perceived ‘space as inventory, space as invention’, the artwork as wall-space represents a mapped physical point of public interaction in a totally designed landscape. This is space defined by utopian architectural theory, socialist idealism and social interaction.
Today we are witnessing the shrinkage of public space. Analysis of the creation of the London Underground network is intended to facilitate discussion on the significance of shared public spaces and the function of decorative design within them.
Lotte is a design theory lecturer and illustrator, whose work has focused on British decorative modernism, specifically re-examining the legacy of British women designers. Currently she is undergoing a practice-based PhD on the mid-century textile designer Enid Marx with Coventry University and the Warwickshire gallery Compton Verney.