I have recently been reminded, as if I (as an absolute Tube fanatic) needed it, of the wondrous and futuristic qualities of the London Underground. Now I admit this I difficult to envisage at 8:30 in the morning with your face in someone’s armpit when your train breaks down in a tunnel under Camden Town. But nevertheless just the notion of electric train hurtling through tunnels underneath one of the planet’s busiest cities is surely worthy of the sobriquet ‘futuristic’. The Tube, its design, its shape and extent tells us a lot about the nature of London in the first half of the 20th Century.
The expansion of the Tube network, most notably the Northern Line to Edgware in the north in 1924 and to Morden in the south in 1926 was responsible for providing people and property developers with the opportunity to travel easily to the city. The network was designed as an ‘object’ in and of itself. This was a significant factor in the way in which the suburbs the Tube linked to the City developed. This was not an accidental occurrence it was a plan formulated by a number of people.
Chief amongst them as far as the London Underground was concerned was Frank Pick. Pick was a huge force in thedevelopment of the design coherence of the London Underground. Appointed ‘Commercial Manager’ in 1912 he was responsible for commissioning in 1915 calligrapher Edward Johnston to create a clear recognisable typeface for the London Underground network. The now famed Johnston Sans
Johnston Sans was the result and (with minor modifications) is still the typeface used by the current incarnation of the managers of London’s public transport system Transport for London. Along with a number of other influential designers and theorists Pick was also a founder member of the Design and Industries Association in 1915.
“Pick boldly envisioned the expanding transport system as the modern equivalent of a medieval cathedral, an integrated work of art [or Gesamtkunstwerk] that would be a joy to both makers and users. Like the cathedrals, the transport system would provide a unifying function for society.”
The use of the phrase “a joy to both makers and users” is significant as it is oft repeated tenet of William Morris as illustrated in a collection of his talks and essay from 1882 Hopes and Fears for Art in which Morris says repeatedly “Art made by the people and for the people, a joy to the maker and the user.”
“the expansion of the Underground in the twenties provided Pick with his opportunity to realise the utopian ambitions the he… shared with other members of the DIA.
He intended to use the expanding transport system to shape a new urban community.”
Pick became noted for commissioning what was for the time quite radical poster art. The use of forms of Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism was not greeted by the profession of advertisers with any enthusiasm, and in some cases with outright patronisation. Particularly, as is recounted by Michael T. Saler in his book The avant-garde in interwar England: medieval modernism and the London Underground, by the Pear’s advertising director, who…;
“…wrote to the London Mercury in 1921 that
Impossible ducks, futurist trees, vermilion grass and such like absurdities may well appeal to… ‘higher thought’, but believe me, Sir, those people who live their lives in the ordinary conventional way, as do the bulk of the general public, need nothing more subtle in poster than a straightforward appeal to their sense of pleasure, duty or whatever it may be. They don’t understand, and have no wish to understand, the essentially unacademic.
But Pick had faith in the public’s ability to appreciate the new spirit of art when it was directed toward specific ends:
Those who decry posters which for their understanding require pains and thought underrate the attractiveness of a puzzle, underrate the urge to stretch the mind a bit more than usual, underrate indeed the intellectual level of the urban population.”
“By using the stylistic hallmarks of the postimpressionists, such as simple two dimensional designs made up of sharp outlines and bold colors[sic], posters could telegraph their messages rapidly, unencumbered by the mediation of narrative. (Figure 2.4).”
“The Underground posters were the first to deploy the new styles in art and appear to have exercised a broad and possibly profound impact on all levels of society following the [First World]war. Many accounts in the press praised the Underground for bringing modern art to the people, turning the system into “the people’s picture gallery.”… the art critic Frank Rutter observed  that the Underground had become in effect on the of the largest and most influential art galleries in the country.”
Pick had therefore taken what could have been an entirely mundane function of a city it’s underground railway and turned it into (literally in many cases) a vehicle for modern and modernist art in poster design initially but later in architecture. Pick hired fellow DIA member Charles Holden in 1924 and promptly commissioned him to design the stations of the southern Morden extension of the Northern Line.
“Holden developed a simple, functionalist design, austerely classical.” Holden is however perhaps better known for his designs for the northern Cockfosters extension of the Piccadilly Line in the 1930s.
“Pick now began to lecture on the necessity for town planning,… Pick cited the ideas of Raymond Unwin and Patrick Geddes, two influential leaders in the town-planning movement. Unwin and Geddes themselves were influenced by Ruskin and Morris and argued that town planning must be organic,… This conception cohered with Pick’s own romantic belief in the possible reconciliation of diversity within a totality, and his hope that an organic unfolding society could coexist with the modern necessity for urban planning”
More on the suburbs that emerged from the expansion of the Underground and the station and architecture of the 1930s on another day.
 p61, Saler, M. T. (1999) The avant-garde in interwar England : medieval modernism and the London Underground. New York ; Oxford : Oxford University Press.
 p93, Saler (1999) Op cit.
 Morris, William (1882) Hopes and Fears for Art, London : Ellis & White.
 Morris, William. Hopes and Fears for Art; Chapter 3, “The Beauty of Life”. [Online] Accessed 05/08/2010 [url: http://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/index.htm]
 p106, Saler (1999) Op cit.
 pp99-100, Saler (1999) Op cit.
 p100, Saler (1999) Op cit.
 p101, Saler (1999) Op cit.
 p105, Saler (1999) Op cit.
 p107, Saler (1999) Op cit.