The London Underground – known to locals as “the Tube” – is the lifeblood of London life. While Londoners love to complain about its horrid temperature control in the summer, the world’s oldest underground railway is as iconic as the disembodied voice on its platform telling passengers to “mind the gap”.
Now enthusiastic commuters and design-aficionados alike will be able to decorate their own homes like their favourite Tube station. Those less keen on a full-blown municipal design scheme can choose from the collection of signs on sale from the London Transport Museum’s “Decommissioned Originals Collection” ranging in price from £10 to over £1000.
The limited-edition collection offers all kinds of signs found in the transport system including wayfinding signs, fire-exit symbols and the Underground’s distinctive roundel, perhaps the most coveted (and expensive) of the pieces available.
The roundel, known as the “bulls-eye” until 1972, has been a feature of the Underground since 1908. The original bar-and-circle design featured a filled red circle with a bar of text in white and navy and is hard to trace back to any one designer.
The ubiquity of the roundel as we know it today – with its open-circle design – is the result of indirect collaboration between typographer Edward Johnston and architect Charles Holden.
In 1913, Edward Johnston was commissioned by Frank Pick, commercial manager of Underground Electric Railways Company of London, to create a typeface unique to the city’s transport system.
In addition to creating his epynonymous Johnston Sans typeface, the Uruguayan-British typographer also altered the filled-circle design creating what we know today as the roundel. He went on to design various roundels unique to stations across London in order to bring designed cohesion to London transportation. The Underground roundel itself was trademarked in 1917.
In 1923, Holden was also commissioned by Pick to design new stations for the transit system, and Johnston’s roundel featured prominently, making it a truly distinguishing trademark of the London Underground. It was a true realisation of Pick’s vision, to bring design to all spaces of life. In Pick’s own words: “Design is not a mode that enters in here and there and may be omitted elsewhere. Design must enter everywhere.”
Signs today still have the open-circle logo but the Johnston typeface was replaced in 1980. Eiichi Kono, a recent graduate of the Royal College of Design, undertook the task to make a typeface that was reminiscent of the original but cheaper to use.
Johnston’s original typeface needed to be drafted by hand, a time-consuming and expensive process. Nearly 60 years after its invention, typesetting technology had far surpassed hand-drafting and Transport for London (TfL) wanted to take advantage of this. Kono’s “New Johnston” now graces TfL signage, appearing slightly bolder than the original.
While the signs don’t date back to when the Underground was first unveiled in 1863, they are a piece of the city’s design and transport history, silent witnesses to the comings and goings of the Tube’s 1.3 billion passengers each year.
The “Decommissioned Originals Collection” will be available from the London Transport Museum shop in a rotating selection of perfectly unique pieces that once graced the tunnels and trains of the Tube system.