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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Frank Pick & Ambrose Heal - Notes & pictures from London Transport Museum talk

Last night I went to the London Transport Museum's talk by Oliver Green on Frank Pick & Ambrose Heal. Both great proponents of design in the 1930's I was intrigued to see what links there would be between the London Underground's Managing Director and the chairman of one of London's best known furniture store.

A major concern was they both believed that objects, be they furniture, trains, posters or shops, shouldn't just be produced quickly, but had to look good – nothing need be ugly, was the slogan of the design association (the DIA) they were both founders of.

U is for Underground - Frank Pick talk at London Transport Museum

I'm going to focus mostly on the things about Frank Pick I learnt (it's an Underground blog so no surprise on my focus), but the narrative behind Ambrose Heal was just as interesting.

Pick's London Underground was on the verge of bankruptcy when he joined in 1912. There were not enough passengers to pay for the vast investment that had been put into the system - "Sounds familiar" - Green joked, so Pick's initial task was to get people to think about using the Tube more often. Posters were the best way at the time to do this & passengers numbers grew under his management.

Tube to Coast - Frank Pick talk at London Transport Museum

Here you can see a slide with posters promoting the London Underground as way to get directly to the seaside. If you picked up the District Line from Ealing Broadway you could take a train to Southend on the Essex coast. Only the other day I saw a quiz asking for the nearest Tube station to the seaside – funny to think that in the days you could get to coast by Tube more people would have known what it was!

In the 1920's the London Underground was the most progressive transport system in the world. "Light years ahead of mainline railways, Pick ensured the new stations followed radically new designs", said Green. Pick developed these with Charles Holden (another member of the DIA) and they concentrated on easing passenger flow & were much influenced by Dutch & Scandinavian architecture. You can see the large amount of glass that was characteristic of Holden's work at Sudbury Town which opened in 1931.

Sudbury Town - Frank Pick talk at London Transport Museum

It's difficult to see from this picture, but at the back of the station was a poster aimed at "British Children" and encouraged them to go to a toy exhibition in Charing Cross Tube station. Pick made sure there was a regular exhibition at Charing Cross, usually with a design bias.

Exhibition Space at Charing Cross Tube - Frank Pick talk at London Transport Museum

It was interesting to learn that Arnos Grove station was a scaled down version of the new city library in Stockholm.

Although Pick was responsible for radically transforming the London Underground's design he never received any plaudits or honours for his work. Well, at least not from London. Pick was however recognised with an award by Stalin for his consultancy help with the Moscow Metro in 1932.

Concert celebrating centenary of German Railway - Frank Pick talk at London Transport Museum

We were shown this amazing picture above where Pick & other London Underground bigwigs were invited over to Germany in 1935 to attend a concert celebrating the centenary of the German railways. "Here's another organisation pretty good at corporate identity", said Green as he pointed out the Nazis on the right side of the room, with the "foreign guests" on the left. Hitler and Göring are in that picture too.

Even at the outbreak of the war Pick was still encouraging people to use the Tube to get to the countryside. A popular poster had the headline "Don't worry about the Germans invading the country, do it yourself by Underground".

Around this time he commissioned a children's booklet as a fundraiser for the troops, called The Underground Alphabet. Green highlighted the rather jolly U for Underground (the first picture in this post).

It would have been interesting to see Pick's influence throughout the Second World War, but unfortunately he didn't live to see the end of the war. He survived a near miss when a neighbour's house was bombed. But left the Underground in 1940 – effectively forced to take early retirement caused by ill health through working too hard. Sadly he died the year after.

Green believes the Jubilee Line Extension in the 1990's saw a return to Pick's design values. I think the whole audience was pleased to hear the London Transport Musuem are considering a permanent tribute, to honour his work in the next few years. Although as Green says like Sir Christopher Wren, his legacy is all around us on the Tube we see today.

Look out for Oliver Green's next talk on the 11th May which celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Moscow Metro.


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