It’s been a good summer for transport design wonks. First Yale’s Center for British Art mounted a large exhibition of London subway posters called Art for All (a show sadly not accessible to me by subway). And now the Museum of Modern Art is displaying Underground Gallery: London Transport Posters 1920s-1940s, which features a thin but highly representative slice of the so-called “golden age of London transport graphics,” culled from the museum’s sizable holdings.
“No exhibition of modern painting, no lecturing, no school teaching,” argued the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner in 1942, “can have anything like so wide an influence on the educationable masses as the unceasing production and display of London Underground posters over the years.” While transit posters are enjoying a bit of renaissance at auction houses, the MoMA show reminds us these were more than pretty pictures or clever visual jokes, but rather part of a sweeping and exceedingly well-thought-out branding campaign—encompassing everything from posters to station architecture to the design of garbage cans—that made the London Underground a model case for transit systems worldwide.
As you swelter in the stale August embrace of, say, New York City’s subway system, where defaced posters for the latest Julia Roberts vehicle compete with grim “If you see something, say something” reminders, and empty token booths and dirty cars sing a song of austerity, the works in Underground Gallery return us to an age when both art and public transportation were vehicles for civic uplift.