Blog Archives

Mind the Reality Gap

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Back on Tuesday, I went along to an early evening talk by Nils Norman at the London Transport Museum on the Fantasy Piccadilly line. As a previous post indicates, I have a certain fascination with design and the Tube, and I’ve always had an interesting in mapping fantasy spaces onto real ones. The talk also covered a lot of ground around the idea of introducing deliberately anarchic play spaces into ordered and controlled public spaces. There’s a whole other topic there which, although interesting, was not my prime reason for going along.

Regular Piccadilly line users will be familiar with the Piccadilly Above Ground poster. This takes the form of an impossible perspective over London, showing various features the Picc runs beneath. Norman was commissioned by the then Platform for Art to look at doing something with the same space on the carriages. One interesting side note is that he was unable to find anything out about the original work: who commissioned it, why its choices of features is so odd and who actually produced it. Norman’s eventual response was to map a fantasy version of London over the same impossible perspective. This map contains utopian and dystopian ideas about the city (or about cities in general) and landmarks which might exist in these other versions of London. So there are 1930s floating stations at Arnos Grove, Ron Heron’s Walking Cities (an idea, co-incidentally, I used in Badblood Diaries), wind turbines out on the Thames Gateway and HG Wells’s aliens in Acton. There are skywalks, a branch of retro-futurist urban design with its own flickr group now.

There’s also the Mini-Tru (Ministry of Truth) from Nineteen-Eighty-Four which is one of Orwell’s ideas which sticks in your memory. Most Orwell fans will know that, although described as being on the edge of the river (where both the classic BBC adaptation and Norman place it), its external description was based on Senate House (a building replicated, bizarrely, on a building over in Henrietta Place).

In Islington, there are biodomes. A recurrent theme in cityscape utopias/dystopias and something we have started to treat as familiar since the building of Eden, Norman tied his to ones designed by Fuller in the 1930s and 1940s. Fuller’s largest dome was envisioned covering Mid-town Manhattan and providing an air-conditioned environment for those within it. Naturally, as Norman pointed out, you wonder what about the people excluded from the dome? Are they doomed to hot sweaty ugly lives?

Norman also created the Boho/Asbo artwork at Piccadilly Circus. He mentioned in passing that he was told Picc. Circus is the only Tube station entirely below ground, but I’m not sure how correct that is. Other stations, such as Tottenham Court Road, are entirely sub-surface but have their street exits emerging through buildings, and Picc. Circus has one exit (which I still call ‘the Tower Records exit’ through a shop’s basement.

Overall, the talk was interesting in that way that sparks off lots of little thoughts, and provides lots of things to start researching when you get back home. The Cubic theatre is also just the right size venue for this sort of talk, and has theatre seats covered with a Tube moquette. There’s to be talks on Tube poster designs over the coming months, which I hope to be in town for at least one of.

Leonard Harris Ltd ~ Complete Home Furnishers

Sunday, 21 September 2008

One corner of my kitchen is forever muddy England, as it’s where I keep the gardening tools, my wellies etc. For the last few weeks, whenever big magpie and I have been at the carboot sale, I’ve had my eye out for some kind of cabinet I could use to tidy up the area. Crazy, I know, but I didn’t like having Roundup just in a plastic container. Today, as the usual carboot fatigue was kicking in, I spotted this.
The Marvellous Mechanical...I dunno what There's just so many bits that open

Careful not to reveal too much interest, I started opening it up and discovered it was quite mad. The front opened to reveal some kind of rack. Both sides opened to reveal shelves of differing depths. My uncertainty about what the heck the front was for caused the stallholder to drop the price from a fiver to four quid, so I agreed and we brought it home.

I’ve cleaned its top, put newspaper down to protect the very nice (and clean) whitewood shelves and lined the drawers. I’ve also put all the gardening bits into it and cleaned the area up a bit. It all looks a lot smarter now, but I still wonder what it is. A cocktail cabinet? A gramaphone stand? Something for a dining room?

The only clue on the thing is the maker’s mark: Leonard Harris Ltd, Complete Home Furnishers, 8-12 Woodhouse Road, N12. The name googles up a film actor, an insolvancy firm and some law case.  About my place tells me the address is in Barnet. More google on the address reveals it is currently occupied by various small traders and is called Melville House. It also reveals it is a modern office block. My initial reaction to the cabinet of curiosity was that it was post-war. I grew up with a lot of white wood furniture bought in the late 50s, so I associate that material with that period. The fact the premises are a modern block, however, combined with the veneer and good construction, mean I’m wondering if it is in fact from the 1930s and the shop was destroyed in the war.  A rummage on the National Archives turns up two divorce papers (one in 1924 and one in 1935) citing a Leonard Harris as co-respondent but unless I order up the papers, I can’t tell if its my cabinet maker.

Any suggestions for finding out more?

Living with colour

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Design for Modern MarriageAs a kid, I used to spend many hours flicking through the household encyclopedias. The ones with the vaguely Edwardian line drawings kept me entertained but I really loved the late 50s guide to decorating (aka “the orange book”). The colour plates had that awesome acid palette of lemon and lime, and the food was bizarrely coloured. I’ve since collected a small shelf of such books, such as the Conran ‘House Book‘ of the 70s (all murky orange and brown) or a recent 1950s ‘Guide to Modern Marriage’ (right – click through for the full glory of that cover).

Sunday Times: Living with Colour 5 Aug 95 As part of the whole M-process, I’m trying to declutter my attic enough that the chap can fill it with his junkbelongings. Today, I started following unclutterer‘s advice and scanning papers I no longer need. The scanned images will go to flickr or be burnt to a CD and the paper will got to recycling (via the shredder if necessary). The first thing I found to scan was this clipping from 1995 (left). It rather neatly indicates that the things that you read as a child will dictate your tastes as an adult. I grew up absorbing the wonders of late 50s futurism, and now I love Mad Men, spend too much time on design*sponge, buy retro and am having a 1958 wedding suit made. When I opened that Sunday Times clipping, I instantly thought “I’d still love that room”.

I did the initial paperwork at the registrar’s today, which was surprisingly painless. Bored Exeter readers will be able to see the notice pinned up for the next fortnight.

Things to make and do

Sunday, 1 June 2008

It took me several weeks to plan and organise, then three weekends of work to do it, but I’ve revamped my attic workspace.

Before and after:
Old workspace Finished workspace
I still need to put all my books back on the actual shelves, clean and put down the rugs, and get more magnets so I can put more things on the wall, but I’m pleased.

The desk really triggered the whole thing. My old desk (barely visible) cost £35 from PC World or some similar chain in 1996. It was MDF with a flimsy black veneer and, within two years, the cupboard space on the left was being held up by the PC tower and the drawers on the right were held up with my first year notes from uni. The problem, even as I looked for a better one, is that to get into my attic furniture needs to be flat-packed or able to be disassembled. It’s just not possible to get a solid desk up two flights of narrow stairs which turn through 180 degrees four times. Every modern flatpack desk I saw, I loathed as they lacked soul. Every old desk I saw was solid.

Then I spotted an old oak leather-topped desk in the PDSA charity shop near my house. Everyone was looking at it, but dismissing it because there were rips in the bottom of one drawer and sellotape covering the crossbar. I looked. I tried lifting a corner and realised the top part came off, leaving two pedestals of drawers. At £35 including delivery, I decided it was worth the TLC required.

Here it is in the garden as I fixed it up:
Garden Office
Initially, I considered sanding it down and painting it but I decided I liked the scruffiness of the ink stains and worn black handles. I protected the old leather top with newspaper, sanded down the rough bits on the surface, scraped off the old sellotape and sanded down the rough edges of the cross bar, revarnished the top and used olive oil to repair a minor scratch to the leather. The middle drawer has been temporarily repaired using mounting card and superglue. At some point I’ll find some balsa wood and do a proper job on it.

Knowing I had a new desk to get upstairs, and knowing that would be quite disruptive, I decided the time had come to sort out the rest of the workspace.

Not least the minor worry about the ceiling. One of the joys of a listed house is that it tends to list. Given this was originally a farm worker’s cottage, and is as vernacular as architecture can get, I have never expected to have any straight lines. However one ceiling panel in the attic had bowed, cracking the paint and plaster around it and leaving a thin gap between the ceiling and the wall. I rather nervously hit it with a hammer and discovered – to my relief – that the board was sound, just bent. So I pulled away all the loose paint and plaster, used an old piece of quarter-circle dowling to push the panel back up on the wall and trusted to polyfilla to fix the rest and reseal the wall/ceiling joint. Well, polyfilla and some great plaster board tape which is like netting. Looking at the before photos, I’m slightly surprised by how bad it actually looked.

The existing shelves, bowing under the weight of the books, were made from MDF recovered from a skip in 1994, along with some bricks liberated from a building site around the same time. They’ve done a sterling job over the last decade but the time had come to get something a little more grown-up. Having realised that IKEA now deliver in the UK, I picked some heavy dark wood shelves called Markör which would fit A4 folders as well as books and got a delivery date just before the last bank holiday. Thus setting the timescale for all the work.

At the Open House London day last year, the chap and I visited RIBA to see their mix of retro and modern. We ended up having a long and interesting conversation with an architecture student in a library workspace they have. One thing that wowed me was their magnetic wall. This is done using a primer paint with ferrous material suspended in it. You then paint over with whatever colour you want. And use magnets to hold everything to the wall. Given that I always use the wall behind my desk as an ideas/inspiration space, I loved the notion of making it magnetic. No blu tack marks, no pin holes damaging the plaster. I got the magnetic paint from Shaw Magnets via Rapid Electronics, which was the best value (a full litre for under £30, compared to £35 for 900ml for a different brand). And it works!

Unlike my wifi router, which had become increasingly unreliable. As the PC had to come down to the lounge whilst I was renovating, I took the opportunity to send the wifi router off to Belkin under warranty and use a CAT5 for a couple of weeks. Yesterday, I cycled over to the courier depot to collect the new router and today I brought the desk contents and the chair back upstairs.

The chair was made over a few nights ago. I’d got it from my old office and Moosifer Jones used to love sitting on it. And dribbling. Look closely at the photo of the old workspace and you can see the stain on the rather drab grey wool. I’d bought the fabric back in the winter from the Exeter Fabric Centre knowing it would be for this chair. Initially, I planned a full rebuild, then I considered using drawstrings to keep the new covers loosely in place. Finally, I discovered I could use an old set of blunted scissors as a bradle and tightly force the material in the gap between the cushions and the back. Not perfect, but workable. With the scraps, I made a little matching cushion for Sébastian and put it in one of the spaces on the new shelves. We’ll see if he takes to it.

So, there it all is. There are minor other things to do (not least repainting the rest of the attic, and updating the lights) but I’m pretty pleased with how it’s turned out. Especially at a total cost of around £230. I’m sitting at my new old desk, on my elderly but snazzy chair, looking out over the gardens of the neighbourhood and I’m glad I took the time to do all the work.

Workspace with notes

This is the Age of the Train

Saturday, 28 July 2007

I travel by train a lot. I was, if not actually born, raised on the railways. Childhood holidays included Camping Coaches in Marizion, and trips through the Alps. So as well as doing things like the trenhotel to Barcelona, I also use the train nearly weekly, often to get up to London. Exeter has two routes up to town: the old Great Western to London Paddington and the old London & South Western to London Waterloo. I mostly use the Paddington route. First Great Western, who now run the route (and Exeter St Davids station – see fulminate’s architectures of control blog for my thoughts on that), have taken to advertising their cheap fares. When I first saw the advertising campaign they ran from winter 06 till summer 07, I burst out laughing. Here’s an example of one of the posters, along with what it instantly reminded me of:

Hitchcockian train travel ~ bass

Saul Bass is one of my favourite graphic designers, who produced many fabulous title sequences as iconic as the Hitchcock films they introduce. For example, the title sequences to Vertigo, North by Northwest and Pyscho. Bass tended to favour a limited set of bold colours (like the FGW adverts) and reduce forms to shapes (like the FGW adverts). The image is often tilted to induce a sense of being off-balance (like the FGW adverts).

The problem here is that the advertisement designed by FGW wants to entice us to use their online booking in order to get cheap fares, but it uses iconographic images which suggest the nightmarish world of Hitchcockian chaos where the everyman is confused, bewildered and caught up in a system they do not understand. A world in which Jimmy Stewart is conned and sent insane. A world in which a simple error results in Cary Grant being forced to flee on a train before being attacked by a crop-spraying plane and eventually dangled off a cliff. A world in which strangers on a train plot murders. Is that really want FGW want their potential customers to be reminded of when trying to get them to use a train booking system?

The campaign seems to be being replaced with a rather more boring set of posters which lack the same accidental subtext but also any visual flair.

Some other random train advertising fun:
The National Rail Musuem’s History of British Railway Posters
Screenonline’s history of British Transport films

You tube finds – WARNING! once you start watching old adverts on you tube, forever will you be in their thrall (due to the “similar videos” listing):
This is the Age of the Train (late 1970s)
British Rail – Relax (1980s)
British Rail – The Night Mail (1980s)
GPO Film Unit – The Night Mail (1936 – music by Britten, words by Auden)
Intercity brings something good (pre-decimalisation)
British Rail Weekend Away advert (very Benny Hill – BR appears to be a cheap date)
Cyclists’ Specials 1 Cyclists’ Specials 2

I’m not the only person to notice Hitchcock had a thing about trains.

Happiness – We’re All In It Together!

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

There’s a great moment in Brazil where the camera pulls back to reveal the origin of the “We’re all in it together” slogan Tuttle has previously quoted to Sam. Sam is visiting Buttle’s widow in her dystopian tower block, a relentlessly grim monochrome world of poverty and deprivation. At the base of the tower is a giant poster: above the smiling parents and their two children, joyously driving through a multicoloured world is the slogan: Happiness – We’re All In It Together.

So the first time I saw the poster below on the Tube, I rather unsurprisingly started to laugh:
It's up to all of us

In fact, unfortunate dystopian echoes aside, Transport for London have done a very smart thing with their poster design. Using the Tube is like facing a battery of information, all desperate for that brief moment of attention. A teacher I had at college told me that returning to London from the then Soviet Union was a sensory overload. There’s the service board, the special announcements, the ‘do not obstruct the doors’ on the lifts (or, if you have the misfortune to use Covent Garden, Lloyd Grossman telling you about his favourite museum[1]), the ‘we are sorry to announce…’, the maps, the dot matrix display of trains due. And then there are the adverts: posters outside the station, posters in the lifts, posters on the escalator (including the new moving posters), posters in the corridors, posters along the platform, posters along the wall opposite the platform, posters in the trains…

When the train bursts into a station, there’s not only the shock of the light after staring at the grimy walls beyond the window [2]] but the shock of colour and image and text. All of it trying to get you to notice it for a moment.

Transport for London have gone retro, borrowing a leaf out of both WW2 iconography and Soviet propaganda of the 1930s.

Festive Season Please move along the Platform
D*n't t@ke !t out It's up to all of us
[all images taken at Tufnell Park]
Each poster uses block colour and simple text in a clear contrast. Several of them highlight the key phrase (move along, mind the gap, take care) and all use either a typographical quirk or a simple graphic, but never both at the same time. There may be smaller print, but the key aim – of arresting the eye – is done with minimum fuss. You can see the reflections of typical adverts in these photos, showing how fussy they seem in comparison.

It’s not only a clever visual design in terms of conveying information through the noise of the Tube, it also ties in with the perceived design style of the Tube itself. The Tube is Modernist: the branding in the 1930s overrides the Victorian reality of much of the infrastructure[3]. Beck is rightly praised for redefining how to map the space, and the various typographical and poster designers of the past are praised[4] for creating iconographic images. This is canny not only for extending the branding of the Tube and officialising the posters but because, despite the actual reality of the system and its service, there is a vague sense of affection towards the iconography. So despite the alarming phrase and ghosts of WW2 propaganda, the ‘It’s up to all of us’ poster is familiar and curiously comforting.

I actively want them to produce a ‘Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases‘ one.

[1] Possibly this has stopped, given the museum is closed.
[2] Or trying to follow the mysterious orange cable as it snakes in and out of view
[3] Although the Victorian designers were working pretty radically: see this detail from Tufnell Park.
[4] see Art of the Underground (via Going Underground). A sibling showed me a great one of South Woodford, depicting a hunting lodge in Epping Forest, over Christmas but I can’t find it online

Switch to our mobile site