Okay okay, stop nagging me: I’ll give you another Secret London history lesson if you really want me to. Today’s topic of choice? The thing that has every single Londoner in a complete and utter chokehold: the London Underground, of course. Well, more specifically – the seats. Yep, it’s going to be a juicy one, folks.
Ahhh, the London Underground: we can’t live with it and we certainly can’t live without it (*shudders at the memory of having no public transport for days on end during the strikes*). Day in, day out, we funnel onto those funny little tubes among the mob of fellow exhausted Londoners, and passive aggressively wiggle our way towards the last remaining seat. We plonk ourselves down faster than we can say ‘Metropolitan line‘, and don’t even so much as glance at what it is we’re actually sitting on.
Well, next time you’re lucky enough to bag yourself a seat in rush hour, I want you to take a moment to appreciate those colourful, intricately-woven, patterned little seats that are so often overlooked. After all, they were lovingly designed and specially created for your comfort and enjoyment.
First things first, let’s talk about what it’s actually called. Yes, that heavy-duty, woven seating material that’s been seen, sat on, tried and tested for 100 years now, does indeed have a name and that name is: moquette. Moquette is the French word for ‘carpet’ for those of you that don’t have an A-Level in French (humble brag), and it was originally chosen for three very good (and highly practical) reasons: it’s hard-wearing and durable, it’s cheap and easy to mass-produce, and the colours and patterns disguise signs of dirt, wear, and quite frankly – a multitude of sins (but let’s try not to think about it too much).
Moquette was first applied to London transport seating exactly 100 years ago, back in 1923. The first design was called ‘Lozenge’ and was said to have been in keeping with the home furnishing and art deco fashions of the day. Since then, many moquette designs have been created, and somewhere along the way, it morphed from being a practical seating fabric to an iconic part of London life.
I won’t go through every single design from the past 100 years because we’d quite literally be here all day. What I will give you though, is a bit of a highlight reel from over the years – like if the London Underground had to fit their best bits into an Instagram carousel post.
Many established artists and designers were commissioned over the years to create stylish and contemporary patterns for Londoners to park their derrieres on (uh huh, that was indeed another French A-Level flex). In 1938, for example, surrealist artist, Paul Nash, was commissioned to design a pattern (it was called ‘Alperton’) but it never actually made it on to a tube seat. In 1954, a patterned named ‘Fossil’ was designed specifically for the Metropolitan line to give it a separate identity to the other lines.
As part of a big advertising campaign in the late 1990’s, the Yellow Pages (what a throwback) took over an entire Circle line tube with a custom-made, bright yellow branded moquette, and the ninety’s was also when designers started to incorporate the colours of specific lines into the moquette design. Today’s most recognisable pattern is called ‘Barman’ which features four London landmarks in the design (the London Eye, Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Bridge) and can be seen across a number of tube lines.
Writer and train enthusiast, Andrew Martin, has even gone as far to write a whole book about the colourful history of the tube seats, documenting all the way from the very first moquette seat all the way to the seats on the shiny, new Elizabeth Line. I’m not sure if I’d go quite that far but at the end of the day, I probably spend more time on the London Underground than I do my own sofa so the least I can do is take the time to learn about it, hey?
Find out more about the history of the London Underground here.