Poster of the Week: Quickly away, thanks to pneumatic doors

Quickly away, thanks to pneumatic doors, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 1937

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This week is the London Design Festival, the annual event that celebrates great design with a flurry of events and exhibitions around London. Design means different things to different people; it may mean the way something looks, or the way something functions, or a combination of the two. This week’s poster, Quickly Away, thanks to Pneumatic Doors by Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, 1937, can be examined in two ways, both for its striking modern appearance as well as for the innovative technology that it illustrates. It is a testament to the defining role of design and technology in the modern era.

Laszlo Maholy-Nagy was a Hungarian-born artist who first gained notoriety as a Constructivist painter but is best known for his involvement in the Bauhaus school in Germany (1919-1933). The Bauhaus is known for its great contribution to early 20th century design, aesthetics, and craft. It was founded on the principles set out by the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain in the late 19th century; that objects should be both useful and beautiful, that the life of the maker should be sustained by the things that he makes, and that design should be approached holistically to create complete environments which aim to improve the lives of the inhabitants. The Bauhaus adapted these ideals for the modern age, using new techniques and materials to create furnishings and buildings for a post-Great War society.  Maholy-Nagy moved from Dadaist circles in Berlin to the Bauhaus School in Weimar in 1923 to teach the foundations course and serve as the head of the school’s metalworking department. He made a significant impact to the ideals of the school though his approach to combining photography and typography which he named ‘typophoto’. He recognized photography as a ‘productive’ medium, not just a tool for reproduction and documentation but an artistic medium worthy of consideration and experimentation, and he instigated this change of view at the Bauhaus. In 1928 he resigned from the Bauhaus and moved to Berlin where he began to work as a commercial artist, typographer, and independent curator.

Moholy-Nagy and others from the school including the founder, Walter Gropius, immigrated to London in 1935 where they hoped to open a new Bauhaus but failed to secure financial backing. At this time design was at the forefront of London Transport’s activities under the guidance of Frank Pick, with dramatic changes made in the 1920’s including the universal adoption of the modern Johnston font, Harry Beck’s diagrammatic map, the roundel, new architectural commissions, and artistic poster commissions that established the Underground as one of the first holistic and modern corporate identities.

Quickly Away, thanks to Pneumatic Doors was commissioned by London Transport in 1937 to illustrate the new doors on the Tube. The last manual doors on Tube trains were fully replaced with automatic ‘slam doors’ by 1929. Pneumatic doors were a 1930’s innovation that used air vacuum technology to open and close the doors. By using a simple enclosed air vacuum chamber, the air-engine arms were pulled back to open when the chamber was pressurised and a vacuum created, and then when released the doors would close slowly. These doors replaced the more forceful ‘slam doors’ which, as they sound, were not very pleasant to passengers and posed a safety risk. The new doors were more pleasant and also served as an automated safety check, as the train could not be signalled to start unless all doors were closed, and the poster served to enforce London Transport’s commitment to safety. Maholy-Nagy was quite taken with the role of new technologies. In his own words: ‘The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction and maintenance of machines. To be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century. Machines have replaced the transcendal (sic) spiritualism of past eras.’

The pneumatic technology is simply, elegantly illustrated in the poster. Maholy-Nagy employs his trademark style to provide the information needed to understand the technology through text and image in a graphically pleasing and colourful design.  One can imagine rushing by the poster on the way to catch an approaching train, just seeing it at a glance, and noticing its colourful and balanced composition of yellow, green, and black – simple colours and bold lines which had dominated the Bauhaus approach. On the other hand, with time to spare waiting for the last train to come, one would have had the time to take in all of the information provided and fully understand the technology, as the design concisely explains it.

After working in London for just two years, Maholy-Nagy moved to Chicago in late 1937 to open the New Bauhaus School of Design, which was reorganised as the Institute of Design and still exists today as part of the Illinois Institute of Technology. His work through the school influenced an entire generation of architects and designers.

Written by Susannah Pegg-Harmel, Commercial Projects Manager

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