Frank Pick: BEAUTY < IMMORTALITY

Frank Pick died 75 years ago this week. You’ll know his work; you’ll know his style. Your life is probably better because of him.

Arriving at the Undergound Group from a stint at the North Eastrn Railway at York in 1906, he was made Commercial Manager in 1912. First came pressing matters of fare structures, network consistency and development of some of the earliest travel posters; and by 1915 Pick had commissioned Edward Johnston to create a new, easily legible typeface. Upon that design’s completion he commissioned Johnston again: this time it was to redesign the early “bullseye” station nameboard device – and it became something more akin to the “roundel” we know today.

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Pick and a few of the works he can claim a hand in

It could be said that by 1916 Pick had already become a patron of public works, commissioning a visual identity that is known and trusted worldwide today still. Pick’s philosophy on design was that “the test of the goodness of a thing is its fitness for use. If it fails on this first test, no amount of ornamentation or finish will make it any better; it will only make it more expensive, more foolish.”

Charles Holden was his next great appointment. The contract for seven new stations on the Piccadilly Line extension to Morden was Holden’s proving ground from 1925: Piccadilly Circus, also a Holden creation, opened in 1928. A showpiece for the Underground, it was lavishly decorated and many early features survive today including wood panelling, integrated lighting and the famous World Clock.

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The World Time Today clock in Piccadilly Circus station. Photo: Tim Dunn

As of the 75th anniversary of Pick’s death, 7th November 2016, Piccadilly Circus, that hub of London’s buzzing underground network, is now also home to the permanent Frank Pick memorial. The memorial has been installed on the outer wall of the booking hall, where telephone kiosks once stood.

Another 30 Holden-designed stations followed the development of Piccadilly Circus (in my next blog, we’ll be revisiting some of Pick and Holden’s work). Posters were commissioned from Man Ray, Paul Nash and others; Marion Dorn was briefed to create stunning seat fabrics which still stand the test of time.

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Southgate station: designed by Holden, commissioned by Pick. It opened in 1933. Photo: London Transport Museum collection.
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Marion Dorn’s “Colindale” seat fabric moquette

Pick was a customer champion. He believed that London and London’s transport should be better, and that it could be better. Having commissioned, briefed and ensured so much that went towards achieving that aim, he later became chairman of the Council for Art and Industry (forerunner of the Design Council) in 1934, and an honorary associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

You can read more about his life and selected achievements on the main London Transport Museum website. But if you, like me, occasionally stop on your travels around London’s Underground and  wonder at the great works of a true visionary, perhaps you might like to contribute towards the Frank Pick memorial too.

You can donate here.

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