MoMA's exhibition of smart, stylish London transit posters.

How we get from here to there.
Aug. 25 2010 10:15 AM

Glamour Underground

MoMA's exhibition of smart, stylish London transit posters.

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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.

Slide Show: Glamour Underground: London’s Transit Posters. Click image to launch.

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Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.

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