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