Material of Memory (transport moquettes of Britain)

I’ve been inspired by a super piece of design I came across recently. Some genius has realised that having an on-train notice about a priority seat (those for people who are less easily able to access seats further down the carriages) above that seat isn’t nearly as effective as also having an indicator on the seat itself.

Priority seat on Central Line 192 stock (23 January 2014). By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
Priority seat on Central Line 1992 stock (23 January 2014). This is the “Barman” moquette, featuring London landmarks, and named after Christian Barman who commissioned the first London Underground moquettes in 1936. It has been in use since 2011 (see here, and here). By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Something similar has also been done on trains operated by south of England train operator Southern. It builds on Transport for London’s previous practice of having different colourways for priority seating, as seen on its London Overground and London Tramlink operations.

Seats on a London Overground train. The priority seating moquette is on the left, the standard seating moquette is on the right. By mac morrison [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page
Seats on a London Overground train. The priority seating moquette is on the left, the standard seating moquette is on the right. The two colourways were designed as a pair by fabric designers Wallace Sewell in 2007 (see here). The same firm also designed the Barman moquette pictured earlier. By mac morrison [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

So this week I’ve been inspired to find out a little more about moquettes, which is the posh word for hard-wearing seating fabrics. There’s surprisingly little information about transport moquettes on the world wide web. You’d have thought by now that someone would have created a website dedicated to detailing all the varieties of public transport moquette that have been seen in Britain, with details of designers and operators. I don’t know about other countries, but it’s certainly the sort of vaguely obsessive-compulsive website that we go for here. But no.

What quickly becomes apparent is that one company bestrides the world of transport moquettes like a colossus. That company is Holdsworth Fabrics. The chances are much better than even that the seat moquette on a train or bus in the UK (and indeed in many countries across the globe) has been manufactured by Holdsworth. The company has been supplying transport fabrics since the 1830s¹ so it knows what it’s doing.

Holdsworth has a range of off-the-peg (suit you, sir*) moquettes which you’ll see on the seats of many smaller bus and coach operators. Most of the moquettes you’ll find on buses belonging to operators with larger fleets, and those on trains, will have been designed specifically either by the operator, or to an operator’s specification by a design agency, or sometimes Holdsworth itself.

Ascertaining the identities of the designers for the bespoke transport moquettes is difficult, at least on the timescales and budget of this blog. London’s moquettes are some of the few where designers’ names can be found at all (mostly thanks to London’s Transport Museum; their page on the subject is here).

Holdsworth has galleries of its standard and bespoke transport moquettes from all around the world on its website, which can be filtered by colour or operator. It’s very easy to get extremely distracted by this fascinating interactive collection of intriguing, flamboyant, or restrained (depending on the use for which the moquette is intended) designs.

The company was in the news last year because it manufactured the moquette used on the New Bus for London. While there are many things about the New Bus for London that I don’t like (see here), the moquette isn’t one of them. Designed by Heatherwick Studio as part of its work on the overall design of the New Bus for London, it has a sinuous and quite unexpected Art Nouveau quality to it.

By Charlotte Gilhoolly [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page
New Bus for London seating (the moquette is Routemaster from Holdsworth’s range; search for it on this page). By Charlotte Gilhoolly [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

It’s one in a long line of moquettes that are simply gorgeous pieces of design. Moquettes at their best are works of art in fabric form. That they can be mass-produced in thousands of metres of identical fabric is of no consequence, any more than the fact that any painting can be endlessly reproduced in poster or print form. Mass reproduction doesn’t detract from the initial genius. Exactly which moquette appeals to you the most will depend on your own sensibilities. Lovers of the Arts & Crafts-style will find it difficult to resist the heritage fabric called Chestnut Leaf (see it here). Its Arts & Crafts appearance belies its 1950s date of origin².

Today’s moquettes are more modern, but can still often be very thoughtful. London to Wales and west of England train operator First Great Western has extended its branding onto its seats by replicating the neon wavy lines which can be seen on the outside of its trains (it must have been a nightmare to manufacture).

Standard Class seating on First Great Western (the moquette is FKU123 from Holdsworth, I think, although there is another colourway which is more purple). By Simon Pielow [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Standard Class seating on First Great Western (the moquette is FMA152 from Holdsworth, I think, although there is another colourway which is more purple; search via this page). By Simon Pielow [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

South of London train operator South West Trains’ seats are also part of its branding, employing a design based on the appearance of a train timetable in its corporate colours of blue, red and orange:

South West Trains First Class moquette (FBU839 from Holdsworth; search for it on this page). By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr set

Moquettes are generally similar throughout a bus or train, although train moquettes in particular often have two specific designs denoting First and Standard Class. There are always companies that want to try something different though. The first Heathrow Express trains saw seat covers fitted in a range of different colours, mixed up throughout the carriage. A similar approach has recently been employed on French train operator SNCF’s new Transilien trains for the Greater Paris railway network. In neither case does it really work.

Inside one of the new Bombardier Transilien train in Paris, France. Par Clicsouris (Travail personnel (Photo personnelle)) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Inside one of the new Bombardier Transilien train in Paris, France. By Clicsouris (Travail personnel (Photo personnelle)) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There’s been a recent move towards leather seating on enhanced bus routes (like Transdev Burnley & Pendle’s Witch Way route and Stagecoach’s Gold services) and in First Class areas on trains (as on First Great Western). I can assure you that these are much less rewarding to take photos of, and suffer from the same problem that all leather seating does in warm weather, if you’re wearing shorts or a skirt. That said, the use of leather seating for all on many bus routes does put Britain’s train operators, where leather seating can be found only in First Class, if at all, very much to shame.

The UK is particularly fond of moquettes. In mainland Europe, it is not uncommon to find that city buses especially will have some or all of their seats in plain plastic, or covered in plasticised wipe-clean materials. It’s simply because of the sheer wear and tear these seats get, although I regret to say that it’s sometimes also because of the likelihood of vandalism. In the UK, such an approach is extremely rare. There’s just something about us that renders the idea of sitting on plastic unacceptable, too redolent of cheap fast food outlets of the 1970s and 1980s.

Proof of the phenomenal cultural impact of transport moquettes is that they have escaped from transport and moved into fashion and furniture where they have become much sought-after for their exclusivity, and the fact that if you are wearing a piece of moquette, or have some in your home, practically everyone who sees it will point at it and say, “I know that! It’s from [insert name of transport mode]…”

The shop at London’s Transport Museum produces a range of furniture and accessories utilising moquettes from London’s transport. These range from the large (bed headboards upholstered with moquette) to the small (ticket wallets) via cushions, laptop covers and doorstops, to name just a few. The District Line moquette (designed by Misha Black in 1978) and later widely used on London buses, is an extremely popular choice, often seen on promotional shots of the Museum’s moquette range.

Meanwhile, Above+Below London uses transport moquette on a range of achingly stylish boots, as you can see here (click the arrows to cycle through a gallery of desire). The rubber soles are repurposed vehicle tyres, so it’s a very sustainable approach to materials sourcing.

By escaping from the notice solely of traditional transport enthusiasts and into the design awareness of the wider public, moquettes have accomplished a feat achieved only rarely before, by transport advertising posters of the early twentieth century and London Underground tiles, for instance.

It’s interesting to ponder on why. I suspect it’s because we have a very intimate relationship with moquette. It’s probably the part of public transport we come into contact with most closely, for the longest period of time. It is, to put it plainly, where we park our bums. It seeps into one’s consciousness as an integral part of the travel experience. When exposed to it again years later, it evokes all the feelings and memories of journeys made years earlier. Moquette designs used to remain unchanged for many years, so it would be quite possible for a student’s entire schooling to take place during the lifespan of a single moquette design used on a school bus. Meet that moquette design again as an adult, and you’ll be taken straight back to bus journeys to and from school, sitting on the back seat of the upper deck, gossiping, eating, doing homework at the last minute, flicking gum at classmates, shouting down at pedestrians as the bus drives past, and telling rude jokes loudly for the benefit of the unfortunate regular passenger who’s boarded the school service without realising. I’m almost certain that’s partly behind the appeal of the District Line moquette products from the range at London’s Transport Museum. That fabric must have seen today’s middle-aged people  through their teenage years.

There will meanwhile be countless people whose memory of holidays by train, or the daily commute, is completely tied up with this 1960s moquette (though it lasted long after that), British Railways’ “Trojan”.

“Trojan” moquette (DGV199 from Holdsworth; search for it on this page). By R~P~M [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

For me, it’s the 1980s Network SouthEast “Blue Blaze” which evokes memories of day trips to London on trains with slam doors, smoking compartments, toilets which emptied directly down onto the tracks, polyester uniforms on train staff which somehow always managed to look slightly dirty even when clean, and catering which would have embarrassed the naffest of 1970s picnics.

Blue Blaze moquette in a slam door train interior. By Matthew Black [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Blue Blaze moquette in a slam door train interior. By Matthew Black [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

Moquettes are memory aids and emotion stirrers. And, you know, on trains and on boots and on sofas, they just look good.

References, further reading and bibliography

¹ The history of the Holdsworth family and their company, here.

² The Bluebell Railway’s webpage on vintage railway moquettes (one of the few sources of good information on moquettes on the web), here.

*If you weren’t watching BBC television comedy shows of the mid-1990s this might mean nothing to you. Do a websearch for “BBC Fast Show suit you sir” and you’ll soon be brought up to speed.

Holdsworth’s website, here. You can get quite lost in the galleries and case studies… (I should probably just mention for the avoidance of doubt that this entry hasn’t been sponsored or endorsed by Holdsworth’s, and all comments and opinion above are my own.)

Wallace Sewell, the designers of the London Underground Barman moquette, and moquettes for London Overground and London Tramlink, here.

Most of the links in the main body of the entry refer to information which I’ve also read and absorbed before writing.

4 thoughts on “Material of Memory (transport moquettes of Britain)

  1. thoughtful writeup. I agree, I don’t think familiarity breeds contempt, I have the same ‘feelings’ or reactions towards tube and bus fabrics from the late 80s to mid 90s. familiarity breeds nostalgia when it’s lost then found again.

  2. Thrilled to find your site and exposition. Inspirational for an OU Creative Writing assignment I have to tackle!
    Does anyone remember a wonderful exhibition about LT design at Hall Place, Bexley, in the 1990s? I found it inspirational for Heritage Education work I was later involved in.
    I feel sure that, as you say, there is a great deal more to be explored and discussed.
    All good wishes,

  3. Wonderful article – I have many moquette samples, inc. some I was kindly given by Holdsworths on a private visit in the 1980’s – they let me lose in the old sample store! I also wrote to many bus companies who sent me samples at the time.

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