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Public Design - the Artistic Seat Coverings of Public Transport

They say that the everyday interactions shared between humans and textiles extends far beyond our immediate thought. However, when we encounter the intensely patterned textiles that dress the seating in public transportation, the experience can be quite memorable. Whether you are stepping onto the Tube in London or catching a bus in Australia, the elaborate seat covers of public transport are both eye-catching and utilitarian.

A train coach with decorative classic pink seat covers
Gemma Evans

Seat covering designs found in public transport have become an icon of the everyday commute. However, the aesthetic quality of these covers isn't just visually engaging, they are a practical invention developed from the need to prolong a fresh interior design. To meet this requirement, textile manufacturers design covers made from moquette, a type of woven pile fabric made up of uncut threads that form a short and dense raised surface. With a distinctive velveteen-like texture, the moquette lends itself to wear and tear - upright fibers create a soft, flexible surface, which maintains durability and anti-stain properties while exhibiting a lively textile pattern.

Some of the first moquette seat cover designs were commissioned in the 1930s when London Transport were looking to boost the interior design of their vehicles. Chief Executive of London Transport Frank Pick commissioned Enid Marx in 1937 to design woollen moquette seating fabric for underground trains. According to Marx, she was given a brief that the seat material had to "look fresh at all times, even after bricklayers had sat on it". In response, Marx designed several patterned moquettes to conceal grime and contribute to the visual experience of the commuter. Marx later recalled in a lecture to other textile designers that:

We all thought at first that the best way of disguising dirt was to use colours which would more or less tone in with the dirt...the best method of ensuring the seats would look clean after a period of use was to use strongly contrasting tones and brilliant colour

Of Marx's thirteen original designs, four are known to have been produced as a part of London Transport refurbishment, including a shield-like pattern used in the London Underground for decades.

The London Passenger Transport Board also commissioned Marion Dorn in 1936 to design moquette fabrics leading to four designs, Chesham in 1936, Colindale and Canonbury in 1937, and Caledonian in 1942. The designs were made up of small-scale and abstracted repeating patterns that saw use in the London Underground up until the 1960s. In the early 50s, Jack Thompson and Richard Eatough developed the Fossil design, commissioned for Metropolitan line trains with a highly decorative, old-timey aesthetic.

As transportation technology developed globally, so did the artistic designs of seat covers. Today, numerous artists and designers are commissioned to create patterns for public transport across the globe. Back home, some Australian states and territories have their own individual seating designs for public transport interiors. In Canberra, the light rail seating is outfitted with a design by Aboriginal elder Uncle Jimmy Williams.

On the Gold Coast in Queensland, awning stripes have adorned the light rail seating covers to reflect the aesthetic of the coastal city. Outside Australia, seat cover designs include national floral emblems, the names of train stations, brand logos, traditional patterns, and vibrant abstractions intended to leave a lasting impression on commuters.




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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.


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