Frank Pick’s design legacy commemorated in a new memorial

A memorial to Frank Pick, the man who shaped the look of the London Underground, was unveiled at Piccadilly Circus station this week. Created by artists Langlands & Bell, the artwork marks the 75th anniversary of Pick’s death and celebrates some of his greatest design achievements in the civic realm

Beauty < Immortality, a memorial to Frank Pick by Langlands & Bell
© Thierry Bal

Sited on a recessed marble wall opposite the ‘World Time Today’ clock in the concourse of the station, the permanent artwork consists of a backlit roundel bearing Pick’s name and four pairs of words cast in bronze.

The morning after its unveiling, commuters stopped to look and take pictures of the artwork and read the accompanying plaque to discover more about the name emblazoned on the roundel. And this is partly the point of this affecting work, the first memorial – other than a blue plaque in Golders Green – to commemorate Pick’s work in the city in which his impact was so strongly felt. Pick died aged 61 in 1941, a few months after the Blitz – the timing meaning London could do little to commemorate his achievements.

And Pick’s story as a civic visionary is one that still needs to be told. At his talk at the London Transport Museum in September, author Oliver Green argued that Pick had shaped the look of the capital more than anyone in the 20th-century; his reach spanning graphic art and branding, architecture and interior design, advertising, signage and wayfinding.

Beauty < Immortality, a memorial to Frank Pick by Langlands & Bell
© Thierry Bal

Born in Spalding in Lincolnshire in 1878, Pick started out as a solicitor and then joined the traffic statistics office at the North Eastern Railway Company before moving on to the Underground Electric Railways Company of London in 1906, where he was put in charge of the publicity department the following year. Here he commissioned posters and emerged as a patron of new artists.

In 1916 Pick asked Edward Johnston to design a new typefaces for the transport network – the result, Johnston Sans, coupled with the new roundel design (which had developed from the blue bar and red ‘bulls eye’ disc design) established a holistic identity system. Johnston was also commissioned to bring the typeface into a new roundel design which was trademarked in 1917. Pick rose to become Commercial Manager then Managing Director of the Underground Group and latterly Chief Executive of London Transport.

Both the Johnston typeface and the roundel feature in Langlands & Bell’s new work, while the station in which the memorial stands – designed by Charles Holden in 1928 – is one of several modernist designs that Pick was instrumental in getting built on the Piccadilly and Northern Lines (not to mention the Underground Group’s imposing 55 Broadway headquarters).

Beauty < Immortality, a memorial to Frank Pick by Langlands & Bell
© Thierry Bal

Referencing a mind at work, the idea for the new artwork originated from a fragment of lecture notes made by Pick before he gave a speech to the Art Workers Guild in 1917. The six words “convey his quest for both civic and spiritual virtue”, writes Jonathan Glancey in the LTM’s accompanying booklet on Pick’s legacy. For Langlands & Bell, the four brief ‘equations’ see him “grappling with the core of what good design is” and reflect the belief that Pick saw good works as a transformative practice.

As the LTM Director Sam Mullins writes in the introduction to the booklet, “Pick’s legacy is everywhere evident; in the stations and Johnston lettering he commissioned, the roundel brand, the Underground map and a rich vein of artist commissions for posters.”

Beauty < Immortality, a memorial to Frank Pick by Langlands & Bell
© Thierry Bal

The fact is that much of the London Underground’s design is so good that many of its customers simply take it for granted: the map (which Pick’s publicity department had initially rejected in 1931), signage and branding all still work. Indeed, the new commission itself is testament to the tradition Pick set in place for investment in art and design.

Though the publicity-shy man may have baulked at any formal tribute to his civic contributions, using the workaday roundel symbol to invoke his name is a subtle appropriation of one of his most significant projects. Placing it alongside some of Pick’s own thoughts on the power of design only further enhances his reputation and his character. In time, his name will no doubt become more widely known to the people who directly engage with his ideals every day.

Beauty < Immortality is at Piccadilly Circus station in London. Langlands & Bell will be in conversation with Robert Elms at the The London Transport Museum tomorrow night (Thursday 10 November) as part of the Frank Pick series of events. Tickets (£10) are available at ltmuseum.co.uk – a free copy of the Frank Pick booklet will be given to all attendees (£2.95 where sold). More of Langlands & Bell’s work is at langlandsandbell.com

Beauty < Immortality, a memorial to Frank Pick by Langlands & Bell
© Thierry Bal

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