No matter how many subway lines, buses, trams, trains, and other public conveyances we ride, we are rarely left with a positive impression of the upholstery. (We typically leave an impression on the upholstery itself, so we suppose that’s fair.) As sure as roses are red and violets blue, transport fabric is a multihued graphic abomination, possibly crawling with pathogens.

How does this happen, we’d like to know, and is this simply the crossweave that we must bear? The answer is as unsurprising as a congestion delay, and as complicated as getting to LaGuardia on public transport.

Excuse 1: The design constraints.

We ask a lot of transport fabric. It has to be durable, since each seat will cradle hundreds of backsides a day. It has to last for years, be easy to clean, and it has to be able to resist or disguise stains both accidental and vandalistic. It must also seem clean, even when it’s not. (Let this skin-crawling video be entered into the record as Exhibit A.) Perhaps most important, it has to be safe: Fire, smoke, and smolder can be deadly, particularly dozens of feet underground in a poorly ventilated tunnel.  

Luckily, there’s a superfabric to save the day. Moquette (from the French for “carpet”) is the famous weave of most British public transport, and is the choice for other mass transit around the world. “Transport for London has historically adopted a wool moquette fabric,” says Harriet Wallace-Jones, co-founder of Wallace Sewell, UK-based design studio whose scarves and throws are featured in art museums and chic boutiques, and who also design for TFL. “Wool is naturally flame retardant, and moquette is a pile fabric which has more durability than a flat woven cloth. The fabric is usually a mix of cut and uncut pile, which also makes it more durable.”

The pile resists stains since there’s no flat surface, but also hides small particulates that happen into it. Various coatings make sure it meets safety standards, and that it can be regularly and vigorously cleaned. Even in less luxuriant nylon iterations, it has a velvety texture to the hand and the eye, and lends itself to intricate patterns.

It’s that last bit that can be a problem.

Excuse 2: The design process.

A design for a high-profile new railway coach is a tremendous get for a design firm like Wallace Sewell, but an updated Tube coach isn’t the typical assignment for a transport textile designer. Instead, most designers (and there are hundreds around the world who specialise in this sort of textile) are working on branding for private coach companies or on small municipal lines. There, design as a civic good may not be the highest priority.

“There are many routes into the design process,” says James Newton, Director of Transport Sales for Camira Fabrics, a British company that’s been producing fabric for public coaches since 1822 (then as Holdsworth Fabrics, which is now a division of the larger textile concern). A typical design job may involve the bus or coachbuilder, the seat manufacturer, a design team (internal or external), and representatives from the transport system itself — with sometimes three or four representatives from each party working on the design. “The process can take 18 months to two years,” says Newton. “Sometimes much longer.” The end result can be a classic example of design-by-committee, with all the horror that entails.

The most egregious examples come from private coaches. “Franchises change all the time, and they do their own livery, putting their own fabric on there,” says Newton. “A lot of them seem to want to fool you into thinking you’re going on holiday every time to step on a bus, so everything has to be bright and vibrant.”

“Some public transport companies choose their logos as an ornament”, says Stuttgart-based artist Menja Stevenson, who has immersed herself in the study of transport fabrics (quite literally; see gallery below). “They repeat it on the fabric a thousand times and in most cases this doesn't look really well designed. Or they’ll combine black, red and yellow stains and then add a neon green logo on top. That is perfectly ugly, isn't it?”

Excuse 3: Fashion is fickle.

“It’s a trend industry now,” says Newton. Transport fabrics follow fashion just like any other designed commodity, with big name artists and textile designers fighting to create the next classic moquette. But when fashion trends are less understated, so too is the design of your subway seatback.

Much of textile fabric’s horrid reputation seems rooted in the 1980s, when public transport agencies decided to follow a trend that we, as a species, still feel a bit guilty about. “For a while, the fabrics were in particularly bad taste”, says Newton, speaking like a survivor of some devastating natural disaster. “There were lots of bright colors, and browns and oranges. It was the mid ‘90s before people started moving away from those hideous patterns.”

It is possible (if difficult to envision in retrospect) that those ’80s styles were on-point on the new spur line back in 1987. The problem is that fashion trends don’t last as long as transport fabric, which can have a lifetime of a decade or more. (In fact, few coach refurbishments happen because the fabric wears out; it’s more often necessitated by disintegration of the padding beneath it). Imagine, then, someone still rocking black lace fingerless gloves and some not-so-white-anymore LA Gear trainers — in 1997 — and you have a pop culture picture of the design problem. Couple that with the sheer ubiquity of the designs — Camira delivers more than 800,000 metres in a single year to “pretty much every single country in the world”, and a typical commuter sees the same pattern twice every dreary day of her life — and the reputation for ugly seating is set.

Excuse 4: The gestalt of if all.

For her 2008 “Bustour” project, Stevenson dressed herself in clothing made of real transit fabric, and then rode the lines the designs came from.

“For many years I had to take the bus to the academy where I studied art. Such a pattern, like a lot of everyday things, imprints itself into our memory unconsciously without being actually perceived”, she notes. “Through my intervention the beholder (or passenger) becomes aware of the ‘invisible’ fabric.” In her hand-sewn clothes, she was camouflaged in her seat, but paradoxically became even more visible. “This is what I had in mind; I wanted to get the unseen seen.”

“These fabrics say a lot about perception and awareness”, she continues. “Many people aren't aware of many things. If you think that people accept this ugliness of fabrics, buildings, public spaces, etc., then you're probably mistaken; it's just that they're not conscious of it. On the other hand, the people who are in charge of designing such things should increase their awareness of them; it is a major responsibility to put these things on display.”

Exoneration: When it’s done well, it’s done very well.

The standard by which all other transport fabrics are judged is the London transport system. “They have always designed specific fabrics for each tube or bus line”, says Wallace-Jones. “TFL prides itself on good design, be it graphics, product, engineering or moquette, which makes it completely unique, embracing every aspect of the transport system and adopting a unique design aesthetic.” Wallace Sewell’s Barman fabric (pictured above) does all of that, and adds a picture search element as well.

Transport London’s moquettes are so popular that the patterns, modern and historic, are available for purchase to the public. Though it may seem improbable that someone would recover a settée in “Tramlink Priority”, one should remember that the British are inexplicably nuts for trains. But looking through that gallery, and even more mass-market selections, one can see the clear influence of such art movements as Bauhaus, Art Deco, Op Art, and International Baggyz.

Stevenson’s experience to the contrary, it does seem that the world has a new awareness of good design. We're sure that one day we’ll look back on these transport fabrics as true classics, as timeless as lumberjack beards and skinny jeans.

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