‘Lost in the high street, where the dogs run. Roaming suburban boys. Mother’s got a hairdo to be done.’ Released in 1986, the Pet Shop Boys’ single Suburbia encapsulates what it has become for us today – a synonym for bored melancholic hopelessness. Never mind that the pop duo really had Los Angeles and Brixton in mind, these sentiments are just as easily attributed to Croydon and Harrow. ‘Suburban’ has become a derogatory epithet applied to others, not yourself. If not a place of dread, it’s one of parody. It’s sitcom land par excellence, populated by characters like Victor Meldrew or Terry and June. But in reality, suburbia is not a mythical land where dentists park their Volvos of an evening in front of Mock Tudor houses, before a round of canasta and perhaps some wife-swapping later on. It is where most of us have lived at one time or another. And it’s also the subject of Suburbia, a show being staged at the London Transport Museum next month.
Given the less than flattering baggage (not to mention the Tory political cast) that suburbia has collected along the way, it’s as well to remember that suburbia’s origins lie partially in utopian 19thcentury socialism, and a deeply held conviction that proximity to nature and craft could improve our lives. Moved by the slums and despair of the new urban poor created by the Industrial Revolution, the Arts and Crafts movement believed that design and craft could provide a solution, influencing revolutionary town planner Ebenezer Howard, who conceived of a ‘garden city’ that would combine the best of town and country.
Yorkshireman Charles Voysey was perhaps the movement’s most original designer, developing a new, comfortable suburban vernacular in his homes and interiors, referencing the aesthetics of Tudor and medieval times as a salve to the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. The design of a door handle, repeating wallpaper or a country pile were all approached with equal seriousness. While Voysey’s designs were predominantly for country homes for the wealthy, the style quickly spawned a legion of imitations, as did the neo-Georgian (‘Wrenniassance’) style developed by Edward Lutyens for Hampstead Garden City.
Incidentally, Letchworth, where the first garden city was set up, was seen as an avant-garde place populated by health freaks and vegetarians, pilloried by the Daily Mail before the newspaper got on the bandwagon by staging the first Ideal Home exhibition in 1908. Pseudo-period detailing derived from a superficial take on Voysey and his contemporaries has defined a suburban style that’s been repeated with monotonous regularity from Brisbane to Birmingham.
And a diluted Arts and Crafts language, except for the odd incursion of Art Deco or Scandinavian Modernism, has largely informed both suburban furniture and derision from serious designers and historians. Yet suburbia has not entirely been neglected – the Geffrye Museum in urban Hackney (founded by Arts and Crafts furniture-makers in 1914) has earnestly documented the changing design of the middle-class suburban sitting room. And now that the recession has pushed the high-octane, bonus-fuelled, city penthouse ideal out to pasture, it’s as good a time as any to re-evaluate suburbia. There is once again an emphasis on craft and the quiet life, of countering the ravages – ecological this time – of industry. Garden cities are now being rethought in ecological terms. Allotments are fashionable, local authorities are attempting to transform problem housing estates through gardening, and designers are being forced to think in terms of sustainability. And plans are even afoot to make conservation areas out of precisely those north London suburbs pilloried in the poems of John Betjeman.
So the timing of London Transport Museum’s exhibition is quite fortuitous. Designed in-house, it will ‘explore how public transport
helped to create the urban landscape, myths and identity of London’s suburbs, and how they’ve featured in the cultural fabric of London, and Britain, over the past 100 years’. Its archives are unrivalled, and while there is always the family album aspect to a show such as this – seeing what somewhere you’ve lived was like in, say, the 1940s, is akin to discovering what your uncle looked like as a young man – there is also a serious dimension. Technology was required to take people out to their Mock Tudor semis, and there is an interesting interplay between different design ideologies: the cutting-edge Modernism of the graphics, signage, typography and architecture of the transport system, and the architecture of the dormitory destination.
As one of the most exemplary of all design clients, the work commissioned by London Transport is of the highest standard. While Harry Beck’s Tube map, Charles Holden’s Arnos Grove station and Edward Johnston’s sans serif typeface are in the design pantheon, there’s much else to admire, from bus shelters to posters, as the exhibition will show. Or you could simply get on a London bus or Tube, head out, and admire the sights themselves.