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The American designers who shaped how we see London
London Transport Museum in Covent Garden explores the powerful link between transport and the growth of modern London, culture and society since 1800. Here, the Museum’s head curator, Matt Brosnan, explores the American design heroes who have shaped how we see the Capital.
For over a century, London Transport has been a byword for good design, creating a public transport network and brand admired around the world.
The interwar period was a ‘golden age’ of striking station architecture, stylishly appointed vehicles and attractive promotional posters. Among the most influential designers to be commissioned by London Transport were the Americans Edward McKnight Kauffer and Marion Dorn.
Both Kauffer and Dorn were born and educated in the USA but made their professional reputations when working in Britain and influencing the look and feel of London’s transport network. They also happened to be partners, meeting in Britain in 1923 and marrying in 1950.
Kauffer was born in 1890 in Great Falls, Montana and studied art at the Mark Hopkins Institute in San Francisco. After studying in Paris, he moved to London in 1914. Kauffer was commissioned to design his first poster for London Transport the following year, beginning a fruitful and prolific relationship.
For the next 24 years, Kauffer designed 134 posters that publicised and adorned London’s transport network. His designs demonstrated the influences of many major art movements of the period, including Impressionism, Modernism, Vorticism and the Bauhaus, often involving bold colour, geometric compositions and distinctive typography.
In 1935, artist Paul Nash wrote that Kauffer was ‘responsible above anyone else for the change in attitude towards commercial art in this country’.
Marion Dorn was similarly important in textile design. Born in 1899 in San Francisco, she studied graphic art at Stamford University before coming to Britain in 1923. Dorn began her career designing fabrics and soft furnishings sold through specialist outlets and her work was soon exhibited widely in London and Europe.
From the late 1920s, Dorn was a prolific designer of modern and abstract textiles and carpets for private and public buildings, including the Savoy and Claridge’s. Her textiles were also used in the interiors of ocean liners and, in 1934, she founded her own company.
In 1936, Dorn was commissioned to produce designs of moquette, the decorative but durable seating fabrics that have been used on London Transport vehicles since the 1930s. Dorn designed four moquettes for London Transport: Chesham (1936), Colindale (1937), Canonbury (1937) and Caledonian (1942).
All featured small scale, tight, abstract repeating patterns that represented a change from the more sweeping decorative designs in her other work. Like Kauffer’s posters for London Transport, these textile designs represented the work of a major designer in her field at the height of her creativity. They were to be seen, and sat on, by millions of Londoners.
In 1940, Dorn and Kauffer left Britain for the US. However, they were never to achieve a similar level of success there. Kauffer died in 1954. A retrospective exhibition of his work was shown in London the following year. Dorn left her career in New York to set up a studio in Tangier but died in 1964 shortly after its establishment. Both these American designers will remain inextricably linked with the design history of London Transport.
Find out more about the history of the London Underground and London's Transport Heritage at the London Transport Museum. Discover more design history at London Transport Museum’s Depot in Acton, West London. Book guided tours of the Depot online: https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/depottours