From the pedestrian crossing outside, you'd have no idea that this was anything other than a normal gift shop, with colourful cushions and ties hanging in the windows. But five tube moquettes have been born within these very walls, tested out on the loom tucked away in the quiet back streets of Islington.
You might expect the prestigious job of designing for TfL to go to a large multi-national corporation. Not so. Wallace Sewell is a small team of seven, founded and headed up by textile designers Harriet Wallace-Jones and Emma Sewell, who met while studying at Royal College of Art in the late 1980s.
Inside the small corner shop — once probably a literal corner shop — moquette doesn't feature as heavily as we'd hoped. Priority is given to Wallace Sewell's own designs, and Sewell explains that they're not allowed to sell their moquette designs here; that honour belongs solely to the London Transport Museum shop. There are, however, a cluster of seat cubes in those recognisable moquettes. Trams, London Overground and the Barman are parked up side by side in a sight guaranteed to please any Londoner.
We're here to get the lowdown on how they go about designing those instantly recognisable seats that millions of people sit on every year.
How it began: the Overground
Wallace Sewell's underground adventure actually began above ground in 2007, designing the moquette for the London Overground. It was among five companies approached by TfL, and asked to put forward seat designs for consideration.
Before the Overground moquette, TfL recruited individual designers, including Misha Black who created the 1970s District line pattern. Wallace-Jones and Sewell admit to wanting to create an "homage to Misha Black" in the Overground moquette that they designed — which won them the commission and still adorns the 'ginger line' as it approaches its 10th birthday.
TfL must have liked the results. It approached the company again to add some colour to Croydon's Tramlink in 2010. Emma explains the thought process behind this one; "The brief was a suburban theme; city meets country", just like the suburbs of Croydon itself.
Designing a transport moquette isn't as much of a blank canvas as you might think; TfL dictates the four colours to be used in each moquette, right down to the specific pantones. While some designers might find that restrictive, this pair relish the challenge, using their knowledge of colour theory from their academic days. Their aim?:
Take four colours, make it work, make it beautiful.
Wallace Sewell was involved in the development process for the tram moquette too, helping to translate the design onto fabric — turns out it's not as simple as picking your colours, doodling your design, and sending it off to the loom.
For example, Harriet points out, the tram moquette consists of just white, grey, green and red. Yet look closer: while the thicker red stripes do look red, the thinner ones on the green background have more of an orange hue to them, despite consisting of the same thread.
Yarn colour intensity is a factor too— pantone colours look a lot darker in the thick pile of a moquette than they do in flat designs, so time has to be spent altering the colours accordingly. Not a problem: "We love trying to make colour do things" says Sewell. Shades and hues and pantones are all part of the fun for this pair.
Wallace Sewell have their own loom downstairs, which we see in use. They mock up their designs once they've got them down on paper, and get an idea of how those colours are looking. Today, they're creating mock-ups for another project the company is working on.
Once that final design is settled, it's passed on to textile production company Camira to bring to life. Most of the moquette is now produced in Lithuania — in fact, the tram moquette was the last thing woven at Camira's UK site.
The iconic Barman
Their third TfL design, the Barman moquette, is the one they're most proud of — no surprise, considering how iconic it's become. Harriet is sitting on a cube wrapped in this very moquette as they reminisce about entering the competition to design it. Talking about the many, many designs they came up with to enter, it's clear they had some fun along the way.
"No, we didn't enter that one in the end" interrupts Wallace-Jones, as Sewell begins pulling doodles and flatplans out of a plastic wallet. So determined were they to win the public competition, they each entered two designs into the public competition — you can see the ones that didn't win here.
The brief was 'spirit of London', but several other factors came into play. They were going for a "busy pattern" to ensure it concealed the dirt, but the pattern had to not be too large, to economise on material when cutting it to fit the seats. There's a lot more to this moquette malarkey than we imagined.
Barman may be their most recognisable work, but they've produced two further seat-warmers since then. It's 'Interim Crossrail' (as they like to call it) which gives us the most insight into the design process. This was the recent revamp of the TfL Rail trains pottering between Liverpool Street and Shenfield. The trains will be going out of service in 2019 when Crossrail proper picks up the route, so TfL wasn't too fussy about what this moquette looked like, specifying only that it should be as cheap to make as possible.
Harriet and Emma took a ride on the route themselves in search of inspiration, taking photos of everything they saw from the train window, from the unusual to the mundane. One photo in particular stood out to them — we're not going to pretend we understand why — and they took it from there:
As for making it cheaply, look closely at the moquette. Despite using more than the standard four colours in the design, each 'row' only has two colours to it. Due to the way the weaving is done, this reduces the amount of thread necessary, reducing overall production costs. Clever stuff.
Designing the Crossrail moquette
The pair's most recent contribution to the TfL network is the Crossrail moquette, seen in designs as early as 2015, and unveiled to the world when the new trains began running in June 2017. The trains caused a bit of a stir but what many people don't realise is that rereleasing the Barman in a different colour palette was mooted briefly (as has been done on the Bakerloo line). We'd love to see the Barman in various shades of lilac and lavender, but TfL decided it was not to be, and so a whole new design was called for.
Given that this design is the freshest in their minds, we take the opportunity to probe Sewell and Wallace Jones about the process of designing for TfL.
They make it sound surprisingly simple, having just two meetings with TfL between submitting their first and final designs. And yet, there are clearly frustrations working with such a large organisation, with multiple people from different departments having to sign off every tiny detail. It couldn't be more of a contrast from Wallace Sewell's own set-up, their staff clustered together around desks at the back of the shop.
How long does it take to design a moquette?
The Crossrail project had been on the horizon for a year but we had just four weeks between the final brief and the deadline.
So after months of hanging around, it was all systems go.
Naturally, they're proud of what they've done — although extremely modest about the fact that millions of people a year sit on their work. Wallace-Jones laughs as she tells us about her Dorset-dwelling husband on a rare trip to London. "He turned to the woman next to him on the tube and told her that I'd designed these very seats".
Sewell has a similar story. Her daughter, who was seven when the Overground moquette was rolled out, actually rode the line before Sewell herself did, and spent the journey telling a carriage full of strangers that her mum had designed the seats. "They were all charmed by her, apparently".
Now that Crossrail is up and running, focus is very much back on Wallace Sewell's own designs. They've been commissioned to design products for the likes of the Tate gift shops, and have stock appearing in all manner of high street and high-end interior design stores. Keep an eye on their website for further details.
Could they be called up for moquette duty again when Crossrail 2 makes its long-awaited appearance? Watch this space...