Frank Pick
Simple name : Online essay
Collection : Information
Reference number : 2008/652
Exploring 20th Century London essay


Date of birth: 23 Nov 1878. Date of death: 7 Nov 1941. Frank Pick, chief executive of London Transport (L.T), was a towering figure who had an unrivalled flair for design-management. Pick brought L.T. international acclaim for its public architecture and graphic art. His vision imbued the organisation with confidence and self-respect fitting for the transport system of a world city.

Frank Pick was born on 23 November 1878 in Lincolnshire, into a Congregationalist family: Francis Pick, a draper, and his wife Fanny. He was educated at St Peter's School, York. After leaving school he worked for a York solicitor, George Crombie, from 1897. In 1901 Pick married Mabel Woodhouse, and the couple adopted a daughter. In 1902 he gained a first class honours degree in Law from the University of London. However the same year he decided on a dramatic career change, joining the traffic statistics office of the North Eastern Railway Company under the general manager, Sir George Gibb. When Gibb moved to London in 1906 as chairman of the Underground Group, he took Pick, his ambitious young assistant, with him.

In 1907 Pick was put in charge of publicity by Albert Stanley (later Lord Ashfield) the general manager of the Underground Group. Pick effectively created this job for himself, since at that time separate publicity and design departments did not exist. It was in this role that his talents became evident. He changed the look of the new Underground system. Pick swept away the clutter from stations where, until then, commercial advertising could be displayed anywhere. He designated far larger areas for the group's essential signage, including route maps and station names.

In 1908 Pick began commissioning striking posters in a variety of styles. He started with established artists, but soon became a leading patron of new talent. Posters promoted off-peak travel to a captive audience of commuters. They showed an image of London that many Londoners had never seen and let commuters know that a trip to the countryside, the theatre, or the Zoo during their leisure time was within their reach. Artists included Edward McKnight Kauffer, Man Ray, Graham Sutherland, Hans Schleger, Tom Eckersley, László Moholy-Nagy, and Frank Brangwyn. It became a prestigious commission to work for the Underground Group, and by the 1920s posters designed by the best graphic artists in the country could be seen on the platforms of the Tube.

Pick also developed the red disc that took its place in the Underground Group's trademark bull's-eye design. Seen everywhere - on trains, trams, buses and stations - this unique visual symbol gave the company cohesion across its various interests. It was easily recognised by people in London's busy streets, and has become a world-famous symbol of the city it serves.

In 1912 Pick was made commercial manager, and began planning the integration and joint promotion of the bus and Underground services when the Underground Group took over the London General Omnibus Company. He often walked miles researching improvements to bus routes. Pick's design interests soon extended beyond publicity and encompassed every aspect of the company. He hired people who made great and lasting contributions to the overall design of London's Underground. Edward Johnston was commissioned in 1916 to create a new, easily legible typeface, combining the best of the classic typefaces with an unmistakeably 20th-century style. The result was the iconic Johnston Sans, which is still used, with minor modifications, by Transport for London. This font is the basis for Verdana, one of the most popular modern fonts to be read on screen.

Charles Holden, the architect, was another of Pick's appointments. He was first commissioned in the 1920s to design new Underground stations on the southern extension of the Northern line and the northern extension of the Piccadilly line. Holden also designed 55 Broadway, the headquarters of the Underground Group near St James's Park station. The building was completed in 1929 and won that year's Royal Institute of British Architects prize for architecture. All these functional yet stylish designs avoided ornamentation and showed 'fitness for purpose', Pick's motto and a modernist ideal.

By 1928, Pick had risen to the position of managing director of U.E.R.L. In 1933, he became vice chairman and chief executive of the newly formed London Passenger Transport Board (L.P.T.B) under Lord Ashfield. This was soon known as London Transport (L.T), the largest city transport authority in the world, and was responsible for all the capital's bus, tram and Underground services.

Pick's interests were broad, both within and beyond L.T. He was involved in designing new rolling stock for the Northern line that had light-shades and armrests to add to the passengers' comfort. His role also included developing designs for equipment and buildings, ranging from signal cabins to substations. Pick campaigned vigorously for better design education. He passionately believed in design's civilising nature and ability to affect people's lives for the better. His skills lead to a number of appointments: he became president of the Design and Industries Association in 1932, he was appointed chairman of the Council for Art and Industry (forerunner of the Design Council) in 1934. Pick also became an honorary associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Pick left London Transport in 1940. After a brief and unhappy spell at the Ministry of Information, where he was director general, he retired to his home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Pick had not been well for some years. He died in 1941.

Pick's attention to detail was legendary. Though he was demanding and sometimes difficult to work for, he managed to get the best out of people. His handwritten notes in green ink were familiar on all aspects of L.T's workings. He refused all honours he was offered. In 1952 a plaque was unveiled in his old school, St Peter's of York, which read, 'He served his fellow men, made transport an art and sought beauty and good design in all things'.

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