Fun fact: the suggestion of this article first appeared as a DM from a random girl on Twitter. It’s taken me so long to write this that we’ve upgraded from random DMs to living together. As an aside, I can highly recommend dating long-distance and telling border guards that you met via Twitter DM, purely for the dubious looks you get.
But, energy replenished by a recent trip back to the UK, and given my follower base sits at the direct meeting point between design nerds, transport nerds, and urbanist London Twitter, it seems an obvious one. The moquette is a fairly unique bit of design, given that its purpose is as much practical as aesthetic. Made to reduce the amount of deep cleaning required by being dazzling enough to withstand the damage and dirt of repeated use while not giving the transport service a bad reputation.
They also present an interesting design challenge, generally having to operate within the constraints of a four colour palette and the need for a repeating texture severely limiting options for detail.
Given London’s huge population and the remarkably enduring nature of its transport brand, they’ve become more than practical designs and adopted the mantle of cultural icons in their own right — at least for a certain slice of online nerd.
For context and background on these designs, I’ve drawn on Andrew Martin’s excellent book Seats of London, which you can pick up for a very reasonable £14.99 from the London Transport Museum shop.
Most of these designs are by Harriet Wallace-Jones and Emma Sewell (the firm of Wallace Sewell), the city’s leading designers of moquette fabrics, and while I’m about to take the piss out of several of their designs, I should at least take a moment to acknowledge that the primary driver of any disparaging comments is my jealousy that they basically have the coolest job in the world.
15) New Routemaster
Your boring stoner friend Derek (who you only hang around with because he torrents old PS2 games for you) swears this shows you a dolphin if you stare at it for long enough, but you don’t have the heart to tell him he’s just staring at a bus seat.
It really is a shame. The New Routemasters are pretty attractive buses from the exterior, but the darkness of the red doesn’t match the livery and gives the seats a worn out and gloomy feel. The trippy melting lines are appropriate for a prog album cover, but on a winding London bus ride seem more likely to exacerbate motion sickness rather than induce psychedelic trips.
14) Docklands Light Railway
The DLR is one of London’s best transport gems — you can’t beat sitting in the front seat, soaring across a shiny new bit of the city and pretending you’re driving, for a sense of futuristic wonder, or childish fun.
Such a shame the design is a bit PowerPoint 1997. The intention of this design, introduced in 2002, was to evoke the waves shimmering off the Thames in the morning light, and it’s doubtless present in the final design. Where I and the designer part ways, however, is on the colour scheme. Different grades of the blue would have been subtler, better at blending in with the surroundings, and probably would have shown up less dirt, too.
13) London Cable Car
A fascinating example of being trapped by short term financial considerations into a boring bit of design. Originally deployed on the opening of the cablecar in 2012, it matches Emirates’ key brand colours, from when the Dubai-based airline was the sponsor for what is now the IFS Cloud Cable Car (which not only brings nothing by way of brand recognition for IFS, but doesn’t have the lame pun of the cable car’s original title, the Emirates Air Line).
In my line of work one has to interact with a lot of Labour selection candidates at the moment and this “various shades of red” swatch pattern is giving me war flashbacks to the many bad websites I’ve had to browse through over the last few months. Of course being representative of the Emirates Air Line, something widely regarded as useless and embarrassing, is not something anyone would associate with the Labour Party, so I’m not sure why I even bring it up.
Anyway, hands up if you’re one of the five people who commutes on this thing (come on, there must be some of you). Do the soporific squares help you grab an extra five minutes of sleep on your dangle to work at the O2?
12) London Overground
Oof, Big Seventies Energy, as I’m sure the Gen Zs don’t say. A combination of brown and orange is acceptable in precisely two scenarios: if you’re deliberately trying to evoke nostalgia for Heath-era power cuts, or if you’re advertising orange chocolate (and even Terry’s don’t sink to it). Adding grey to the mix rules out both, so we’re left with something that, despite its angular Bauhaus influences, is just bad. It at least matches the Overground’s unceasing orange brand (despite being very clearly several different lines — something TFL is, as of 2023, finally starting to remedy).
11) Piccadilly Line (“Tube Lines”)
Anyone else who went to a British school in the early to mid 2000s will recognise this as the sort of thing they’d use to adorn a textbook cover about something hard to illustrate (let’s say Philosophy) but it works equally well as a transport moquette — enough simplicity to be recognisable, enough complexity to cover commuter bum grime.
What’s impressive here is the ability to produce gradation between colours despite the use of such a limited palette — by slowly stippling out one colour and replacing it with another, it’s possible to create the illusion of great colour range than actually exists, a technique known in digital illustration as dithering.
Unfortunately the designs as they actually exist on the seats tend to look a bit worn and dated — the refurbishment that introduced them was done in 2007, which means this design is coming up on its GCSEs. Maybe time for it to retire.
10) Croydon Trams
My partner and I often bicker over how good trams and light rail actually are (she’s a massive tramsphobe) and examples like this don’t help my case with their eye-gouging colour clashes.
Despite being called Trams, most of the South London network, opened in 2000 but only operated by TFL since 2008, is closer to what North Americans would call light rail — often operating on dedicated tracks segregated from car traffic, at least outside of central Croydon.
Instead of the red, I might have improved this with a lighter green along the same colour continuum as the one eventually chosen. According to Andrew Martin, the red and green were chosen to evoke a sense of urban meeting rural, but since Croydon is, if we’re being honest, still a major city, it feels like a restricting stipulation lost on most riders.
Apparently the reason Croydon was chosen as the setting for Peep Show was because they wanted a scene set on a tram, but then they abandoned the idea, meaning it could have been set anywhere except that they’d already decided on it. It’s probably because the combination of green, red, and the sort of blue-grey I associate with fancy cats would have made their cameras explode.
9) 2016 London Bus Moquette
TFL uses a range of designs across their bus fleet and, buses being less glamorous than trains, they’re a lot less well documented than the Tube moquettes. But this design, introduced to replace a range of privatised operator logos, features a dignified low-impact roundel and a somewhat pleasing red and grey colour pallette much more suited to the outside of the buses than the New Routemaster design.
8) TFL Rail
As a temporary holding brand for East-West train lines intended to be superceded by the completion of Crossrail in 2022, the brief for TFL Rail called for the moquette to be cheap, and this uncomplicated design duly obliges. The design was based on a photograph taken by the designers of an electrical substation, with the rectangular grey cladding still evident in the final design. The eagle eyed may notice this has double the usual four colours, but since fabric for moquettes is woven line by line, it only uses 2–3 colours for each, actually helping to cut costs. It’s well-intended but a little too busy in terms of colour scheme to stand out.
7) Elizabeth Line (Crossrail)
It’s a purple pattern for the purple train! I rather like the thin lines from a dirt-covering perspective (and I intend to inspect it with a magnifying glass when I take the time to ride it next month to make sure it’s spotless). I’m less keen on the red flecks — they’re too eye-catching and distract from the rather nicer blue checkerboard pattern.
Coming in with a new class of transport has allowed TFL to commission a design that aligns with the train’s exterior and promotional branding, rather than retrofitting to older rolling stock as with updates to tube lines or buses.
6) Waterloo and City
Quite why the Tube’s tiniest line is nicknamed The Drain doesn’t seem to be clear, with suggestions mostly coming down to a tendency for leaky tunnels, or the passenger entrance on the Bank side resembling a drain.
It’s also, as far as I’m aware, the only moquette on this list I haven’t at some point graced with my bum, as it only serves two stations which I seldom have need to travel between.
Pleasing in both a geometric and colour palette sense, there’s a good alignment between shades of blue and purple here that comes close to the Waterloo And City’s turquoise line colour. The 45 degree increments in the pattern as well as the checkerboarding of the lighter blue squares do a good job of suggesting complexity beyond what’s actually there.
5) Barman (Bakerloo Variant)
Barman is a great design, but unfortunately its teenage emo variant has to place lower than the original and best. From a design perspective a combination of white, red and dark grey can look very classy in the right context (I’ve used it myself in political design) but when the use case is to look vibrant for tourists and to disguise dirt, this is let down by the reality that it could appear in a NUMTOT version of Dracula’s castle.
It was introduced in 2015 as a replacement for a very garish red and blue design on the Bakerloo, and is intended to serve as a night-time variant of the traditional Barman. Aptly, night is when the London Eye is actually lit up in red, so if you’re a stickler for accuracy, this may supercede its older brother.
Originally it was intended to be in Bakerloo Brown, but was felt to be too drab (and, while excellent at hiding dirt, might not be the best advert for the pictured monuments).
It might be better suited to the lines which serve the City of London, whose corporate identity leans on a heritage-heavy black-white-red colour scheme.
4) New Tube for London
Currently under construction and aimed at deployment on the Piccadilly Line in 2025, the New Tube for London will replace the current 1973 stock of trains after five decades of operation, which seems to be roughly average for a rolling stock upgrade, and comes complete with its own dedicated moquette.
Despite being shining and new, the red-blue-green design with white stripes calls to mind 80s chic for me — similar to the original Channel 4 logo. Perhaps the retro-futurist feel comes from those colours’ association with digital displays, with RGB colour being the basis for colour construction from light — the three combined form pure white.
It’s simple, but effective, and I can’t wait to sit down and try it in a couple of years’ time.
3) District, Circle, Hammersmith and City, and Metropolitan Lines
The concept here is simple and effective — the four colours of the lines in question, deployed in pleasing contrasting squares. It probably works out significantly cheaper and less complicated to combine designs like this, but I’d think it was kind of a shame if TFL rolled out this approach across the whole network. In a new transport system, a unified seat design would make sense, but London’s many and varied moquettes give each service a slightly unique feel that helps build rider loyalty and a sense of heritage — the Tube is, after all, the world’s oldest metro system.
That this timeless design only dates from 2010 is surely a mark of its genius, although it draws on a longer heritage in terms of its name, a tribute to Christian Barman, the first commissioner of moquettes in 1936. Subtly advertising the city as a tourist hotspot through reference to four iconic landmarks (see if you can identify them all!*), it manages with aplomb the serious challenge of representative illustration within a tiny repeating pattern.
1) Victoria Line
Barman is the fan favourite, but for me it’s impossible to beat the Victoria Line. High concept without being impenetrable, bold without being garish, it combines very literal imagery — the four compass points of travel, and the V for Victoria — in a way that doesn’t force you to think too hard about it. The fact that this is one of the longest-running designs on this list, having been introduced in 1988, is a testament to its iconic staying power. Adorning many of my London journeys — which have a tendency to start at St. Pancras and terminate in Brixton — it’s become a familiar friend to me over the years, and it should be yours too. Unlike anyone living in heavily developed Greater London, it’s outstanding in its field.
*These include the London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben and Tower Bridge, although some people swear they can see Battersea Power Station too.