5 British Icons of Designs (for a London Street Treasure Hunt)

London Underground Escalator

London boasts many iconic designs that are immediately recognizable, even if you’ve never been. The upper school of EIFA International School in London’s Marylebone are launching our London Street Treasure Hunt. The teams will pass the following Icons of Design. Some exchange with one of the below may even grant treasure hunters extra points! After EIFA students are sent scouring the streets from Bloomsbury to Covent Garden, we’ll release the hunt to the general public.

1. The British Phone Box

British Phone Booth, Books Inside
Decommissioned phone box converted into a mini-library. Whitwell, Isle of Wight, UK. (taken from Wikipedia).

In the ‘20s, the UK Post Office wanted to install phone booths throughout the city, to widespread resistance. The box’s were apparently very ugly. It was quite a rigmarole trying to decide what to do about it. They held several competitions with many different designs, but nothing sufficed. Until finally, the accomplished architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott entered the arena. He was inspired by the unique domed top of Sir John Soane’s mausoleum, which the man had designed himself.

Finally, a design the public could accept, contrary to Scott’s preferences, the post office decided to paint them the now-iconic bright red. The goal was to make them easier to see. Starting in 1926, the crown design was added. Initially, the crown served as a ventilation opening! In some areas, little-used telephone boxes have been repurposed for different uses. They’re made into little libraries, defibrillator houses, even a tiny gallery! At Russell Square there’s a great café phone booth. Red phone booths are everywhere. You might even remember it appearing in a popular urban fantasy series as a way to enter the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter. Did you know we had a Harry Potter street hunt in Paris?

2. The Letter Box

1856 Pillar Box, West Gate Warwick.
1856 pillar box at the West Gate Warwick. Warwickshire, England. (taken form Wikipedia).

Since the 19th century, the pillar box, a red free-standing post box, has been an iconic fixture in Britain. Though the exact number can’t be known for sure, it’s likely there are over 100,000 scattered across England. Before the advent of the post box people usually had to deliver their letters to post office sites by hand. Much more convenient!

Anthony Trollope, famous novelist and post-office surveyor, proposed that letter boxes be set up on the side of the road, after he came saw them in France and Belgium. The Royal Mail test-ran his idea in 1852 in the Channel Island of Jersey. Later, he poked fun at the whole thing through a character in one of Trollope’s novels. The characters critique the post box colorfully. You might have seen some in Mary Poppins, or Monty Python’s Flying Circus! Both Monty Python and Mary Poppins figure in the London Street Fun hunt, but don’t worry you won’t need an umbrella to fly up into the sky!

3. The London Underground Sign & Map

Comparison of 1933 map and 2012 map
The left side shows the 1933 Beck map. The right side the map in 2012. (taken from Wikipedia).

The map wasn’t always the way you see it today. Instead, it used to be more traditional overlaid over a plan of the city. In the ‘30s an employee at the London Underground, Henry Beck, realized that an underground system doesn’t need to be predicated on ordinary landmarks. The importance was the relation of the underground stations and tracks to each other. This started the distinctive design we are so familiar with today!

London Underground Sign
(taken from Wikimedia)

The design is widely emulated, even by the Royal Shakespeare Company in a visual diagram about Shakespeare characters! The Sign itself, a red circle intersected by a navy bar, is unforgettably iconic and delightfully simple. It’s amazing how the image itself means at once nothing, but everything. That’s some powerful design!

And what about the Underground Font? Next time you’re taking the tube, notice how all the dots (on an i or a j for instance) are diamonds! The Uruguayan-born British man Edward Johnston designed the font in 1916. You can see a memorial to him at Farringdon Station or see a mini documentary on Johnston’s design prowess that the London Transport Museum made.

The Underground Station that treasure hunters will be inspecting on our London Street Fun is of course Covent Garden, with its iconic red-glazed tiled facade. Designed by Leslie Green, he did all the stations along the Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Northern Lines. Here’s a great map of the red-glazed stations that are still standing — among them Russell Square and Covent Garden, but sadly not Regent’s Park, EIFA International School’s playground.

4. London Taxis

Unlike the classic yellow taxicabs of New York City, black cabs are the official fare of London. These are the only cabs allowed to be hailed from the street. Also called a hackney carriage, historically they’re derived from actual horse-drawn carriages for hire (the carriage operated all the way into the 20th century!). Becoming a driver seems to be a somewhat intense process. The test is, dramatically, coined The Knowledge. This test requires a deep learning of London’s streets (60K streets in a 6 mile radius!) in order to create a successful driver. Passing The Knowledge leads the student to becoming a part of the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers (who’ coming up with these names?!! Sounds like a secret society, honestly). Their measurement includes the height of a man’s top hat, again a tip of the hat to yesteryear!

Black Taxis
(taken from Wikimedia)

5. London Double Decker Busses

Like the cabs, the predecessor to the contemporary double-decker bus was a double-decker horse-drawn carriage. Yes, really! Some of double-deckers no longer working have become mobile cafes, theaters, or campers. One even hosts a fashion catwalk and others carry around wedding parties. How’s that for arriving with your entourage?! In the past, they were color-coded based on route before their formalization as all-red. In WWI these buses transported soldiers. Did you know, Dickens loved them so much he wrote a whole essay in praise of busses– saying the double-decker encouraged socializing. More modern pop references include James Bond driving one in Live and Let Die (Roger Moore had to have lessons to drive it for the role!). And, yes, the bus in Harry Potter’s and the Prisoner of Azkaban required 3 double-deckers to be welded together!

The ‘London Booster’ created by David Černý. To celebrate the Summer 2012 Olympics.

London Street Treasure Hunt

On the London Street treasure hunt, you’ll be walking by – and engaging with – these iconic designs. For instance teams are going to have to find a crown on one of the above icons. For a photo challenge, they must figure out how to photo one of their teams wearing the crown. And yes! You’ve just been rewarded for having read this blog post with that morsel! Love ‘em or hate ‘em, London definitely boasts several distinctive design elements. Do you have any favorites we left off the list? Want to tell us your favorite fun-fact? Don’t forget to check out our other posts about Roman Numerals and Henry VIII to get a leg up on your competition in the London Street Treasure Hunt. Or another blog post that’s a basic give away of treasure hunting points is our piece on Covent Garden!

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