'Subway chic' inspires graphic designers

You may not want to model your home reno on the TTC, but its designs can teach a lot about consistency, rhythm and colour

By DAVE LEBLANC

Friday, March 25, 2005 Page G12

It’s after 3 p.m. and a man in his early 40s descends, unhurriedly, into the yawning chasm of the Toronto subway system. He carries a large, beat-up portfolio and, in his pockets, a few carpenter’s pencils. In about an hour, it’ll be a zoo down here, he thinks, so better get to work: “Q” is the big one today.

He opens the case, takes out a large sheet of tracing paper and affixes it to the cool tile wall, directly over top of the etched letters that spell out the station’s name. Then, grabbing the pencil from his pocket, he begins rubbing, causing a perfect reproduction to appear. A few patrons pass by and sneak a glance, but none dare bother this “subway-rubber” for fear he may be some sort of lunatic.

Had you been riding Toronto’s underground rails in 1999 and asked David Vereschagin what on earth he was up to, you would have found him happy to oblige and quite sane. A one-man graphics company that designs books, websites and the occasional type font, Mr. Vereschagin is only one of a growing number who are looking to our modernist subway for design inspiration.

“A lot of times I’ve heard people complain that the old subway stations look like washrooms,” Mr. Vereschagin sighs. “It’s something I think is actually quite nice; it’s a distinctive part of Toronto.”

The product of his rubbings is a font called “Toronto subway,” which has been on offer at http://www.quadrat.com for about a year now. Created exclusively for the TTC in the early 1950s by in-house designers (with the help of the architecture firm John B. Parkin Associates), Mr. Vereschagin’s version is as faithful a reproduction as possible.

It’s also a direct result of his love for its “Toronto-ness,” combined with fears it might disappear completely, as Helvetica had muscled in earlier during renovations of old stations.

Appreciation of what I’ll call “subway chic” has been creeping up on me, too, probably since childhood. I remember bouncing along in the dark, trying to anticipate what colour combination was coming next and joyously reading the station name aloud as the train screeched to a halt. Coincidentally, I also liked the robust yet restrained font even then (the letter “R” in particular because of the little “kick” it appeared to be doing), since it was such a departure from the curly cartoon-like ones I was bombarded with on 1970s television.

As an adult, I’ve learned to appreciate the rational, three-colour scheme — yellow station, green station, grey, repeat — of the original 1954 Yonge line using large Vitrolite (glass) tiles, the Bloor-Danforth line’s expanded colour palette of the 1960s, and some of the wilder tile found in 1970s expansion stations. Runnymede station, for example, with its wonderful mint and turquoise hues and barrel-vault ceiling (at street level), has always seemed strikingly beautiful to me.

Dupont station, according to Spacing magazine’s Matthew Blackett, is notable because “it doesn’t have any sharp edges.”

And those benches,” he continues, are “some of the most ergonomically correct I’ve ever sat on.” The magazine’s website, http://www.spacing.ca, includes a photo essay on how subway tile is used to wonderful artistic effect in many stations.

While it’s a stretch to suggest that home renovators should take design cues from the TTC, there is something to learn about consistency, rhythm and colour co-ordination down there.

The awakening of interest in the TTC’s tile mosaics by a new generation of graphic designers parallels the rediscovery of glass tile for kitchen and bathroom backsplashes and shower stalls. (If you’d like to reproduce Dupont’s unique round-tile look behind your sink, check out the Soho line from Deco-Tile.)

Besides, although underground, subway stops are neighbourhood landmarks that people have “emotional connections” to, says Mr. Blackett, “because they used to live there or that’s where they went to high school or it’s where their ex-lover lived.”

Which explains the success Mr. Blackett is enjoying with the release of tiny buttons depicting each subway stop’s unique look.

Since December, the magazine has sold 15,000 of the candy-coloured creations, which look good enough to eat.

“It’s taking the familiar and making it new again,” he says. “That’s sometimes what people need: to be jolted out of their everyday thinking.” And, unlike Warhol’s soup can, which belonged to everybody, the TTC is ours alone to celebrate.

So join the party: It’s right below your feet.

Dave LeBlanc hosts The Architourist on CFRB Sunday mornings. Inquiries can be sent to dave.leblanc@globeandmail.ca.




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