Archived posts: Ephemera

Driving: The Department of Transport Manual

Is it safe?

We found a copy of an old HMSO book lying around over the weekend, and thought we’d share some of the brilliant images from its pages.

The book was first published in 1969 by the Department of Transport and the Central Office of Information. Our copy is the third edition, from 1979, and the tenth impression, from 1987.

There’s more than a hint of Scarfolk in the photography and captions:

Heading for trouble


Red car

Red car 2

The illustrations are wonderful too:



Feet per second

Dead Ground


The back of the book advertises some films on road safety – we’d love to see DRIVE CAREFULLY DARLING.

Unknown Pleasures and CP 1919


Last night print guru Daniel Mason gave a brilliant talk at the Wynkyn de Worde Society about his work researching, developing and manufacturing facsimile record sleeves for Joy Division, including their album Unknown Pleasures. We’re working as the honorary designers for the society this year, and created the piece above as a memento of the talk.

Unknown Pleasures was Joy Division’s debut album, and featured Peter Saville’s fantastic and iconic sleeve design:


Famously, the illustration used on the cover came from The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy, and represents successive pulses from CP1919, the first ever discovered pulsar. More recently, Jen Christiansen, art director of information graphics at Scientific American, did a bit of detective work, and found out that the image was originally created by Harold Craft for his PhD thesis.

We wanted to make a piece for Daniel’s talk that referenced the source material, reuniting the graphic with its caption, so we did a bit of digging around and found a copy of the Encyclopaedia for sale on AbeBooks. A few days later we had the book open on page 111, and there was the original image:


We scanned the page, vectorised the image, and reset the type from the caption (using Elsner+Flake’s Modern Extended) so that we could create a foiling die.

We worked with Benwells and Mason to create the finished piece, which uses a holographic foil on Colorplan Ebony Black, all set at the same size as the original. The holographic foil picks up the light brilliantly against the black:


Find out more about the Wynkyn de Worde Society here.

Potter prints

Yesterday, at one of the Clerkenwell Design Week events, we bumped into the very lovely Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima, who worked on the graphic design for all eight of the Harry Potter films. Collectively known as Minalima, they’ve recently launched The Printorium, an online market place for a series of lovely fine art prints based on their work for the films.

The prints come in two formats – limited editions of 1,000, embossed and signature stamped; and limited editions of 250, hand signed, which have additional hand-worked details like gold foiling. Where possible, they’re delivered by owl.

It’s really great to see this stuff living on after the movies, and heck, they’d make the most amazing gifts for Potterheads (we had to look that up).

The print below features some ads from from The Daily Prophet, the wizarding newspaper in the films.

Miraphora and Eduardo also have a selection of self-initiated prints available on the site, which are equally lovely.

There’ll be an exhibition of their work at The Conningsby Gallery in London from 17 to 28 June.


London Transport Museum Acton Depot

We made our way over to London Transport Museum’s Acton Depot yesterday – it’s where they house the majority of the collection that’s not on show at the museum itself. As part of the tube’s 150th anniversary they’re having a series of events there, and this weekend was their Open Weekend.

The depot houses a selection of retired tube trains, buses, trams, trolleybuses; and a densely packed mezzanine full of an incredible selection of old signs.

It’s an amazing treasure trove.

And there’s a host of other wonders too. Back on the ground floor there’s a cabinet of woodblock letters, featuring various versions of the Johnston typeface designed  in 1917 by calligrapher Edward Johnston (who actually lived not so far away from Acton, in Chiswick). This was the typeface used throughout the London Underground, and still in use today (in the slightly modified form of New Johnston).

There are some bits of metal type lying around too:

There’s also a model of Strand Station, a now defunct station which you can occasionally take tours around.

There are also examples of the logo designed for the Victoria Line:

and some lovely old ticket machines:

How binary are those? Put your money in, get a ticket. Or don’t put any money in, push a button, and get an Authority to Travel. Brilliant.

Fantastic stuff.

If you missed it this weekend, they’re having a series of guided tours throughout the year.

If you’d like to find out more about the London Underground’s design history, then you should really get yourself a copy of Mark Ovenden’s truly marvellous book London Underground By Design.

Museum of Broken Relationships

Alistair was out in Zagreb over the weekend, and stopped in at the fantastic Museum of Broken Relationships to have a look around.

The whole content of the museum is crowdsourced: broken-hearted lovers are invited to donate a personal object that represents their failed relationship. They’re also asked to write a short piece about the relationship – so effectively, it’s a museum of stories as much as one of ephemera. With so many different contributors, it could feel chaotic, but thanks to a minimalist design and some careful curatorial control, it works brilliantly.

The collection started life as a travelling exhibition, and it continues to tour the world (it’s currently in Boulder, Colorado) while the main collection stays in Zagreb. This adds a truly international aspect to the collected items.

What’s great is that it doesn’t demonise relationships, nor glorify them. Instead it presents them as complicated, frequently painful, but potentially wonderful; and gives ex-lovers a chance to do something creative with their heartache, as well as offering a sort of closure by providing a place for them to finally lay a relationship to rest.

If you’d like to donate, go here.

Fuse Wire

We nipped over to Holborn this weekend for the latest Ephemera Fair. Lots of lovely stuff as always.

(Full size pics over at Alistair’s Ephemera Flickr set)

The next fair, one of the big ones, is perfectly timed for buying bits and bobs for Christmas, on Sunday 2 December, at the Holiday Inn, Coram Street, London WC1.

See you there.

Aldwych Underground Station

Last week we got the chance to take a trip down into one of the many hidden parts of London, courtesy of the London Transport Museum’s Station Open Day at the now-closed Aldwych underground station. The station, on a little branch line off the Piccadilly line, has been closed since the early 90s. It originally opened in 1907 (though it was then named Strand station, being renamed Aldwych in 1915), and right from the start is was rather underused. So underused in fact, that the eastern platform wasn’t used at all for train services from 1914 onwards.

Though it, and the other platform, did operate as air raid shelters for the citizens of London during both wars, and also, during the First World War, for 300 paintings from the National Gallery. In the Second World War, the British Museum even used the station to store the Elgin Marbles. After the war the Eastern platform was used by London Transport to create full scale mock-ups of proposed station designs, and more recently the entire station has been used for film and TV productions, as well for Emergency Response Unit training sessions.

Because of all the film and TV work, it’s rather tricky to work out which bits of existing signage and advertising are real, and which are bits left over from various film art departments.

This roundel, which was leaning against one of the walls, looked fairly authentic though. It features Edward Johnston’s iconic Johnston Sans typeface, (and the roundel itself is Johnston’s design – read more about the roundel’s history), interestingly with the alternate version of the W. Possibly from around the mid 1930s?

There were also some genuine posters from the early 70s on one of the walls – check out the mind-expanding Planetarium poster:

Lovely stuff.

Eleanor Crow on variations on a theme

~ While Alistair is away cycling the length of Great Britain, we’ve invited twenty disgustingly talented people to each write a post for our blog. Today’s post is from the quite marvellous book designer Eleanor Crow. ~

It might indicate borderline stamp collecting syndrome, but an ephemera spotter can find a good visual multiple to be irresistible. This True-Fit Seat Covers postcard (©1987 Quantity Postcards, San Francisco), sent by a friend (thanks Clare), is one such example. The variations in weave pattern and colour of the textiles are a delight.

And another card Outils de Jardinage (©1995 Editions du Désastre, France) is of interest not only because I’ve recently been allotted an allotment, but for the charming comparison of prong, spike and blade on the humble garden tool.

My battered copy of Dictionnaire Usuel par le texte et par l’image (Librairies Quillet-Flammarion, Paris 1956) relies heavily on visual multiples. I cannot think that I might urgently need to compare timber grains from European trees in the immediate future, but this mis-registered depiction of their subtle variations in pattern and colour is enough to merit more than a glance. The stuttering speckled lines of the Platane, or plane tree, is particularly lovely.

Similarly, the Dictionnaire Usuel’s colour plate of horse types is deeply appealing to even the equine ignoramus. The horses face in rows alternately to the left and the right, in uniform threes, until the last line where the tiny Shetland pony has snuck in as a rebellious fourth, and persuaded its tall friends to break with the rhythm and face to the left.

This colour plate from one of my favourite costume reference books, A Pictorial History of Costume (©1955 Zwemmer, Germany) provides a colourful display of historic oriental footwear in all its embroidered and sculpted glory – a museum display at a glance.

It’s precisely this idea of comparison at a glance that makes such multiples both informative and a visual delight. Information designers rely on such techniques – creating ‘small multiples’, a term popularised and described with characteristic elegance by Edward R. Tufte in Envisioning Information(©1990 Graphics Press, Connecticut). He writes of ‘small multiple designs, multivariate and data bountiful’ that enforce visual comparisons and ‘demonstrate the scope of alternatives’.

Here’s a page from the legendary Rookledge’s Classic International Typefinder (©1983 PBC International, New York), demonstrating the special ‘earmarks’ or distinctive identifying features of typefaces. Technically useful, it’s also visually arresting in an abstract way with its array of Vs and Ws pinned to the page like butterfly wings.

But it’s not just the small multiple that appeals when enjoying a good visual comparison – spotting a difference-spotter spotting the difference can be fun too. Here’s a 1950s Du Pont employee investigating weather wear across varying paint samples (from the March 1956 edition of Fortune magazine). It’s the contrast of his sombre figure angled across the serried ranks of colour hues that gives this image its charm.


~ Alistair is raising money for Cancer Research UK during his ride – please wander over to his Just Giving page and donate a little cash. ~

David Pearson on Phillumeny

~ While Alistair is away cycling the length of Great Britain, we’ve invited twenty disgustingly talented people to each write a post for our blog. Today’s post is from one of our studio partners, the irritatingly brilliant book designer David Pearson. ~

Around five years ago Alistair invited me along to an ephemera fair in Bloomsbury. Like a lot of designers I can be a bit of a magpie and have always been susceptible to collecting, arranging, colour- and number-coding (see, for example, all of my work) so I was in trouble when I stumbled across a container full of matchbox labels. Membership to the British Matchbox Label and Bookmatch Society; 50,000 matchbox labels; and a half-written book later, I’m slowly getting to grips with my latest print-based addiction.

In the former Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe, the matchbox as a means of delivering propaganda had no equal. Readily available, cheap and collectible, matchboxes and their printed labels presented idealistic images promoting communism as the moderniser of society.

The images displayed here are the output of four Eastern Bloc countries (Russia, Hungary, Lithuania and Czechoslovakia), from 1956–79. During this period, post-Stalinist Russia and its satellite states were struggling to free themselves from authoritarian state policies, but relative liberalisation provided some optimism after years of material deprivation. For the first time, Western advertising models were adopted and ‘cultured’ consumption encouraged, with the emphasis on individual and family happiness. The result was a new vision of civilisation and the matchbox label was key to the widespread circulation of this message.

Collectors’ associations were encouraged by the authorities in many of the Eastern Bloc countries and this resulted in the printing and distribution of huge quantities of labels – often in their uncut form – providing collectors with access to complete, themed series. In the case of Czechoslovakia, dedicated albums were produced to house collections, and Russian labels were often packaged in gift sets for the export market. These otherwise ephemeral objects would therefore long outlive the boxes of matches they were designed for.


Reproduction can be crude – with overprinted colours regularly appearing out of register – but such quirks can provide the collector with a uniquely interesting acquisition and enliven compositions in unexpected ways.

It’s no coincidence that a book designer should be drawn to matchbox labels. Their shape is intrinsically book-like, their method of communication instantaneous and spare, and they provide a dizzying range of illustrative styles. Their uncluttered compositions ensure communication across language barriers, and designs appear cohesive as a result of type and image being rendered by the same hand. But perhaps most alluring of all is their uncompromised clarity of purpose, an attribute that most modern designers can only dream about.

Generally speaking, matchbox labels aren’t valuable. The examples shown here were amassed for pence rather than pounds and owing to their vast numbers, generally considered a nuisance by collectors more interested in scarcity. My own labels are stored in stamp collecting folders that far outweigh their contents in terms of cost.

Perhaps this hints at the reason why matchbox labels are rarely of interest to art critics and almost never to cultural historians; but of all the visual images displayed by a culture, the matchbox must be ranked amongst the most democratic and accessible, and it therefore provides us with a fascinating study of a fast-changing social landscape.




















Over the past few years, matchbox labels have become increasingly visible thanks to wonderful online collections such as Jane McDevitt’s. As much as possible, I have tried to avoid duplicating Jane’s images here, so do take a look at her collection if you’re hungry for more.

I have chosen to show just three labels from each themed series but in general, Russian export sets run to sixteen small labels (54mm x 35mm), one medium-sized label (107mm x 70mm) and one large label (228mm x 113mm). Czech groupings range from anywhere between two and 64 small labels whilst Hungarian and Lithuanian sets are most commonly found in groups of nine small labels.


~ Alistair is raising money for Cancer Research UK during his ride – please wander over to his Just Giving page and donate a little cash. ~


Mike Reed on Milward & Sons

~ While Alistair is away cycling the length of Great Britain, we’ve invited twenty disgustingly talented people to each write a post for our blog. Today we have some fine words from freelance copywriter Mike Reed. ~

When Alistair invited me to be part of this series, my mind went almost immediately blank. As a writer, my comfort zone tends to be words. What could I offer on what Alistair called ‘the very loose topic of “visual culture”’?

So I’ve kind of cheated.

I remembered some old samples of receipts and bills I’d found in an antique/junk shop in Wincanton, when my parents were living there.

Most of these were impressive visually, and I’ve shown some here. It’s wonderful how ornate these very quotidian bits of paper are: those wildly decorative letterheads.

We need more of this sort of thing today, I reckon. Enough with the cool, sharp graphic identities. We need filigree and curlicues and cross-hatched flower arrangements.

Anyway. Among these wildly decorative bits of waste paper, I found this very simple and, to me, charming letter of reference.

Written in February 1898, by R. Black of Milward & Sons, ‘Wholesale Boot and Shoe Manufacturers’, it tells a crisp and pithy story, rendered in beautiful copperplate.

In case it’s not clear, here’s a transcript:

To all whom it may concern

The bearer Albert Iles has been in our employment for the past eight months as Clicker*. During that time we have always found him Steady, Punctual and most Obliging. Our reasons for parting with him is [sic] our being compelled to reduce our hands as we are not prepared to make the low price Stuff now so much in demand.

Milward & Sons
Per. R. Black

(*A Clicker, Wikipedia reveals, ‘was the person who cut the uppers for the shoes or boots from a sheet of leather. He was so named after the sound that his machine made. It was a skilled trade because it was his responsibility to maximise the number of uppers which could be cut from a piece of leather avoiding any thin areas.’)

I love the pride you can hear in this note. How many companies these days would ‘reduce their hands’ rather than stoop to making the ‘low price stuff now so much in demand’?

Okay, so maybe that’s folly: ignoring what’s in demand could well be a quick route to bankruptcy. It also means poor fellows like Albert Iles end up out of work.

But even so, there’s a sense of principle in this note that you can’t ignore. Even indignation. And you can’t help but imagine the possible stories behind it.

There must have been all manner of difficult decisions being made at Milward & Sons, as the commercial pressure intensified to cut corners and prices.

Did Old Man Milward dig his heels in against the entreaties of his offspring, who tried desperately to make him see sense, and start churning out cheaper footwear? Or was the family united in their defence of quality, even if it meant their business would shrink?

Was the rot terminal? Did they go down with their ship, drowned in an unstoppable tide of cheap-and-cheerful boots and shoes? Or did they perhaps win through, gaining admiring new customers among the well-heeled (in every sense)?

Who knows? I tried to find a record of Milward & Sons online, but no luck. Something happened to the business, as things usually do, and apparently it is no more.

But as someone who spends a good part of his career trying to help businesses pinpoint, and articulate, what makes them tick, I can only admire the clarity of vision, and the sheer bloody-minded determination, expressed in this brief burst of writing.

It also shows that one can write a crystal-clear expression of corporate belief, commitment and principle, without that bloody word ‘passion’ appearing anywhere in it.

Here’s to you, Milward & Sons. And to Albert Iles, Clicker: let’s hope the note did the job for him too.


~ Alistair is raising money for Cancer Research UK during his ride – please wander over to his Just Giving page and donate a little cash. ~