Out with the old?

Tilda Coleman, 24.12.2019
Furnished with reclaimed tube paraphernalia, London Transport Museum’s new café is a lesson in sustainability
At first glance, the silver half domes suspended over the tables of Canteen, the London Transport Museum’s new café, look like stylish light fittings. Closer inspection, however, reveals they are in fact concave mirrors of the sort every London commuter will be familiar with. Before being hung in the new café, the mirrors were fixed to underground station walls.

Much of Canteen is made up of original objects reclaimed from the Underground. The café’s designer, Sau Fun Mo, wants the space to prompt visitors to look at the everyday a little differently: “What we are trying to say here is open your eyes, look around and you will notice this design aspect.”

Because they are pulled out of context and displayed in surprising ways, the design element of station signs, moquette seats and underground wall tiles becomes striking.

Canteen is on a mezzanine bridge, and the steady bustle of shoppers visible through glass walls on either side of the café surrounds diners with motion. Train tracks printed on the floor run between dining booths, which feel a little like carriages, contributing to the overall feeling of sitting on a train.  

Mo says she sourced the décor from Transport for London's (TFL) stores – an “Aladdin’s Cave” of unwanted items tucked away in the disused tube station at York Road. The stock is made up of old designs that have been replaced, as well as new products that were over-ordered during station refurbishments.

Using original TFL paraphernalia presented unique challenges. At one point, Mo was told that she wouldn’t be able to hang a blue lightbox weighing 105 kilos. Someone suggested she have a replica made instead – but, she says, “the whole focus of the design is that these are real decommissioned items”.

Mo managed to hang the lightbox, and other items were not in short supply, but she had to be mindful of function: “We have to be careful that what we display does not take up too much space as it is a café and people have to eat, so economically the space has to work well.”

The café is completely accessible. All of the items on display are also sustainable, and Mo sees the project as an example of how a smaller organisation can make gradual changes as and when they can. “An organisation of our size is not in the position to make everything instantly sustainable”, she says, but the café demonstrates that when the opportunity arises to redesign, sustainability is a top priority for the museum.

Mo aimed for a mixture of old and new objects, to create a space that reminds visitors of the past but also feels current. A display of tiles on one wall features both historic designs and contemporary pieces that can be found in stations today. Another wall exhibits a luggage rack salvaged from a 1960s decommissioned train.

Two large hanging lights were originally commissioned for Embankment underground, their latticework print based on shutters found at some station entrances. But the planned refurbishment of Embankment was scaled down, and the lights were abandoned until Mo put them to good use.

Mo, whose daily commute includes stretches on the District and Northern lines, is always on the lookout for potential items. Top of her wish list are lights from Gloucester road that look like old gas lamps -“you never know which station TFL are going to refurbish next”.

Mo previously had her eye on an old digital station clock for the café, but missed out when someone else requested it first. Now, she says, she has learnt her lesson, and is “always ready to grab something as soon as I see it”.