Object Stories: Edward Johnston’s Draught Excluder

Hello, what’s this?

It looks suspiciously like handwritten lettering by calligrapher and typeface designer Edward Johnston, but where is it and what is it about?

Well, you know how it is in the winter, you identify a massive gale howling in from beneath your door and you put a draught excluder down to stop it. Then every time you leave the room you trip over the wretched thing and whilst you are out, the room freezes again – what can you do? Here, for your delight is Edward Johnston’s wonderfully ingenious solution to this seasonal irritation.

Johnston’s contraption is on a door retrieved from his home/studio at Cleves on Ditchling’s Lewes Road and is now in the museum’s collection. To make it work, you press the handle down to open or close the door and this lifts the draught excluder on the other side so that it doesn’t wear out.

Not only is it a beautifully practical solution to a seasonal problem but it also serves as an insight into the mind of the man who introduced the language of modern lettering to the world, most famously through the signage for the London Electric Railway, aka the London Underground, commissioned by Frank Pick in 1913. Johnston’s no-nonsense sans serif lettering was created in part as a response to the cacophony of advertisements seemingly breeding in public spaces in an ever increasingly competitive commercial world, each vying for its place and yet disappearing beneath endless graphic noise. Edward Johnston:

The letters at Railway Stations, street corners & other places, enamelled in white on blue are quite striking (when you know where to look for them) but they would be better if the blue ground were made a little larger & darker & of course the forms of the letters might be improved. … Much might be done in arrangement of neighbouring signs, & in having stated places for important signs, as at stations, so that we would know where to look for them. It is no good each trying to shout louder than his neighbour.

His ‘signature for London’ typeface was created by hand and defies the laborious and endless tweaking and reconfigurations in the design process, configurations which had to be translated into machine processes to produce signs for the whole of the London Underground. Like many objects of desire (and good design) it appears effortless – simple, modern, functional and (crucially) reassuring. And it is still used every day across London Transport.

Johnston’s aim I believe, was to make life straight forward and his draught excluder invention, like his lettering, is a straightforward solution to a problem.

What it may lack in visual sophistication, it gains in honesty. In true Johnston form, it is transparent in the sense that all its working parts are visible, and it has all the components of ‘truth to materials’, a principle that was adopted wholeheartedly by the ‘second wave’ modern arts and crafts exponents and particularly those working and living in and around Ditchling.

And so it was that Ditchling, a notably rural idyll, became central to modern British design in part through Johnston’s revolutionary lettering and typographic design and Ethel Mairet’s revival of handloom weaving and vegetable dyeing for new audiences, each with a straight forward and practical relationship with factory production. The Mairet and Johnston families were close and his articulation of the relationship between weaving and writing was once expressed in a letter to her:

My Text was once your Textile and my writing Line your Linen thread

There is also a hat hook, made by Johnston as well as his writing desk in the museum’s collection. If you know more about these objects or about his studio in Ditchling, we would love to hear from you.

#ObjectStories are short and sweet tidbits written by the museum’s Curator Donna Steele. Each fortnight we’ll share another gem from our renowned collection.⁠