By Ian Desmond
How modern materials and a modern approach are taking over from a Victorian stronghold
How often do we think about street furniture? It is unlikely we would think about it apart from when actually walking down a street – but how often then do we observe it?
Street furniture ranges from the obvious benches and seats to bins, barriers, planters, bicycle racks through to traffic signs, street lamps and sculptures.
Many of these are in the hands of the local government and regulated by UK road traffic standards but here we look at some of the other pieces of street furniture, its design and function.
Think of any traditional Christmas card street scene and it will often feature Victorian benches and street lamps. But we can’t keep producing street furniture which are pastiches of Victorian design and nor do we. Contemporary designs for benches, bins and finger posts are thankfully becoming just as common.
It is a testament to the workmanship and materials of Victorian street furniture that so much of it is around us still today, and looking as if it will last many more years. Will today’s street furniture last as long?
Traditional versus modern materials
Wrought iron was the most common material used until 1880 when different forms of steel became available, not dissimilar to those used today. The railways’ use of steel brought it into common usage being stronger and having greater tensile strength than wrought or cast iron.
Cast iron is made by being poured into a mould. It cannot be worked by hammering unlike wrought iron which, being highly ductile, can be flattened into long strips. During the Victorian era cast iron became commonly used for publc benches, water fountains and public conveniences. By the second world war cast iron work for decorative detailing had fallen out of fashion and was not in demand.
Stainless steel is now the most common material used, as opposed to iron in previous days. It is very strong compared to its weight. It contains chromium which is the essential ingredient in resisting rust and corrosion. The alloys used in stainless steel create a very particular surface which is self- healing in that when scratched, in conjunction with oxygen it reforms its surface making it “stainless”.
Modern design of street furniture
But are the modern designs of street furniture as appealing and will they stand the test of time? Merely fabricating a boxy design from stainless steel does not qualify as contemporary or worthy, merely utilitarian and many current designs may be strong but are ugly and uninspired.
The criteria for public seating are that it needs to be comfortable although, necessarily but rather meanly, not comfortable enough to lie on as homeless and vagrant people are considered unwelcome overnight or long-term inhabitants of public spaces. It also needs to be incredibly strong to resist accidental and deliberate damage. Seating needs to be non-solid, so either perforated or in sections to allow water to run through or off.
However, taking into account the modern zeitgeist of consideration for not only public comfort but public mood and wellbeing, modern materials have allowed elegant – sometimes quite impossible looking – designs. With the artists’ sense of humour and wit also frequently influencing their design we are enjoying a resurgence in street furniture that provides rest for weary pedestrians, picnickers or travellers and that elevates the spirits too. Enlightened local governments now often seem to consider street furniture on a par with public art, which is exactly as it should be.