I’ve been collecting pictures of manhole covers for over a year.
Envelopes – specifically the patterns on the inside of them – got me into it.
3 years ago (according to Tumblr) I started a collection of the security patterns printed in envelopes. I was drawn in by the variation of shapes used in the patterns that were designed to disrupt the shape of letters. A pattern to disrupts other patterns.
So I started comparing the shapes used in envelopes to the ones used to disrupt waves in sea defences.
There were some similarities – like a consistent use of squared, sharp edges. Also, most were formed of small, rigidly regular patterns that were in direct opposition to a bigger and more chaotic pattern formed in in the thing they were trying to disrupt – like a wave or a word.
Manhole covers on the other hand, mimic the patterns of the things they are designed to interact with – like the tread on a tyre or the sole of a shoe – as their purpose isn’t to push something away or disrupt it but to mesh two unfitting things together.
They’re also importantly, signposts for the utilities they cover.
Some are adverts for ease of location and use by the right people – like water mains and fire hydrants. Others, made shortly after the introduction of a new technology though – like telephones or broadband – are as much a protection for that technology as an advert for it.
‘C’ shapes are often used over CATV covers in the UK. And some of the late 60’s telephony covers in Italy may just as well have been Pintori posters for telephones.
They remind me of the stories my dad tells about his job designing church fittings in the 70s. Despite trends for big bold colours and abstract shapes, a balance between invisibility and current trend had to be found when making something that would fit with the sediment of histories in a church, meaning that what you often ended up with was something ‘classic’, or timeless. A bit showier than you’d expect somehow but completely impossible to date.
I’d like to track down the people who designed some of the patterns on manholes. I wonder if their stories are the same as my dads. For now I’m trying to isolate the patterns, understand why they are the way that they are and give them some of the credit they’re due.
Anyway, for now, here’s some of the more interesting shapes.