A Guide To The Hidden Language Of Manhole Covers

Neon-hued rubbings call attention to an overlooked aspect of urban design.

There's a lot more to a city than what immediately meets the eye. Each day, we trod along sidewalks and over streets, paying little mind to the labyrinth of tunnels and tubes winding just below our feet. In a new book, Pentagram partner Marina Willer calls attention to this elaborate underworld by celebrating its gatekeeper: the humble manhole cover.

Overlooked, the latest Pentagram Paper—a series of self-published print editions by the renowned design firm—collects 22 fluorescent-colored rubbings that transfer London's intricate street cover designs onto paper.

 Rendered in vibrant pinks and oranges, most of the patterns that Willer and her team collected wouldn't look out of place on a Marimekko duvet color or Dusen Dusen dress. Willer makes the designs electric and modern, but in fact, some of the covers date as far back as Victorian times.

For example, the coal hole covers that can still be found across London are a relic of the Foundry Age. Located at the front of Victorian houses, the covers were lifted by coal merchants so they could empty their sacks into their customers' cellars. Made of cast iron, the covers' raised geometric designs ensured that pedestrians didn't slip on them in wet and icy weather.

One of the most well-known foundry owners in Victorian London was Hayward Brothers of Borough, who famously adorned manhole covers with the image of a dog with its head in a pot—the traditional sign of an ironworker at the time. Meanwhile, water manhole covers are commonly stamped with the initials LH, for London Hydraulic Power Company, the company that ran London's hydraulic power until it became obsolete in the 1970s.

Ranging from Victorian design to more modern manhole engravings, Willer's rubbings are a reminder that London's beauty isn't solely relegated to its towering contemporary skyscrapers and ornate historic architecture. To spot some of the city's best design, all you have to do is look down.

Though Pentagram Papers like Overlooked are mostly distributed among friends and clients and aren't for sale, you can check out a selection of the designs in the slideshow above.

All Images: courtesy Pentagram