Port Authority upholstery inspired a local fashion line – and a sense of place
One Tuesday in October, a corner of Twitter lit up with a quartet of images showing people wearing leggings inspired by the padding of Port Authority bus seats. Transit enthusiasts, Pittsburgh buffs – anyone charmed by the unlikely sight of an institutional design adorning the legs of people dancing, stretching and shuffling – sent the tweet into viral territory.
And the product line wasn’t even new: like the designs that inspired it, they were hiding in plain sight. Designer Ken Ward has sold his Fashion inspired by port authorities for a few years now on the society6.com site, where artists can post creations to be validated for a range of products.
âI’m excited to bring joy to people by just executing a silly idea,â said Ward, who made his first Port Authority inspired t-shirt five years ago, shortly after started commuting to work.
Back then, Port Authority bus seats were covered in blue and purple squares cascading over a gray background. And on top of it all, plump stick people – âlittle men,â as Ward calls them.
Fabric isn’t something that jumps out at you at first, he said. But taking the bus twice a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year ensured that when he started watching the bus, he really see her.
“The more hours you accumulate on the bus,” he said, a fundamental question becomes hard to ignore: “How did this end up becoming our bus seat?”
It seemed like an unlikely choice for a commute: the colorful squares, the stick figures that âlook like they’re dancing or excited,â Ward said. âThere is a festive energy.
At one point, Ward was so in love with the design that he started photographing the upholstery on days when the bus wasn’t so crowded. His goal was to pay homage to the fabric, a t-shirt completely covered with the pattern.
But he had no idea who had imagined the fabric, or who had chosen it for Pittsburgh. Ward guessed that it was likely purchased from a third party that the Port Authority was dealing with.
“I hope whoever designed it finds the tribute charming, more than intellectual theft,” he said with a laugh.
“Connect people to life”
Port Authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph said that typically when the Port Authority purchases a bus, officials are offered some sort of color chart from which to choose the fabrics for the seats. But that is not what happened in the case of the “man at the stick” or the “person at the bat”, he said.
That was in 2001. The agency had recently adopted âconnecting people to lifeâ as its slogan and organizing principle. Tim Frank, now Director of Marketing and Creative Services, had just joined Port Authority. Along with a designer and an illustrator, Frank was responsible for updating the fleet with a redesign of the interior of the bus – walls, partitions, the whole color scheme.
As part of the overhaul, the Port Authority bought a lot of buses. In fact, there were so many of them, Frank recalls, that California-based manufacturer Gillig told the agency “no extra charge, you design the fabric.” Design whatever you want.
âIt was exciting,â Frank said wistfully. âAs a designer you are usually confined to a sheet of paper,â he said. But this time the web was a whole bus.
Frank and his team wanted the fabric to convey the Port Authority’s stated new purpose. And they decided to use the universal symbol of a person and give him movement and joy. âSo we used a brush stroke and a really fluid feel, almost like graffiti,â he said.
When Frank learned that the design had inspired Ken Ward to faithfully reproduce it on a t-shirt, Frank laughed.
âIt’s flattering,â he said. “We contacted someone, they weren’t just sitting on a bus seat.” He stopped himself. âThanks, Ken. “
That’s what art can do, Frank said: communicate with someone.
And since Ward made his first shirt in 2016, people have stopped by for a chat, instantly recognizing where they’ve seen the design before. It was the source of âa lot of joy,â he said.
And not just for him.
What sets Pittsburgh apart
In an age when people are mobile, in a national landscape dominated by the same shops and restaurants, every place can feel the same.
âIt’s easy to feel disconnected,â said Carin Mincemoyer, a Pittsburgh-based artist whose work explores the relationship between humans and the natural environment.
âWe need to feel like we belong somewhere,â she said. “A sense of belonging – the things that set one place apart from another, that help us distinguish that place from all other towns and villages.”
This need may be deeper here than in many other places. Pittsburgh people love Pittsburgh, although ours might be a deeply defective city at live. And in a place where nearly a fifth of the city’s residents take a bus regularly, it might not be surprising that transit-inspired fashion is at the heart of what it means to feel connected to a place. .
Using such tokens to do this is an old idea, said Ed McMahon, urban planner, lawyer and senior researcher at the Urban Land Institute. Administrators in ancient Rome argued that “cities should preserve the visible symbols of their identity to give citizens a sense of security in a changing world,” he said.
McMahon has studied and written about the idea that a place is more than a set of coordinates on a map: it is the sum of all the little details, quirks, customs and places.
âWhat we’re really trying to preserve is memory,â he said. âOur sense of identity and well-being is linked very deeply to special buildings, neighborhoods, places and sights. “
McMahon acknowledged that a t-shirt – or a fanny pack – is not a historic building or a stunning view. But he said it may have intangible value as a sort of trigger, a “reminder of what sets Pittsburgh apart and makes it special and unique.”
Port Authority is updating its bus fleet, spokesman Adam Brandolph said. And there is a new upholstery in circulation known as “cosmic spaghetti”: a black background framed by strands of gold and purple. Ultimately, fabricless plastic seating is the way of the future. But if Ken Ward has anything to say about it, on the bus or downstairs, you could still find that stick person over there, dancing.