Port Authority upholstery has inspired a local fashion line — and a feeling of belonging
On a Tuesday in October, a corner of Twitter lit up with a quartet of images featuring people wearing leggings patterned after the upholstery of Port Authority’s bus seats. Transit enthusiasts, Pittsburgh enthusiasts — anyone charmed by the unlikely sight of an institutional design gracing the legs of people dancing, stretching, and hanging out — sent the tweet into viral territory.
And the product line wasn't even new: Like the designs which inspired it, they had been hiding in plain sight. Creator Ken Ward has sold his Port Authority-inspired fashion for a few years on the website society6.com, where artists can post designs to be greenlighted for a range of products.
“I’m excited to be bringing joy to people, just executing on a silly idea,” said Ward, who made his first Port Authority-inspired t-shirt five years ago, not long after he started commuting to work.
At the time, Port Authority bus seats were upholstered with blue and purple squares cascaded over a gray background. And over all of it bounced stick people — “little men,” as Ward calls them.
The fabric isn’t something that initially jumps out at you, he said. But riding the bus twice a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year assured that when he started to look at the bus, he really looked at it.
“The more hours you rack up taking the bus,” he said, a basic question becomes hard to ignore: “How did this end up as our bus seat?”
It seemed like an unlikely choice for a commute to work: the colorful squares, the stick figures who “look like they’re dancing or excited,” Ward said. “There’s a party energy.”
At some point, Ward was so enamored with the design he began to photograph the upholstery on days when the bus wasn’t so crowded. His goal was to make an homage to the fabric, a t-shirt entirely covered with the pattern.
But he had no idea who dreamed up the fabric, or who chose it for Pittsburgh. Ward guessed it was probably purchased from some third party with which Port Authority does business.
“I hope whoever out there actually designed it finds the tribute charming, more than intellectual theft,” he said with a laugh.
“Connecting people to life”
Port Authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph said that typically, when the Port Authority buys a bus, officials are offered a sort of swatch book from which to choose seat fabrics. But that's not what happened in the case of “stick man” or “stick person," he said.
It was 2001. The agency had recently adopted “connecting people to life” as a tagline 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 bus interior — walls, dividers, the whole color scheme.
As part of the overhaul, the Port Authority was buying a lot of buses. In fact there were so many, Frank recalled, that California-based manufacturer Gillig told the agency “no extra charge, you design the fabric. Design whatever you want.”
"It was exciting," said Frank, sounding wistful. "As a designer you’re usually confined to a sheet of paper,” he said. But this time, the canvas was an entire bus.
Frank and his team wanted the fabric to convey Port Authority’s newly stated purpose. And they decided to use the universal symbol of a person and give it some motion and joy. “So we used brushstroke and a very fluid feel to it, almost like graffiti,” he said.
When Frank learned that the design had inspired Ken Ward to replicate it faithfully on a t-shirt, Frank laughed.
“It’s flattering,” he said. “We got through to someone, they weren’t just sitting on a bus seat.” He paused. “Thank you, Ken.”
That’s what art can do, Frank said: communicate with someone.
And since Ward made his first shirt in 2016, people have stopped him to chat, recognizing immediately where they've seen the design before. It’s been the source “of a lot of glee,” he said.
And not just for him.
What sets Pittsburgh apart
In an era where people are mobile, in a national landscape dominated by the same stores and restaurants, every place can feel the same.
“It’s easy to feel disconnected,” said Carin Mincemoyer, a Pittsburgh-based artist whose work explores the relationship between human beings and the natural environment.
“We have a need to feel like we belong someplace,” she said. “A sense of place — the things that set one place apart from another, that help us distinguish this place from all of the other cities and towns.”
That need may run deeper here than in many other places. Pittsburghers love Pittsburgh, even if ours may be a deeply flawed city to live. And in a place where nearly a fifth of the city’s residents regularly ride a bus, perhaps it's no surprise that transit-inspired fashion gets to the heart of what it means to feel connected to a place.
Using such tokens to do so is an old idea, said Ed McMahon, an urban planner, lawyer, and senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. The administrators of ancient Rome maintained 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 far more than a set of coordinates on a map: It’s the sum of all the little details, quirks, customs, and places.
“What we’re really trying to preserve is memory,” he said. “Our sense of identity and well-being is tied in a very profound way to special buildings, neighborhoods, places, and views.”
McMahon acknowledged that a t-shirt — or a fanny pack — is not a historic building or a stunning vista. But he said it can have intangible value as a kind of trigger, a “reminder of what sets Pittsburgh apart and makes it special and unique.”
Port Authority is once again updating its bus fleet, said spokesperson Adam Brandolph. And there’s new upholstery in circulation known as “cosmic spaghetti”: a black background on which gold and purple strands cavort. Ultimately, fabric-less plastic seating is the way of the future. But if Ken Ward has anything to say about it, on the bus or off it, you will still be able to find that stick person out there, dancing away.