London-based illustrator and type designer Bjoern Altmann has turned his attention to the hidden wonder of manhole covers in his latest book, which recreates designs from over 80 countries as vector images.
Manhole covers are such a familiar part of urban furniture that it’s all too easy to take them for granted or be repelled by their hidden charms. And it’s these underappreciated design choices that multi-discipline creative Bjoern Altmann focuses on in Manhole Covers of the World.
As its name suggests, the book gathers together standout manhole covers from over 80 countries and displays them as crisp, clear vector illustrations which show them off in all their glory. Freed from beneath our feet and cleaned of any dirt and weathering, these manhole covers are a testament to the beautiful functionality that’s all around us.
Bjoern first became aware of manhole covers in a design context when studying graphic design in Germany. He quickly discovered that the letters and typography spoke to him more than anything else, so he kept an eye out for interesting signs and lettering wherever he went.
“I wanted to put manhole covers in the spotlight because they tend to be walked on without getting much attention,” he tells Creative Boom.
“On a trip to Tenerife in 2006, the manhole covers there caught my attention with their playful typography. I also realised that there seemed to be a much greater variety of designs for manhole covers than I had previously thought – in Germany, they tend to be fairly standardised.”
In order to make his vector illustrations, Bjoeran first has to understand the underlying geometry of the manhole cover designs and then reverse engineer them. “Worn elements and dirt often slowed the process down,” he explains. “A particular challenge was the foreign languages that do not use the Latin alphabet.
“For Arabic, Thai, Hebrew, Japanese, etc, I checked with Google Lens to see what the words in the photo said, and then once again after I had finished the drawing. I wanted to be sure they didn’t say something else – and possibly offensive – afterwards.”
As a London-based creative, Bjoeran feels blessed that he has a great variety of amazing manhole cover designs right on his doorstep. He would always take photos of foreign manhole covers when he travelled, but to get a truly international flavour, he enlisted the help of friends, family and colleagues.
“I worked for a big agency a few years ago, and we often had colleagues there from all over the globe,” he reveals. “That way, I was able to get a photo of a Jordanian manhole cover, for instance. I also created a little guide so people would understand what I was actually after.”
Bjoeran’s quest for covers also saw him rope in the help of other people’s colleagues. “A friend from South Africa had an acquaintance who worked for a utility company in Johannesburg,” he says. “An Egyptologist friend swept a manhole cover free of sand behind the museum in Cairo to take a photo for me.
“Meanwhile, another contact in Ukraine asked a friend who does tours around Pripyat/Chornobyl. And a friend from uni who now lives in Hawaii also helped me out. And lastly, I got in touch with a North Korean embassy to find out if they would send me a photo of a manhole cover over there.”
Despite being well-acquainted with manhole covers, putting the book together did turn up a few surprises. “Manhole cover designs are really mostly about creating an anti-slip pattern and then a bit of advertising for the maker, so a utilitarian approach is sometimes taken, and that’s probably what you would expect,” says Bjoeran. “But the incredible variety of designs was something that surprised me. Tenerife gave me a bit of a glimpse, I suppose.”
This incredible variety includes some of Bjoeran’s favourite manhole cover designs, such as one from Cuba, where the type is made to fit the circular shape of the cover. “Then there’s the Italian gas mains cover where the pattern makes the lid look as if it was bulging outwards,” he adds. “It just represents gas really well.
“I also like the German standard manhole cover, as it is so clean and functional (that’s why I chose it for the cover). But it is really hard to decide as there are so many interesting covers, and I have seen more since. But that’s for another book.”
Manhole Covers of the World is available to buy from Bjoeran’s site now.