Title: Point of view
Pages: 24 - 27
Text: Point of view
It's the ugly furniture that must go
One of the advertisements in the current furniture promotion campaign
Paul Reilly, director of the ColD, recently opened Race Furniture's elegant new showroom in Rathbone Street, London W1, with some sharp words for the furniture industry's current promotion campaign.
"I personally do not for a moment doubt," he said, "that the real reason for Race Furniture's success is that they make good furniture. If, over the years, that could have been said of the British furniture industry as a whole, I am equally certain that the trade would not now be needing to launch its nation-wide 'buy more furniture' campaign, at the reported cost of over £400,000 a year.
"I am sure that one of the real reasons why the furniture industry has been enjoying - if that is the word - a steadily declining share of Britain's consumer spending, is that the average standard of design in the trade was, for many years, allowed to fall below and behind what the public had a right to expect. For even today, with all the improvements and progress that I would be the first to acknowledge and welcome, it is still only a minority of furniture firms that can be said to have a clear design conscience; and, sadly for the high street shopper, much of the best work of this minority is available only to contract buyers.
". . . With great respect for the selfless self-interest of the leaders of the brave new furniture promotion campaign, I would suggest two things: first, that they should come clean in their slogan and admit that it is not fold furniture' that must 'go' (e lot of old furniture is a lot better than a lot of new), but that it is ugly furniture that must go; and second, that they should take a close look at the distribution of design consciences in their industry, and ask themselves why so many of the firms that set the highest standards no longer sell through the retail trade."
Mr Reilly called for a greater crossfertilisation between designs aimed at the contract buyer and those aimed at the retail trade, ". . . for the ordinary high street shopper is just as deserving a case as the hospital nurse orthe university student".
The Race showroom is illustrated on page 60.
. When good indentions are not enough
DESIGN's subject index has a section called "Equipment for the disabled". It's not a very large section - quite a lot smaller than "Sports equipment and toys", smaller than "Ceremonial paraphernalia" even. Though i. is a little bigger than "Souvenirs". - And unfortunately most of the products listed under it have one feature in common however efficient they may be, they're all marked by a peculiar insensitivity to appearance. Consider the latest example to reach our desk. The design story is an encouraging one - up to a point.
When the Ministry of Health decided nine years ago to sponsor the production of an invalid carriage, it approached surprisingly enough - AC Cars Ltd. a firm best known for its spectacular sports models. But there was good sense in the choice - the firm was the right size to carry out a commission of this type, and its craftsmen had long experience of custom built work.
Now AC, again at the instigation of the Ministry, is introducing a new type of invalid chair. This is an electrically powered indoor chair - it is claimed to be the first of its kind and it will be available to those who, for one reason or another, are unable to use a hand propelled wheelchair. Before design work began, AC Cars approached Dr G. Buxton, an expert on the needs of the disabled, for advice. Prototypes were built to his recommendations, and these were tested at several hospitals, including Roehampton (the final design incorporates several refinements suggested at that stage).
Now that this chair is in production, work is going ahead on a power assisted version, one that can be steered with the pressure of a little finger. For those that are disabled, these are revolutionary developments; for many who have been unable to use a conventional wheelchair, it may mean mobility for the first time.
But now look at the picture. Is this really the best looking chair that could have been produced ? AC's reputation for design panache is firmly based - look at the Cobra. Did the invalid chair (called, with wild inappropriateness, the Epic) present such a vastly more complex design problem ? Wasn't it worth the expense of a little time, money and ingenuity to make the chair look good as well as working well ? Even for a (literally) captive market ?
Too much design for the disabled still evokes the unattractive philanthropy which insists that providing what is good obviates the need to provide - simultaneously - the attractive. When design projects of high potential excellence apparently fail for this reason, it is time for a change of heart.
Later on this year, we shall be showing how Canadians tackle the problem of wheelchairs for the disabled.
American cars come under attack
The battle to make car manufacturers pay considerably more attention to adopting designs that build-in safety is hotting particularly in the United States, where up to now the manufacturers have been free to do as they like. And this is hardly surprising. The dependency of the US as a whole on the prosperity (and therefore unhindered growth ?) of the big boys of Detroit is easily shown by the incredible fact that one out of every seven people in the US is employed either directly or indirectly in producing, supplying, servicing, transporting or financing motor cars, and that the manufacture of cars uses 21 per cent of all the steel, 49 per cent of all the lead, 61 per cent of all the rubber, 32 per cent of all the zinc, 13 per cent of all the aluminium, and 58 per cent of all the upholstery leather sold in the United States.
From the point of view of the user, however, it is high time the Federal Government got tough with Detroit. Detroit's
own attitude to safety research was brilliantly exposed by Senator Robert Kennedy's questioning of Frederick
Donner and James Roche of General Motors, at a Senate subcommittee meeting on vehicle safety. The questioning
went as follows:
Kennedy: "What was the profit of General Motors last year ?"
Roche: "I don't think that has anything to do . . ."
Kennedy: "I think I am entitled to know that figure. You spend $1,250,000 on really detailed study of safety. [General
Motors had just given the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a $1,000,000 grant over four years for a 'long range,
in-depth, quantitative analysis of all facets of the safety problem - the car, the road, the driver, and their various
interactions.'] I would like to know what the profit is."
Donner: "The one aspect we are talking about is safety."
Kennedy: "What was the profit of General Motors last year ?"
Kennedy: "What ?"
Donner: "About a billion and a half, I think . . ."
Kennedy: "You made $1 7 billion last year ?"
Donner: "That is correct."
Kennedy: "And you spent $1 million on safety ?"
Donner: "In the particular facet we are talking about. . ."
Kennedy: "If you just gave one per cent of your profits, that is $17 million."
And so it went on, with the company trying to recover some of its dignity by claiming that other money was also spent on safety, but that it was impossible to disentangle it from the overall engineering budgets.
This interrogation might be described as the opening shots of the battle. The next volley came from Ralph Nader, an advisor on safety to the Senate subcommittee referred to, when he published his book Unsafe at any Speed last November.
Mr Nader's attack starts at the top. He quotes Ernest Cunningham, editor of Design News, who said, "I do not question the ability of automobile designers. They can improve design safety. I question the moral honesty of the executive manager responsible for policy direction, which year after year ignores design safety". Mr Naderthen attacked the industry for the paucity of its research work into the performance of its vehicles in crashes, and for its secrecy about its findings. The money it has spent on research it has devoted to highway design and to the design of street furniture, instead of concentrating on making the basic structure of the car more crash resistant.
Similarly, the industry has supported driver education programmes while omitting to provide its cars with antiskid devices and, Mr Nader implies, adequate tyres for the fully laden car. He enumerates the faults in the 'traffic safety establishment'- that is, such bodies as the National Safety Council, the Automobile Safety Foundation, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the American Automobile Association, and the President's Committee for Traffic Safety. The theme that Mr Nader pursues is that driver training can only go so far, and much greater benefits would accrue from ensuring that cars are easy to control and that when an accident happens, the results are minimised.
When Mr Nader deals with a particular car, the Chevrolet Corsair, the results are particularly shocking. Here is a car which broke away from the very conservative specification of the normal American car. It had a rear engine and independent rear suspension by swing axles. The Corvairs required low pressures in the front tyres and high pressures in the rear. They were directionally unstable in strong side winds and at high radial accelerations, they oversteered, and the rear wheel on the outside of the corner tended to tuck under and turn the car over. Some of these characteristics have a familiar ring to European ears, and it was unfortunate that, in breaking away from the traditional American layout, the car was not more fully developed when it was put into production - and more swiftly modified when its deficiencies became known. Mr Nader goes into the case history of this car and of the legal actions that resulted from consumers suing General Motors. The sequel of this was that General Motors tried to link Mr Nader with the litigation against the company by finding out "What makes him tick, such as his real interest in safety, his supporters, if any, his politics, his marital status, his women, boys, in fact all facets of his life". For this, the company had to apologise to Mr Nader publicly in another senate committee meeting, and General Motors is now trying to call in 1 5 million 1965 Chevelles to modify a throttle linkage (which could jam in snow or ice), while Chrysler is recalling 70,000 cars for similar reasons, and 13,000 of its 1966 models to check a defective wheel. What, now, is the state of the battle ? Even though the subcommittee has succeeded in shedding some light on an area of darkness, and has vindicated Mr Nader, it is much less certain whether the committee has managed to get progress on the real issue of making cars safer. President Johnson has declared the problem of safety on the roads to be second only to the war in Vietnam, but his proposed legislation on safety regulations and devices is already under attack for being too mild. Carrying Mr Nader's arguments to their logical conclusions, it would seem sensible to have a comprehensible set of safety standards to ensure that doors do not fly open in normal travel or in a crash, that car bodies do not crush in either end-to-end or 'side swipe' crashes, that steering columns do not spear the driver in a crash, that cars can be subjected to a certain radial acceleration without overturning, and so forth. Only when a new model satisfies these minimum standards should it be given a certificate of roadworthiness - the relatively safe aeroplane has to obtain a certificate of airworthiness - and be offered to the public. The consumer would still need his own testing organisation to help him make a rational choice and to check on faults in production cars. After all, Which ? had its doubts about the BMC 1100's constant velocity joint in April 1965.
Point of view
The right challenge from local government
Since the Civic Trust's first street refurbishing scheme at Magdalen Street, Norwich, seven years ago (DESIGN 130/35-37), over 500 similar schemes have been carried out in towns and cities throughout the country. One of the largest and most comprehensive, initiated by a local authority, is now being planned in the London Borough of Lewisham for Blackheath village. Provided the scheme fulfils its present promise, it will set an example which other London boroughs, and indeed local authorities all over the country, would do well to follow.
The borough of Lewisham covers approximately 13 square miles and has a population of 294,000. Stretching from Deptford to Bromley, it consists mainly of large tracts of housing focused on 18 shopping areas, most of which are notable only fortheir ugly buildings, confusing layout and organisation, and lack of any visual appeal. As Councillor Ronald Pepper, chairman of Lewisham's planning and development committee, has put it, "It is not just a matter of neglected paintwork and litter, but the jumble of discordant shop fronts, jarring advertisements, the clutter of tragic signs, parked cars and vans, and all too often a depressing drabness." Yet the shopping centres are, for all intents and purposes, the hubs of activity around which life in the borough revolves.
This being so, in March 1965 the planning and development committee set out a 10 point policy statement on forward planning which laid down guiding principles for redevelopment. These included a determination "to foster public awareness, interest and participation in the design and appearance of the townscape, and to invite the views of local organisations and residents." The policy statement was followed by the selection of five areas within the borough for intensive study and redevelopment - long term projects - and of two areas where improvement schemes could be started immediately: Blackheath and Brockley St Margaret's. And the Civic Trust has been invited to take part.
The main aim of the Blackheath scheme, Councillor Pepper says, "is to see if the feelings of community spirit and concern
The crumbling paintwork of this volute at Blackheath station is one example of neglect in buildings In the village . . .
. . . and this unpleasant jumble of unrelated signs and shop fascias is another detail which the Blackheath scheme will have to sort out.
Action, too, could be taken to improve the design of the railings and litter bins which line the roads . . .
. . . while where shop fascias have been newly designed, the effect is sometimes spoilt by the half-forgotten first floor
What the scheme aims at is the overall care which has been given (for example) to the London Steak House in Montpelier Vale.
which are always being talked about can be translated into community action." The action in question includes commissioning an architect to prepare a preliminary report on Blackheath (the borough council has set aside £1,500 for this purpose); holding a public meeting to explain to local owners and occupiers any detailed proposals which arise (this has now been held, and led to a committee of local inhabitants and interests being set up to get the scheme going); and finally, with the support of the local inhabitants, improving the area by various methods. These include reciting street signs, tackling the problem of parking, standardising the design of bollards and other street furniture, and embarking on a co-ordinated programme of redecoration which will entail all the shops and premises
using colours which emphasise the best qualities of their architecture, and lettering and fascias which meet an overall specification. The scheme will also examine the location of advertisements, and encourage the cleaning and brightening up of public buildings - including the railway station - and the flank and rear elevations of other buildings wherever possible. All in all, about 100 premises will be involved, and it is expected that the scheme will take two to three years to complete.
Warnings about the scheme, such as that by Professor John Bullocke, chairman of the Blackheath Society, who is anxious that the area should not be made Pretty-pretty', are valuable, but there is still time for them to be taken into account. What is important is that the scheme should be a success.
Blackheath is one of the five areas designated by the LCC (as it then was) as of special amenity value (the others are Richmond, Dulwich, Hampstead and Highgate). Any improvement will not only recognise this; it might also act as a trend setter which can be followed elsewhere. As Councillor Pepper says, "If people are going to live full lives in cities, the cities have got to be made attractive and pleasant, and not merely places to make money and get out of as quickly as possible." And London's suburbs, particularly, are in desperate need of improvement.
Important questions for ergonomists
The main purpose of the annual conference of a specialist body like the Ergonomic Research Society is, of course, to provide the experts with a chance of getting together, talking shop and giving papers on the latest work in their field. But sometimes a conference should do more than this: it should act as a punctuation in time - a pause - during which the experts can reflect, reappraising both the significance of the work they have already done, and the way in which it should develop in the future. A few days away from the labs and a change of company can help to put life into perspective.
Just for a moment, the ergonomists' conference at the Manchester College of Science and Technology in April looked as if it might do this - thanks to an outsider. Invited to speak at the annual dinner, Jack Pritchard, formerly director of the Furniture Industry Research Association, took the opportunity to question the scope of ergonomics. He wanted to know in particular whether its concern with the man/machine relationship (insofar as it relates to the use of controls and the dimensions of the workspace) is good enough. And he pointed to the limitation of this concern by quoting a speech by Dr A. T. Welford, of St John's College, Cambridge (who gave this year's society lecture) in which he said that "Experimental psychology is not concerned with mental disease or with those aspects of thought and behaviour that most people prefer to leave in decent obscurity."
But Dr Welford also said, "He [the experimental psychologist] attempts to understand the fundamental process of human behaviour which are common to all individuals."
To Mr Pritchard, these two statements seemed contradictory: one cannot understand the fundamental processes of human behaviour and at the same time ignore those aspects which most people leave in decent obscurity. The whole life situation, Mr Pritchard argued, is relevant to the experimental psychologist and hence to the ergonomist: besides analysing an operator's movements in relation to his machine, the ergonomist must also examine environmental conditions and emotional involvement, and thus adopt a psychiatric approach as well. And as an example of what he meant, Mr Pritchard cited the case of the soldiers in the First World War who deliberately got themselves wounded so that they would be taken out of the trenches. Some workers, Mr Pritchard suggested, have industrial accidents for exactly the same reasons, and the repositioning of controls or a reappraisal of workspace won't prevent them from happening in the future. Only by knowing the total physical and psychological situation can the ergonomist make truly valid recommendations in cases where there is industrial stress.
In one sense, Mr Pritchard's remarks might be said to refer to the fragmentation of information and spheres of influence which arise from increasing specialisation. As far as the Ergonomic Research Society is concerned, this specialisation applies not only to ergonomic research, as Mr Pritchard implied, but also to the society's membership. It is good to know, therefore, that the question of membership is under review, and that moves may possibly be afoot to widen the membership so that it includes people who are not exclusively devoted to academic work, or employed by the few firms to whom ergonomics has some meaning.
The mention of firms raises another point. At the conference there were only 15 or so companies represented - a minute number when one considers the size of British industry. Surely there were more firms to whom the papers presented were of direct interest - and many, many more to whom the exposition of ergonomic principles would have been of tremendous value ? Besides being an opportunity for a get-together of experts, a conference of this kind should also be used to create as much publicity for the discipline as possible. Even if the Ergonomic Research Society leaves problems like the scope of ergonomics and the size and composition of its membership to the future, it should take steps now to make sure that its next annual conference receives much greater attention from industry.