Title: An American in British shoes
Pages: 36 - 37
Author: Richard Carr
Text: An American in British shoes
Gus Margraf, the American managing director of the British Aluminium Co Ltd. talks about the role of the company's new design award in promoting a better use of aluminium.
One might perhaps expect the American managing director of a British company to have some harsh things to say about British business, and in particular to attack us for resisting change and clinging to attitudes that were harmless enough when Britain really was the workshop of the world, but are quite inappropriate in today's climate of fierce, international trade. But Gus Margraf, who came to British Aluminium in 1964 from Reynolds Metal Co, does not take this line. Indeed, he categorically refutes one allegation in that famous leader in The Times, which accused Britain of failing to face up to the facts of 1966 and accept the necessity of speedy change.
"Everywhere I go," Mr Margraf says, "I find change and newness and a willingness to use new methods. In fact, I am not at all discouraged about prospects in Britain so long as we can convince those who are responsible for promoting change that it is necessary."
For Mr Margraf's own company, however, opportunities for promoting change are not ready made. Although British Aluminium supplies more than a third of the aluminium used in Britain every year, it makes few end products itself: it cannot, therefore, market an extensive range of goods which could set an example to other manufacturers. Instead, it has to exert influence by other methods, the most recent of which was the British Aluminium Design Award, announced in April.
"I personally was very pleased to find that we had a design award," Mr Margraf says, "because it fits in with the attitude we had at Reynolds. Although Reynolds is smaller than Alcoa and Alcan, it is superior to both in its promotion of the use of aluminium -from an aesthetic point of view as well as a functional one. In fact, Reynolds has its own architectural award of $25,000 made through the American Institute of Architects, and has done much to improve the design of products like aluminium foil for packaging.
"As far as the British Aluminium award is concerned, its value is not restricted to those products which won, but also to those which didn't. One of the entries, for example, the Alumasc disposal unit, won a Blue Ribbon award at this year's Ideal Home Exhibition, and all of the competitors have said how interested they are to have taken part."
Mr Margraf is uncertain about how the award will develop, and is considering the possibility of giving it to different industries. In this way, British Aluminium could direct attention separately to, say, industrialised building, electrical fittings, commercial vehicles or packaging, and thus ensure greater penetration of new ideas in each.
But the award is not British Aluminium's only method of influencing design. The company has a research and a market and product development department which can be put at the disposal of any company, or indeed any individual designer, who has a problem in using aluminium. A typical contribution might be in solving jointing problems. This has been done, for example, in the development of aluminium conduit for electrical installations, where British Aluminium even went so far as to devise a set of tools to be used with the conduit for the craftsmen who install it. And at the moment, the company is working on a specific project in conjunction with furniture manufacturers, to whom tin Britain at any rate) aluminium is still a largely untried material. As Mr Margraf points out, "We put extra effort into the creation of new products." In a sense, it is up to industry to accept the challenge.
As an American, Mr Margraf finds little to complain about in Britain. He likes our towns, admires the efforts being made to redevelop areas with one eye on conservation, and is aware of a sense of continuity that is lacking in his own country. The thing he would change most of all is housing, which he regards as less imaginative than that in America (perhaps, because the emphasis on council housing necessarily results in more stereotyped styles -though one must point out that private builders are notorious for their square boxes), with poor heating systems, and so on. But even this brings him back to aluminium.
Despite the difficulties of local by-laws and the conservatism of local authorities, building societies and insurance companies, Mr Margraf believes that aluminium could be used to a much greater extent in housing -for external cladding, windows and doors, electrical fittings and, of course, door furniture. And housing includes low cost projects. "We shall promote," he says, "the use of aluminium in council housing." But British Aluminium's most spectacular contribution to British architecture is in the form of the Triodetic aluminium dome which will house the exhibition commemorating the Battle of Hastings in 1066. R.C.
Gus Margraf, photographed in the recent Design Centre display of the British Aluminium Design Award. Full details of the award are given overleaf.