Design Council Slide Collection: an online guide to the resource

Dr Simon Ford and John Davis - Manchester Metropolitan University

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The Design Centre

Part of the CoID's original remit had been to play a co-ordinating role in the setting up of design centres devoted to individual industries within the UK manufacturing sector. However, the majority of manufacturers did not see the need for this kind of government interference, and their lack of enthusiasm and co-operation meant that little progress was made with implementing the idea.

Exterior view of the Design Centre, 1958Exterior view of the Design Centre, 1958

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Interior view of the Design Centre, 1956Interior view of the Design Centre, 1956

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Interior view of the Design Centre, 1956Interior view of the Design Centre, 1956

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Faced by the indifference of manufacturers, in the early 1950s the CoID began to adopt a different strategy. It sought to build upon the wider public interest in design that had been generated by the Festival of Britain by beginning to plan for the creation of a centre that would showcase British design in general. On 26 April 1956 the CoID's Design Centre was opened by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Situated at 28 Haymarket, near Piccadilly Circus in London, the Centre acted as the organisation's headquarters, and it was from here that it operated most of its services. More importantly, the Centre provided the CoID with a permanent public space in which to present a standing display of contemporary British design, along with a changing programme of themed special exhibitions. This succeeded in attracting the public to such an extent that, when the Mass Observation organization surveyed visitors to the Centre in the Spring of 1957, overcrowding was one of the main criticisms voiced.

Interior view of the Design Centre, 1960Interior view of the Design Centre, 1960

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Interior view of the Design Centre, 1960Interior view of the Design Centre, 1960

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Above all, the Design Centre provided the CoID with the basis upon which to develop an elaborate system of selection that identified, displayed, rewarded and publicised examples of what it considered to be 'good design'. Selection committees met weekly to assess the suitability of products for inclusion in the CoID's database of well-designed goods that began as its 'Stock List' for the Festival of Britain. Initially this was called Design Review, but from 1 April 1958 it was renamed Design Index. A record was created for each product accepted for Design Index. This included a photograph of the product (or, in the case of textiles, carpets, tiles and wallpapers, a sample), together with information about its design, manufacture, materials, cost and availability etc. These records were housed in an area of the Design Centre where they could be consulted by trade buyers and members of the general public. The items included in Design Index were also eligible for display in the exhibition areas of the Design Centre, although manufacturers had to pay for this privilege. The manufacturers were also entitled to use a special symbol in their advertising and point-of-sale material for the product. In return for a fee the CoID even supplied the manufacturers with printed labels that featured the symbol and included the slogan 'as selected for the Design Centre London'. These were affixed to the product or its packaging, with the aim of influencing the purchasing choices of consumers. From January 1978 companies were no longer charged for the display of their products, and this change of policy meant that a greater range of products were shown. A further, more minor, change took place in 1982, when Design Index was renamed the Design Council Selection.

View of displays in the 'Design for Leisure' exhibition at the Design Centre, 1957View of displays in the 'Design for Leisure' exhibition at the Design Centre, 1957

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A visitor to the Design Centre, consulting files on refrigerators, 1967A visitor to the Design Centre, consulting files on refrigerators, 1967

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The Council of Industrial Design's Design Centre label, 1964The Council of Industrial Design's Design Centre label, 1964

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Another Design Centre was opened in Glasgow in 1957 by the Scottish committee of the CoID, but it was not until 1974 that the Council established a base in Wales, at Cardiff. The CoID also sought to extend its influence through a range of regional activities, including a series of exhibitions on the theme of 'The Design Centre Comes To...'. These were held in various towns and cities across the UK, usually in major department stores.

Stainless steel coffee set, designed by Robert Welch and made by Old Hall Tableware Ltd, c.1966Stainless steel coffee set, designed by Robert Welch and made by Old Hall Tableware Ltd, c.1966

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Display in the Design Centre to celebrate the issuing of the 100 millionth Design Centre label in 1970Display in the Design Centre to celebrate the issuing of the 100 millionth Design Centre label in 1970

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Whilst the Centre was intended to act as a 'shop window' for British design, for the first fifteen years visitors could look but not buy. This changed in 1971 when a 'boutique' opened selling souvenir and gift items selected from Design Index. In November the same year the CoID collaborated with the Crafts Council to open a Crafts Shop in the Design Centre. This was so popular that it took almost £5,000 worth of sales over its first Christmas period.

View of displays in the 'Design Centre comes to Newcastle' exhibition, 1958View of displays in the 'Design Centre comes to Newcastle' exhibition, 1958

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Exterior of the Scottish Design Centre in Glasgow, 1974Exterior of the Scottish Design Centre in Glasgow, 1974

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Interior view of the exhibition area at the Design Council's offices in Cardiff, 1974Interior view of the exhibition area at the Design Council's offices in Cardiff, 1974

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In 1972 the CoID became the Design Council, and by the end of the decade growing financial pressures and the loss of revenue from display charges meant that the Design Centre increasingly had to pay its own way through various commercial enterprises, and the exhibition programme became more dependent on sponsorship. In 1978 the souvenir shop was replaced by a new, larger shop stocking a wider range of Council-approved items, and this was followed by the opening of a bookshop and café. These amenities helped boost the number of people visiting the Centre, and between 1980 and 1983 visitors increased by 59% to reach 900,000 a year.

Souvenir shop in the Design Centre, 1974Souvenir shop in the Design Centre, 1974

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Souvenir shop at the Design Centre, 1978Souvenir shop at the Design Centre, 1978

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In the harsh economic climate of the early 1980s concerns about the standard of British design moved up the political agenda once again. Improving British design was seen as crucial to reviving the country's ailing manufacturing sector. A seminar on this issue was even chaired by the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and held at 10 Downing Street. For a period the Design Council found itself at the forefront of the government's urgent attempts to boost the UK's economic performance, and in 1983 it commissioned a report from a committee chaired by the designer David Mellor. The report concluded that because British goods could not compete on price alone there needed to be a much greater synthesis between design and manufacturing, with existing design expertise being exploited more fully (Report to the Design Council on the Design of British Consumer Goods (1983). The Design Centre played a key role in efforts to address this problem. For example, the exhibition Design and Economy (28 September - 5 November 1983) sought to demonstrate the link between poor design and Britain's industrial decline, while highlighting case studies that showed how good design practice had led to commercial success. It was even opened by the then Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit. The Centre also promoted Design Council initiatives such as the Design Protection Advisory Service, which was set up to help British designers protect themselves against copyright infringement.

Window display at the Design Centre, 1971Window display at the Design Centre, 1971

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View of the bookshop at the Design Centre, 1975 View of the bookshop at the Design Centre, 1975

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Exterior of the Design Centre in the Haymarket, London, 1982Exterior of the Design Centre in the Haymarket, London, 1982

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The part played by the Design Council in attempts to reverse the decline in British manufacturing industry in the early 1980s did, however, prove relatively short-lived. By the middle of the decade the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher had adopted a much less interventionist approach, and the Council suffered substantial cuts in its funding. The emphasis in national economic policy moved away from its traditional focus on manufacturing and heavy industry, and shifted decisively towards the development of the service sector. In this context design was seen increasingly as an industry in its own right. In view of this, in 1993 the government asked the Design Council's Chairman, John Sorrell, to lead a review of the organisation's role and activities. The resulting report recommended that the Council should withdraw from most of its long-established services and be greatly reduced in size. The Design Council was re-launched as a 'think tank' that aimed to promote and develop design as a key 'creative industry' with the potential to make a significant contribution to the UK economy. In 1994 (the year of its fiftieth anniversary) the organisation's staff was cut by 80% and the doors of the Design Centre were closed to the public for the last time. The Design Council finally moved out in 1998.

 

 

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