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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > From Solving Problems to Selling Product > Profession > Design Reformers 1930-1950
 
PROFESSION – DESIGN REFORMERS 1930-1950
 
Early promotional leaflet for Design magazine. CRD00065 Early promotional leaflet for Design magazine.

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Since the nineteenth century, and the examples of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, groups of concerned designers and industrialists have attempted to reform the practice of design and manufacturing in Britain. They include the Council for Arts and Industry (a direct antecedent of the Council for Industrial Design), the British Institute of Industrial Art, and the Design and Industries Association (DIA).

Influenced specifically by the Deutscher Werkbund, the DIA is a well-documented example of an organisation set up to promote the relationship between industry and design. It was established in London in 1915 to persuade manufacturers and designers to adhere to principles of ‘good design’, and is still in existence today (www.dia.org.uk). It was independent of any official government backing and was financed by its membership. Roughly a third of its membership consisted of craft-workers or teachers of handicrafts, whilst the remainder were split between architects and those actively engaged in industry, either in manufacture, or in the business of selling. According to Noel Carrington, who was an active member of the DIA:
 
They formed the real backbone of the movement, because they could make its principles visible and intelligible to the general public … they also wanted to contribute their bit to a better civilization and … they felt that by co-operation with others of a like mind this ambition could be sooner realised.
Carrington, 1976, 18.
 
Many of the values of the DIA originated in the Arts and Crafts Movement of the previous century. In particular these included ‘sound workmanship’ and ‘respect for material’. However, the concerns of the DIA extended beyond craft production to a concern with things made by machine. Their clarion call was ‘fitness for purpose’ and an early exhibition of household pottery organised by the group was a practical demonstration of the principle at work:
 
The criterion … was applied with almost puritanical zeal. Did teapots or jugs pour without drips? Were they properly balanced? Were plates easy to wash up? Under such tests much popular and highly decorative ware was summarily rejected. The pottery trade was indignant that this little upstart society had dared to put before the public in London what the trade termed a wholly unrepresentative display…
Carrington, 1976, 66.
 
The first practical demonstrations of the DIA’s philosophy revealed a strong trait in the early movement – a deep suspicion of ornament and decoration. ‘Meaningless ornament’ was seen as the greatest enemy of good design. Whilst decoration that resulted naturally from the hand of the craftsman, and that was appropriate to the material and process, was seen as being legitimate, the worst sins were those committed by machines that had been set up to imitate craft processes or the appearance of natural materials. The range of products acceptable to the DIA was dominated by a taste for austere undecorated forms.

Although the DIA was passionate in its beliefs, those manufacturers that had heard of it tended to treat it with suspicion. Its pronouncements had little effect on the buying patterns of the general public. It was not until the advent of the Second World War in 1939 and the formation of the Council of Industrial Design in 1944, that opportunities arose for the members of the DIA to put their beliefs into action.
 
The Utility Scheme

The design reformers of the pre-war period were quick to see these events as offering potential for their own cause. Many of the original members of the DIA became influential members of government bodies set up to monitor and control wartime industries. From these positions of influence, their idea of good design was put into practice by a combination of legislation, and a receptiveness amongst the consuming public to government initiated endeavour.

Like many other essential commodities, furniture was quickly made a rationed item after the onset of war. It was made available only to newlyweds and those who had been bombed out of their houses. The Utility Furniture Committee was set up by the Board of Trade in 1942 to make the most of scarce manufacturing resources. In order to achieve this aim it was necessary to control not only the manufacture and sale of furniture, but also its design. As a result, many of the figures who had been prominent in the in the inter-war good design campaigns were also called upon to play a major role in the development of utility designs. At last, this presented an opportunity to put long held beliefs into practice, and to convince wartime consumers of the benefits of good design. A team led by Gordon Russell was quickly set up. Russell was a designer and owner of a furniture manufacturing company, and was heavily influenced by the modern movement activity taking place on the continent. His team set about developing a range of thirty committee approved pieces of furniture called ‘Cotswold’ (available from 1943) and ‘Chiltern’ (available from 1945).
 
Even today these interiors look austere and bare. For people accustomed to heavily patterned surfaces and reproduction furniture, the utility style was difficult to accept.
 
Utility Kitchen, 1947. Kitchen furnished with utility furniture. CRD00333 Utility Kitchen, 1947. Kitchen furnished with utility furniture.

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Utility Dining Room, 1947. Corner of a dining room furnished with utlity furniture. CRD00332 Utility Dining Room, 1947. Corner of a dining room furnished with utlity furniture.

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Utility Sitting Room, 1947. CRD00331 Utility Sitting Room, 1947.

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Utility Bedroom, 1947. CRD00347 Utility Bedroom, 1947.

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Unfortunately the Committee’s optimistic view that the public would become attracted to good design if it were simply offered to them proved unfounded. Utility furniture proved unpopular with the public and a black market in illegally-carved and decorated utility furniture was reputed to have grown up as result of the scheme. After the design restrictions had been relaxed in 1948, and eventually lifted altogether in 1952, most people returned to a taste for cottage style and reproduction furniture. As Noel Carrington recalls
 
... the more interesting question is whether the episode had a purifying effect on the public or whether the reaction in favour of individuality and even extravagance was to be the more perceptible.
Carrington 1976,169.
 
The Council of Industrial Design
 
An early meeting of the Council of Industrial Design including Gordon Russell, the first director of the CoID. DCA2889 An early meeting of the Council of Industrial Design including Gordon Russell, the first director of the CoID.

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In spite of these setbacks, the implementation of the Utility Scheme provided an effective model for the design profession's quest to make itself heard. Experts had sat on a committee and their judgement had been consulted and implemented - all in the spirit of a state-driven policy of social and welfare reform. In December 1944, the Council of Industrial Design (CoID) was launched, and shortly before the end of the war, the Arts Council of Great Britain was established. Both bodies were centrally funded, and both exemplified the belief in government intervention, control and planning. The CoID’s brief was to use all practicable means to improve design in British industry. The Council organised events, including the 1946 Britain Can Make It exhibition and from 1949 published Design, a monthly magazine aimed at publicising good modern design and raising the design consciousness of manufacturing industry.
 
These images give an example of the types of product displayed at the Britain Can Make It Exhibition as exemplars of good design. They exhibit the simple stripped-back aesthetic preferred by the Council at this time.
 
Three jugs of different capacities probably designed by Keith Murray for Josiah Wedgewood and Sons Ltd. DCA1908 Three jugs of different capacities probably designed by Keith Murray for Josiah Wedgewood and Sons Ltd.

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Dining chair designed by Ernest Race and made in aluminium, a revolutionary new material at the time. DCA1071 Dining chair designed by Ernest Race and made in aluminium, a revolutionary new material at the time.

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Electric Fire made by Belling and Co. DCA2165 Electric Fire made by Belling and Co.

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Display of smoking accessories. DCA2152 Display of smoking accessories.

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The first issue of Design magazine contained an article by Gordon Russell, the first director of the CoID, which set out the Council’s position clearly. You may download this article by clicking on the icon.
 
The front cover of issue one of Design magazine, published in January 1949. CRD00069 The front cover of issue one of Design magazine, published in January 1949.

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Download PDF file - Gordon Russell, ‘What is Good Design?’ Design issue 1, pp 2 – 6.
 
The CoID campaign for good design

The Council used a wide variety of techniques to spread its message of good design. These images taken from the Council’s archive demonstrate the diversity of their approach. They can all be enlarged by clicking on the picture.

The Council produced a range of educational material aimed at school children. Much of it took the form of travelling exhibitions, often containing artefacts that the children could handle, and posters to be displayed in the classroom.
 
A travelling portable exhibition stand consisting of six boxes, and containing examples of pottery, and giving examples of good and bad design in ceramics. CRD00308 A travelling portable exhibition stand consisting of six boxes, and containing examples of pottery, and giving examples of good and bad design in ceramics.

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The images below show a series of display cards, selected from an original pack of twenty called ‘The Things We See’, issued by the CoID by arrangement with Penguin Books Ltd.
 
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The Council exhibited at the main interior design shows of the period and designed display stands to inform the public about design issues. These took a variety of forms, as the following images demonstrate:
 
A design quiz organised by the CoID at the Daily Herald Modern Homes Exhibition in 1946. Cash prizes were offered for identifying the best designs. CRD00311 A design quiz organised by the CoID at the Daily Herald Modern Homes Exhibition in 1946. Cash prizes were offered for identifying the best designs.

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The CoID stand at the Building Exhibition, Olympia, c.1950. In this exhibition three young couples furnished room sets in co-operation with architects and interior designers. CRD00305 The CoID stand at the Building Exhibition, Olympia, c.1950. In this exhibition three young couples furnished room sets in co-operation with architects and interior designers.

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The images below show a promotional leaflet aimed at industry, entitled: ‘A display of ideas and things to show that good design can be good fun, dedicated to all who are concerned with the production of goods.’
 
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To see how these changes in the British design industries were part of wider social and cultural conditions follow the link to Social Reform 1930-1950. To see how the design profession changed in the following decades follow the link to Emerging Practice 1950-1970.
 
Mini Assignment

How does the government, together with other, independently funded organisations, currently try to promote the ‘Creative Industries’ in Britain? Prepare a list of web addresses for these organisations and write a short analysis of the aims of each.
You should start your research by visiting this website:
www.culture.gov.uk/creative/