Title: Sir Duncan Oppenheim, design advocate
Pages: 56 - 57
Author: Corin Hughes-Stanton
Text: Sir Duncan Oppenheim, design advocate
The president of the British-American Tobacco Co Ltd. a businessman who devotes a great deal of his time, energy and management skill to raising standards of British industrial design, talks to Corin Hughes-Stanton.
This month the ColD is holding its fourth International Design Congress, which on this occasion is devoted to the theme of Profit by Design. In the chair will be Sir Duncan Oppenheim. As a member of the council of the ColD since 1959, and its chairman since 1960, he is probably one of the most influential men associated with the design world, and has done an enormous amount for design and designers in this country. Not only has he represented the interests the ColD (and design) at the highest level to successive Presidents of the Board of Trade, as well as to many trade and industrial organisations, but he has presided over the increasing work and influence of the ColD itself.
One example is the large and successful role which the Col D played in the British Week in Holland two years ago. It was Sir Duncan, as chairman of the Anglo-Dutch Trade Council, who really made this possible.
Talking with him you might get the impression that he is rather shy, with little force of personality. At first, conversation is not easy. But perhaps his ability to do without small talk at the conference table, and instead opt immediately for the heart of the matter, is his great strength. And when you get to know him he is witty, amusing and relaxed
A man of great charm - he does not fit the popular image of a tough aggressive businessman - he is perhaps primarily a negotiator, who combines business acumen with immense capacity and authority. According to those who work closely with him he has great wisdom on tactics as well as a real understanding of administrative problems. It is these qualities, together with his role in business world, which have enabled the ColD to achieve so much under Paul Reilly during the last few years, and designers to be offered so many more opportunities.
An enormously successful and cultured businessman, who started life as a solicitor, he was chairman of the BritishAmerican Tobacco Co Ltd from 1953 until July this year, and is now president of the company. He has innumerable contacts with other companies and industries. He is a director of Lloyds Bank Ltd. and chairman of the CBl's Overseas Investment Committee, the Royal Institute of International Affairs and the British National Committee of the International Chamber of Commerce. He has recently been appointed a member of the council of the Royal Society of Arts. There is no doubting that he is greatly respected by other businessmen and when he tells them that "socially and economically good design is of the utmost importance" they listen to him where they would not necessarily listen to someone with a more obvious axe to grind. Indeed, they have listened so much that he can point out "today large numbers in industry would agree with me", a claim which would have been impossible even five years ago. Sir Duncan, who has always taken an active interest in fine art, only became directly concerned with industrial design when he joined the council of the Royal College of Art in 1953. In 1956 Sir David Eccles (now Lord Eccles), who was then Minister of Education, appointed him chairman of the council of the college, to succeed Sir Colin Anderson. His success in this job made him an obvious choice as a member of the council of the Col D. When Sir Walter Worboys retired as chairman of the ColD in the following year Sir David, who by that time had become President of the Board of Trade, appointed him as Sir Walter's successor. He has turned out to be an outstandingly good choice.
His third important outside job is his chairmanship of the Court of Governors of the Administrative Staff College at Henley. He regards the proper training of managers for industry as essential and urgent. A realist, he points out that industry, its products and organisation, have become much more complex, and demand much more expertise. The rule of thumb days are fast disappearing. This is also true where design is concerned, and already courses at Henley include lectures on design. Both Sir Duncan and Martin Bates, the principal, hope that when the college is extended it will be possible to hold design management courses at Henley.
Sir Duncan, who started work for British-American Tobacco with a six month stint in Shanghai, has been an inveterate world traveller ever since, and says he doubts whether he will ever get tired of it. At the same time he is a genuine Londoner.
He is a lively and discriminating painter, and whenever he can at weekends he shuts himself away in his studio at the top of his house in Edwardes Square, Kensington, and works at his latest painting. The rest of the house is full of fine furniture, books and a splendid collection of modern paintings and sculpture. In the hall there are two William Scotts, a Sutherland still life and an abstract by Dennis Hawkins, art master at Repton of which Sir Duncan is a governor. The staircase wall is lined with two small, but superb Ben Nicholsons, a Keith Vaughan, a Piper, an Ardizzone drawing and an Eric Ravilious watercolour, as well as two delightful Thomas Rowlandson drawings. The corridor has paintings by Mary Fedden and Julian Trevelyan.
Back in the large drawing room overlooking a patio garden full of geraniums and magnolia trees, Sir Duncan showed me an outstanding nude by Sickert, and some of his sculpture - including a Henry Moore famiIy, a Reg Butler female figure and Elizabeth Frink warriors. Sir Duncan seemed to be completely at home and relaxed among this enjoyable collection, which he has built up over the last 30 years.
He wears his three hats - industry, design and fine art - with such practical aplomb that he has been appointed chairman of the board of management of the Carlton House Terrace project, which will provide headquarters for the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers, the Design and Industries Association, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Design and Art Directors Association and the Institute of Landscape Architects. If anybody can keep these unruly bedfellows in good order then it will be he. He claims that he does not really enjoy all the conferences and committees which he has to attend. When I asked him why then he agreed to join so many he just laughed and replied "weakness of character". But whatever the real reason, many people have cause to be grateful.