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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > Exhibiting Britain > Britain Can Make It > What Industrial Design Means

Convincing both the British public and manufacturers of the necessity for design and designers in the reconstruction process was one of the main objectives of BCMI. Whilst this message was, for the most part, conveyed implicitly through themed exhibits placed in well-designed settings, BCMI also included several sections which were more directly educational. These were ‘Great British Designers and Organisations which have influenced the development of British design’; ‘The Council of Industrial Design’; ‘Designers Look Ahead’ and, lastly, ‘What Industrial Design Means’, which is the focus of discussion here.

The apparent aim of the display, as a COID pamphlet explained, was ‘…to demonstrate not only how the Industrial Designer works when designing an object for mass production, but the way in which different materials and production processes influence his [sic] designs’. Whilst the section’s designer, Misha Black of the Design Research Unit, certainly fulfilled this brief and provided his client with a thorough account of the nature of the industrial designer’s work, he also ensured that a more propagandist message was conveyed: that of the centrality of the designer to the manufacture of mass-produced goods and the importance of a modernist ethic in the design process. This message was also enhanced by the location of the section which was entered from the display on ‘Great British Designers’ and followed by one on the Council’s work.
Like Havinden, Black (1910 -1977) was one of the foremost modern exhibition and product designers of his day and an obvious recruit for BCMI. After training in commercial art he turned, at the beginning of the 1930s, to design. In 1933 he joined the firm of Bassett Gray which became, in 1935, the Industrial Design Partnership (IDP). Amongst its partners was Milner Gray who was a key figure in the professionalisation of design practice in this decade and had founded the Society of Industrial Artists in 1930. Black would become an active member of the Society.

IDP specialised in exhibition, graphics, packaging and product design and Black’s portfolio included work for the radio and television manufacturers E.K.Cole and for the Gas, Light and Coke Company. He also earned a reputation as a leading exhibition designer and became heavily involved in avant-garde design and left-wing politics. He belonged to the Artists International Association and was a member of the Modern Architectural Research (MARS) Group, a collection of British modernist architects for whom he designed their 1938 exhibition.

During the war, Black was appointed Principal Exhibition Officer of the Ministry of Information, the government’s propaganda organisation. He also became involved in the formation of a new design group, the Design Research Unit (DRU), in January 1943. Mindful of the possibilities which lay ahead once war was over the Unit was formed as

a design service equipped to advise on all problems of design, and to form a nucleus group which, through contacts established during the war period with specialist designers and experts in all appropriate fields, would be in a position at the end of war to expand and undertake the wider services which may then be demanded of it.
Blake, 1984, 30.
‘What Industrial Design means’ would be the first major commission awarded to the DRU. Its theme was particularly pertinent for a group with its concerns and thus the display served as a demonstration not just of its members’ effectiveness as designers, but as an organisation which was, like the COID and government, committed to the notion of design in itself.

Demonstrating ‘What Industrial Design Means’ (and the importance of the designer) was a considerable brief. Black’s display would deal with ideas rather than things. He had to present his audience with an explanation of the nature of design – an abstract concept - and the design process – a complicated thing - in a way that was accessible and understandable. He also had to tackle the problem of fitting his display into a rectangular space which served partly as a circulation route through the exhibition as a whole and had a large structural pier at its centre.

Who designs the eggcup? Not the machine, which cannot think. The hen is partly responsible; she lays the egg to which all bowls of all eggcups must conform. In industry it is the industrial designer (in consultation with the factory management, engineers and salesmen) who decides – who designs – the proportions, utility, colour, texture and decoration of the eggcup – or whatever object he is designing for mass production.
BCMI pamphlet, 1946
Black had spoken of how his starting point for any display was

…the story I wish to tell, what is the best way to get it across to the section of the public which I have been commissioned to influence’. Black, 1935 in Blake, 1984
At BCMI Black’s audience was essentially the general public, for whom design was not a particularly familiar concept. Thus Black elected to focus his discussion of the design process around a case study: the production of a simple everyday object, the eggcup. In keeping with the idea of a display as narrative, Black produced a storyboard to underpin the design.
‘The Birth of an Egg Cup’, Black’s title and theme for the display, was divided into five main sections. The first bay was the Introduction, marked by a huge 13 feet (4 metres) high fibrous-plaster egg to attract visitors’ eyes. The title of the section was projected onto its surface. Painted onto the wall alongside the egg was a 24 feet (3 metres 65 centimetres) long mural which depicted machines which produced eggcups. Opposite this was the display’s first bay where a plastic press was placed which made eggcups at the rate of 3000 per day. On the wall beside this were painted a flow of arrows which led the visitor to the central pier which was adorned with huge question marks which directed the eye into bay two where there was a photo mural of a figure which asked the question ‘who does decide the shape of the eggcup?’
Part of the answer to this was provided by a model of caged hens. But the ‘real’ answer came in the next section which dealt with the Industrial Designer (who was referred to and depicted as male throughout the display). His importance was stressed by the inclusion of a tableau of a twice life-sized model of a designer and the caption:
Here is the Man
He decides what the eggcup shall look like
He is the Industrial Designer
He works with the Engineers, the Factory Management – and is influenced by what you want
The bay then featured a series of pictures depicting what Black called ‘the complete story’ of how a designer works including data gathering, consultation, prototyping and the commencement of production. This was followed by Section Three which dealt with 'Materials and Methods' – plastics, wood, metal, glass, textiles – and their influence on the object’s design. Section Four returned to more aesthetic matters and considered ‘Aspects of an Object’ – size, weight, colour, shape, texture and decoration – and how these influenced the designer’s work. The final section was a conclusion and reiterated ‘the importance of the Industrial Designer in Industry and the Home’ (Black, Storyboard, 1946).

‘What Industrial Design Means’ after BCMI
Reflecting the ‘public relations’ nature of this display, this section was the only one to have a life beyond BCMI. Black and the DRU were commissioned by the COID to produce a booklet based on the original storyboard to further promote the understanding of industrial design.
View of entrance ESD00989 View of entrance

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View of plastic press ESD00995 View of plastic press

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Who designs the eggcup? ESD00993 Who designs the eggcup?

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Hens ESD00994 Hens

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The industrial designer ESD00992 The industrial designer

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Design process from 'The Birth of an Eggcup' booklet ESD00974 Design process from 'The Birth of an Eggcup' booklet

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From 'Materials and Methods' section ESD00990 From 'Materials and Methods' section

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Aspects of an object ESD00988 Aspects of an object

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Cover of 'The Birth of an Eggcup' booklet ESD00991 Cover of 'The Birth of an Eggcup' booklet

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See next section - BCMI Response & Critique