‘Design’, said Picture Post firmly in 1946, ‘has yet to fit comfortably into the British home’. This, coming in particular from such a famously well-designed magazine, is rather like Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme not believing he can speak prose. ‘Design’ in the British mind, like good food, means something foreign, flash, not to be trusted, and the craze for designer labels – current among those who wish to appear foreign and flash – stems from a similar belief that things are not designed unless they specifically say so.
There are reasons for this, apart from insularity and conservatism. One of them may be that historically some of the best British designs – domestic earthenware – Windsor chairs, evolved before the division of labour and the emergencies of the individual designer. The speed with which we industrialised and the importation of new materials, especially wood from the colonies, meant that Britain’s first experience of manufactured ‘designed’ goods were often unhappy. Technology outstripped aesthetics, untried materials behaved unpredictably and we became bad at bookbinding, furniture making and other skills at which we had excelled. Never mind, though, it was the workshop of the world.
Only when this ceased to be the case did the Government sit up with a jolt and start talking about design. It does this periodically when an export drive is needed and the forty years covered by Did Britain Make It? is marked at each end by such spasms of official interest. In 1946 the exhibition ‘Britain Can Make It’ cost £7 million and covered the entire ground floor of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It aimed to encourage industry and the public to take an interest in design. Last year John Butcher’s report was brought out to do the same thing, in much the same terms – although the difference in the scale of operations tells its own story.
In 1946 there was an enthusiasm and confidence in design as a means of improving social conditions that seems now as naive as it was – in the case of men like Gordon Russell – admirable. Russell, a gifted and humane designer, hoped that the simple aesthetic of Utility goods would mean a permanent upgrading of design. Vogue, too, praised Utility clothes, which brought the skills of the best couturiers within reach of the high street, as an example of ‘applied democracy’. The truth, confirmed by these essays, is that there is no such thing as democratic taste. By 1953 Russell is lamenting the irresistable rise of the three piece suite and ‘flashy and meretricious goods’ that ‘often appear to give an impression of luxury and costliness to the ignorant when seen from the pavement and skilfully lighted.’
The view from the pavement remained obstinately anti ‘design’. When Vivienne (Spend, Spend, Spend) Nicholson’s husband won the pools she made it clear that she had not listened to a word the Council for Industrial had been telling her. She opted for ‘hair dyed Pink Champagne blond to match a new Chevrolet Impala, a holiday in Las Vegas and a Spanish style bungalow in Garforth called the Ponderosa.’
The best period for design was the ’50s and ’60s, when the economy grew and the Government wasn’t watching. While the Design Council, tom from the outset between commercialism and aesthetics, art and industry, carried on the myth of democratic taste and lost its way, Terence Conran backed his own taste and won. The consistency of his aesthetic and his ability to meet modem needs and modest budgets, ensured that Conran has had more influence on more British homes than any other post war designer.
It is now, of course, fashionable to attack him for this – if there’s one thing we dislike more than design it is success – and one of the strong points of Did Britain Make It? is that it attempts to analyse his achievements fairly and seriously. A mixture of social history, interviews and essays, the book is also free from any constraining overall theory. While this sometimes makes for irritating contradictions and repetitions it gives on the whole a stimulating and thought-provoking account. The last sections ‘Retailing and Design’ and ‘Design and the Public’ are particularly good.
What is perhaps most striking to anyone who does not come from their world, is the hopefulness with which designers and design historians still talk about their chances of influencing society and changing the world, and their resentment at being misunderstood. Some seem as naive as Russell. Like all the arts, fine and applied, the best is only interesting to a minority and depends on talent and enlightened patronage. Then again, perhaps if poets were occasionally wheeled in for a fork lunch at Downing Street and told their work could boost the GNP they too, might be less quick to resign themselves to small audiences and smaller pay.