The story of modern British design runs almost seamlessly in tandem with the life of one man. Kenneth Grange might not be a household name like his peers Conran or Dyson, but his designs have impacted more of the British population than both these people put together. From British Rail trains to London taxis, from bus shelters to parking meters to postboxes, Wilkinson Sword razors, countless domestic appliances for Kenwood and Morphy Richards, Kodak cameras and Parker pens, Grange has spent his life perfecting everyday things, rigorously tweaking them to make them look and work better.
“I want on my tombstone: ‘It was never good enough’,” Grange says. “I can never work on something unless I can improve it.” Astonishingly he calculates that some 85 to 90 per cent of his work has reached production but almost more impressive is how ubiquitous his designs have become; they are everywhere and everyone in Britain uses them. Fittingly then, he is the subject of a retrospective titled “Making Britain Modern” in July at London’s Design Museum.
As to how he came to be so prolific, Grange, with characteristic modesty, claims he was in the right place at the right time. “Suddenly people wanted new things,” he explains. “There was a dynamic growth in awareness from the 1950s onwards that newness in product design was going to be a marketing advantage. It’s hard to believe in 2011 the sheer paucity of new things in the shops back then. I was one of the first outside designers to be hired by companies because I had a new idea and a new way of solving problems and one commission led to another.”
Grange is now in his eighties (though he looks closer to 60) and lives with his wife Apryl at the end of a long stretch of dirt track in the depths of Devon. Their converted farm building home is like an archive of modern design. Among the Aalto, Jacobsen and Eames furniture sit many of his own designs – statement speakers for British acoustics firm Bowers & Wilkins, numerous Anglepoise lamps (of which he is the creative director) and the odd prototype, like the man-shaped wooden bookcase, which he plans to have emptied and turned into a coffin when he dies. The “really useful bookcase” stands in Grange’s hall. It’s the first thing you see when you walk into his home and the designer delights in explaining its practical but macabre function. It’s not part of the joke but it’s a fitting statement all the same – Grange belongs to a dying breed in today’s “austerity Britain”.
He explains this as the result of a process. “Britain was at the forefront when it had a manufacturing industry that partnered the designer,” he says. “When you have companies buying the best equipment and tools to make things as good as they can be made then you get the finest partners for designers to work with. When these things don’t exist, when cost and quantity become more important than quality, as has happened in Britain, then designers look elsewhere for partners and the industry falls to pieces. We have brilliant designers here – Terence Woodgate, Jasper Morrison, Sam Hecht – but they now go to Italy, Switzerland and Japan to find manufacturing partners who can match the quality of their ideas with quality production.”
That the industrial manufacturing, which made Britain great in the post-war years, is now outsourced is only part of the problem. Design education in the UK is focused on spawning a generation of artists, not industrial designers. To make matters worse, craft traditions are now being strangled by a lack of government financial support, which they so relied on to keep them going. In short, Britain is losing the ability to make things and the people to make them.
“If you’re a designer you become much more beneficial to society when you go one step further to become a maker,” explains Grange. “One of the biggest rewards as a designer is knowing how to make something. If I were Chancellor I would give big tax incentives to small firms providing a fantastic service or making something beautifully. In 10 years this would create a platform of makers again. Being self-sufficient is such an important quality – you encounter much bigger problems in society if your population doesn’t know how to put food on the table without buying a readymade meal.” Grange is not a grumpy old man pontificating about the good old days, he is in life as he is in work – intent on making things better, from the door handles of his Aga (no grip) to the state of the British design industry. This is a man who has spent his entire life bringing good design to the masses in Britain.
But design doesn’t appear to be part of Brand Britain’s agenda anymore and this is what Grange laments. At a time when so many countries – Finland, Korea and Singapore to name just three – are actively investing in design as part of their strategic social and economic development, Britain, once so great in this field, is now looking a little sorry.
With so many public services not working (think Heathrow at Christmas and the London Underground every weekend) and “Made in Britain” an increasingly nostalgic brand tag, the government would do well to recruit Grange to help set the cogs in motion once more; nobody understands British industrial manufacturing better and nobody knows more about how to make things work better too.
Design for life
Kenneth Grange’s CV
1929 Born in London
1949 Completes his national service as a technical illustrator with the Royal Engineers
1949 Works for various architecture practices for seven years
1956 Founds Kenneth Grange Design
1972 Forms Pentagram with Theo Crosby, Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes and Mervyn Kurlansky
1987 President of Chartered Society of Designers
2001 Grange becomes the only designer to win the Duke of Edinburgh’s Design prize twice (the first time in 1963)
2011 Grange is honoured with a retrospective at the London Design Museum titled Making Britain Modern
Venner parking meter, 1958
Perhaps not a very beloved design, this was the first coin-operated parking meter in Britain.
British Rail HST 125 InterCity train, 1972
“This has probably touched more people than anything else I’ve designed,” says Grange. It started as a symbol of the national railways’ future and nearly 40 years later is still in service.
Adshel Sygma bus shelter, 1981
Grange’s designs for Adshel are still being installed in the UK.
Royal Mail rural post-box, 1996
A redesign of the cylindrical UK postbox, this is still made from cast iron but can now take A-sized mail too.
Anglepoise T75 lamp, 2005
When Grange became the creative director of Anglepoise the company was in trouble. The T75 is one of its cheapest lights and turned Anglepoise’s profits around.