Speech at the 80th birthday party of The Royal Designers for Industry

by Sir Christopher Frayling

Birthdays are often an opportunity — or an excuse — to look back, to reflect on past times, and so I want to start by taking you, in your minds’ eyes, to a stylish dinner-party which took place in the Trocadero restaurant in Piccadilly just under eighty years ago — shortly after the first crop of RDIs had been elected.

It was a dinner-party in honour of Walter Gropius — the architect and designer who had founded the Bauhaus — and his wife Isa. He had recently announced that he would shortly be leaving Britain for a senior job at Harvard University. Seated round the horseshoe-shaped table at the Trocadero — among the 135 guests — were H.G. Wells, who was next to Isa Gropius, and five RDIs or soon-to-be RDIs including Gordon Russell, Wells Coates and the silversmith H.G. Murphy, who had been one of the very first to be elected.

The Modernist menu was designed by László Moholy-Nagy (also at the dinner, with his wife), who — like Dr Gropius — was one of the émigré designers to be welcomed in London since 1933, escaping from the Nazi regime. ‘Bill of Fare’ it said on the cover of the menu and the ‘F’ of ‘Fare’ was a drawing of three gleaming-white cube-like two-storey buildings. After the dinner — oysters, turtle soup, boiled Scotch salmon, Aylesbury duckling and iced nectarines — the design world had really pushed the boat out that evening: it was a subscription dinner — there were no fewer than eight speeches, all of which said in one way or another what a pity it was that Walter Gropius couldn’t find a home for his outstanding talents in England, as an architect, designer and educator. And how it was hoped that ‘the sturdy seeds of his influence would nevertheless take root here’. Geoffrey Faber, the publisher, amused the guests (‘in the rather trite way inseparable from the publishing profession’, according to one report) with a speech about how proud he was to have just published Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement — Pevsner was another of the guests, seated near Wells Coates — with its subtitle ‘from William Morris to Walter Gropius’ which he reckoned was about the contributions of English craftsmanship to the evolution of international Modernism.

Then, eventually, the great man stood up and — as he put it — tried to draw a line under his English balance, the two or so years he’d been in this country since October 1934. He praised the patient attitude towards shy and awkward people, the remarkable quality of understatement which had been specially developed by the English, and which had turned Britain into a place where ‘one needn’t shout to be heard’. During their stay, the Gropiuses had been taken on a car journey to Stonehenge, and seeing the roadside posters saying ‘Take Courage’ or ‘You are now Entering the Strong Country’, Isa Gropius had thought for a moment she might be back in Germany… It was patiently explained that these messages were from friendly breweries rather than from the Nazi Ministry of Enlightenment & Propaganda. In Britain, you see, ‘one needn’t shout to be heard’.

But, as Gropius went on in a spirit of friendship and diplomacy — ‘after a few conventional anglophile compliments’ — every country has to put up with ‘the drawbacks of its particular merits’, and one of them — in this case — was its ‘puzzling’ attitude towards modern design: it had struck him as an architect that a nation which in the past had found ways to express itself so perfectly and efficiently in its buildings — one need only think of ‘Bath and the elegant unity of Georgian architecture’ — was so very reluctant today to take the same chance; that is, to create a style in harmony with ‘its social structure and twentieth-century ways of living’. It had been a mark of the current generation to lose confidence and pride in the creative, artistic potentialities of our contemporaries — and consequently to hang on to the past. This feature was perhaps more conspicuous in Britain than in other countries. To turn away from the present, he said, to soothe our eyes with the reassuring past was no satisfactory solution, and should not be the attitude of the dissatisfied…

The other guests — most of them from the design establishment — applauded, it was reported, in a way which was ‘devoid of restraint or sentimentality’. ‘And so the major prophet of modern architecture bids “Auf Wiedersehen” to England…’

What, one wonders some eighty years later, did Walter Gropius, H.G. Wells and those five RDIs talk about before, during or after dinner? H.G. Wells must surely have mentioned in conversation his huge science-fiction epic, the film Things to Come (1936), which even then was still going the rounds of London cinemas, and which attempted to predict the future one hundred years hence. The main theme of Things to Come was that it would take a fearsome world war, the obliteration bombing of cities, followed by half a century of plague, sleeping sickness and latter-day medievalism to reconcile the British to modern design. By 2036, though, the film predicted, the gleaming-white world would be ruled by a committee of engineers and designers, all dressed in unisex wide-shouldered samurai outfits, who whizzed around the skies in space liners that looked like flying Odeon cinemas. Now there’s a thought. Cities would now be powered by nuclear energy, buildings would be machino-factured from prefabricated parts, workers would be relieved of drudgery by the new technologies and designers would routinely skype each other. ‘Efficiency’ — also one of the key words in Gropius’s speech — would be the watchword of 2036. The transformation from the old centre of Everytown to the new included some special effects provided by Moholy-Nagy. But the film finished on a question-mark: ‘Is the world any jollier than it used to be?’ Which shall it be? Modernism and the freemasonry of design or traditionalism and the comfort-blanket of what had gone before.

Already it was clear to H.G. Wells by this time that Things to Come had been a flop in the United States, although it had been a moderate hit at the box office on first release in England; since the end of February 1936, when it was premiered, it had become the sixteenth most popular film at the British box office. A film distributor in the States was overheard to say ‘nobody is going to believe that the world will be saved by a bunch of people with British accents’. And he was proved right.

So H.G. Wells and Walter Gropius had much to talk about that evening. The difficulties of predicting the future of design, among other things. Perhaps they also discussed the few commissions which the émigré architects or designers — several of whom were also in the room, at the Trocadero — had managed to secure while they were over in England: a seaside pavilion in Bexhill, a window display in Simpson’s department store in Piccadilly, an aluminium wastepaper basket, a penguin pool and a gorilla house at London Zoo, a book with John Betjeman (of all people), a village college then under construction. As one wag had already pointed out, we did like our Modernism to be at the seaside, or in a zoo — something like a large-scale stick of rock (though not, of course, in pink), to be enjoyed on August bank holidays. As at least four people in the Trocadero that evening knew for a fact, Gropius might well have had a senior position — if not the senior position — in a reconstituted Royal College of Art, until the civil servants at the Ministry lost their nerve and so the idea had been quietly shelved.

What of the RDIs or soon-to-be RDIs at that dinner, some of whom were sitting close to Walter Gropius? Well, they probably discussed with the guest of honour the spate of recent high-profile exhibitions about ‘British Industrial Art in relation to the home’ which had been happening at the Dorland Hall in Lower Regent Street in 1933 and 1934 (organised by the Design and Industries Association) — including a glass room which found its way into the 2036 sequences of Things to Come, where it was remade in see-through plastic — and the more substantial ‘British Art in Industry — articles of good design and everyday use’ at Burlington House, Piccadilly in January to March 1935 — a co-production between the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Arts (‘for the encouragement of arts, manufacturers and commerce’) under the patronage of the King and Queen.

This exhibition featured 2,223 objects, many of them displayed in specimen room settings. It had been criticised in the press for showing too many luxury items and too few mass-produced ones, and for over-emphasising craft and one-offs rather than manufactured goods. The catalogue had said that the three main aims of the exhibition were first to show the importance of having beautiful things in the home, second to show that British manufacturers ‘in co-operation with British artists’ could supply such things, and third to raise the esteem in which undervalued designers for industry were currently held.

The solution was to partner artists and industries — and design in the catalogue was seen as something you did to things rather than in a social, cultural and economic world. The slogan of the day was ‘art and industry’, which would become the title of Herbert Read’s influential book arising from these same debates. The British Art in Industry exhibition, by contrast, was accompanied by a specially written publication called The Conquest of Ugliness. Maybe the RDIs at the dinner talked about that. For it was the Royal Academy/RSA exhibition, under royal patronage, which led directly to the establishment of the distinction ‘Royal Designer for Industry’ eighty years ago.

The RDIs, and soon-to-be RDIs, may also have discussed the recent Gorell Report — the first-ever official document in Britain to emphasise the importance of design in industrial regeneration — commissioned by the Board of Trade under Lord Gorell’s chairmanship. The 1935 exhibition had been one of its first recommendations, together with smaller exhibitions of ‘industrial art’ travelling round the country. The Report had added — and this would have struck a distinct chord with Walter Gropius — that co-operation between industry and art schools was ‘not as close as it should be’: ‘the attractions of the fine arts should not again be allowed to distract attention’ from the applied arts. The Royal College of Art was singled out for special criticism on this score. Gorell concluded with the thought that if you want to improve design and its effectiveness, you have to educate consumers and retailers as well as designers. Herbert Read included some of these recommendations in his book. The issues raised by Gorell — and the exhibitions — were very much in the ether at the time of that dinner in the Trocadero, and several interested parties were sitting round the horseshoe-shaped table…

Well, Gropius was made an Honorary RDI — rather late in the day — in 1947. It is clear from all this, though, that the title ‘Royal Designer for Industry of the Royal Society of Arts’ — the original title — was in 1936 more of an aspiration for the future than a statement of fact. The members elected to the Faculty for the next few years were mainly craftspeople with minimal experience of industry — plus, as Fiona MacCarthy has pointed out, a few gentlemanly letterers and printers to keep them company. When Eric Gill, one of the first, was taken on by the Monotype Corporation as a consultant, he wrote chirpily: ‘What ho! This means advice on “type faces”. Salary v. handsome, too! And I do like typography, don’t you know.’ As Fiona has written: ‘how much British design thinking is in those two small words: what ho!’ Industry was a bit of a game, a jolly jape. And design — as our dinner-table conversations would no doubt have confirmed — was already a very contested area: debates about the long shadow cast by the Arts and Crafts Movement — seeing design for industry as a kind of confrontation; talk of sending artists into the dark satanic mills and hoping for the best; an emphasis on the producers of objects and graphics to the exclusion of consumers.

The point is that for the RDIs and for the RSA, the design world of 1936 — which seems such a settled world in retrospect, a ‘golden age’ almost — was every bit as contested as it is today. There was only one woman RDI — the handloom weaver Ethel Mairet — elected before the Second World War, to be joined by the ceramic designer Susie Cooper in 1940. But no-one noticed that anomaly at the time.

I have a personal link with Ethel Mairet, actually — which resulted in this rather nondescript table-mat, which I still possess, woven by me on a handloom at a very tender age. This took place in rural Sussex, the village of Ditchling, in the early 1950s. One morning a group of primary schoolchildren in their black and light-blue uniforms and striped caps walked, crocodile-fashion, to a large bungalow in Ditchling called ‘Gospels’ — and spent a memorable day being taught the rudiments of weaving, on a substantial floor-loom, supervised by a very elderly lady. ‘How to make a three-coloured table-mat.’ The lady seemed rather severe to me.

What I didn’t know then, and it wouldn’t have registered even if I did, was that the lady was none other than the great weaver Ethel Mairet shortly before she died — the lady who had taught Gandhi how to use a spinning wheel, and a friend of Eric Gill, Edward Johnston and others of the Sussex arts and crafts. And I have kept the piece that I wove that afternoon ever since then — not for sentimental reasons or as a kind of ‘Linus’s blanket’, but because a seed was planted that day which has stayed with me ever since. But that’s another story…

The Second World War brought engineering designers to the Faculty for the first time — Barnes Wallis, Geoffrey de Havilland — boffins for the war effort, and some real industrial designers such as Wells Coates and Dick Russell the furniture man. Thereafter, the story of the RDIs was to become a parallel history of British designers. A lot of the great names are there — and some who were heroes and heroines at the time but who are now much less well known except to specialists. The first dress designer was elected in 1950 — but many more followed, as one would expect, in the 1960s and 1970s. There was an emphasis on graphic design, interiors and television graphics in the early 1960s, on car and transport design in the late 1960s. Photographers from 1978 onwards, reflecting their wider acceptance into the hierarchy of visualisers. A major exhibition at the V&A for the fiftieth anniversary of the RDIs in 1986 — called Eye for Industry — featured by my reckoning 45 industrial designers, 20 graphic designers, 13 textile designers and 6 fashion designers. And so on, up to today’s Faculty under its current Master Betty Jackson. The shape of the Faculty has reflected — and sometimes influenced — the changing shape of design in this country: sometimes it’s been ahead of the curve, sometimes it’s been following it.

Today, the design world is just as contested as it was some eighty years ago — but in very different ways. One has only to read some of the newspaper reviews of the new Design Museum, which opened in the ex-Commonwealth Institute building at the end of last week, to see this — the exhibitions there being today’s equivalents of those which took place at the Dorland Hall in 1933 and 1934, and at the Royal Academy in 1935. Why — some critics have asked — is the first special exhibition Fear and Love about the design of interactions, virtual reality and cyberspace, rather than about beautiful physical objects which you can hold? About touchscreens rather than touch? Why the emphasis on the user — in the trinity of designer, maker, user — ‘maker’, by the way, is seen by the Museum as synonymous with ‘manufacturer’ rather than ‘craftsperson’. Why the recycling and rebirth of traditional crafts — weaving, basketwork, cast-off clothing — in the Designs of the Year exhibition? Why the crowdsourced wall, where members of the public have been asked to select from the permanent collections — the Mayor of London chose the London Underground sign. And why the social commentary throughout about design as something that happens in society rather than just to things. One or two critics have even suggested that because the moment of superstar luxury designers passed with the crash of 2008 — design with a big D — any Design Museum, as a concept, must be out of date; as if design with a little d did not exist!

The answer to these questions, of course, is that these are all important aspects of today’s rapidly changing design landscape — and the role, the responsibility of the Museum among other design institutions is to try and find a way through this landscape, a guide for the perplexed, on behalf of the visitor. At a time when the very word ‘product’ has moved on from meaning ‘a thing assembled or manufactured’ — still the OED definition — to meaning a bundle of services. Travel products, Parking products, Insurance products, Investment products… I’m sure you know what I mean. There was an item on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme recently about ‘product design’ — and it concerned the volatility of the stock market! The role of a major museum at this time is visually to debate the nature and even the definition of design with a little ‘d’. No longer handicraft and mass or even batch production as it was in 1936; but living on the things we create and living on thin air. Design and co-design. The old economy and the new. Products and services. Hugh Casson RDI liked to say that he once overheard two designers having a chat in Kensington Gardens during the Swinging Sixties: ‘Let’s be philosophical about this,’ said one to the other, ‘don’t give it a second thought.’ Well, clearly that approach will not work any more — even if it did first time round. If someone were to ask you, ‘What do you make?’ these days — chances are they would be referring to the size of your bonus. In 1936 that would surely have been different. The dinner-party conversations have changed beyond recognition.

The RSA — as the parent body of the RDIs — and the Faculty itself — successfully found their way through the muddles and arguments of 1936, the topics of conversation at our Trocadero dinner for Walter Gropius. Not overnight, but soon enough. The RSA today — through the briefs for its Student Design Awards; its design research projects; its summer schools and through the redesign of its own systems — is actually trying to find a way through them, to become a champion in this new chapter of design thinking and practice. And so are the RDIs, as part of the family, part of a two-way street. Over the past few years, Tim Berners-Lee of the internet, Brian Eno of sound design, Simon Waterfall of interactions — all dealing with the virtual world — and others touching that world — have been welcomed into the Faculty, side by side with Jonny Ive, who transformed the design of computers and of our interactions with them, and Nick Park, whose Wallace and Gromit remind us that there is still a corner of the English mind that is forever Ealing; the other side of the coin.

In the long story of the Faculty, this represents a move towards the virtual, the experiential, the conceptual — what’s in the ether as well as things you can use and hold and watch and wear. Design in relation to the home — as they said in 1936 — and also in relation to work, to public places, and to institutions. I believe that the key, for both the RSA and the RDIs, remains — as it was all those years ago — quality, excellence, efficiency and integrity, to quote the original ordinance. And, of course, the individual talent — because the RDIs are about designers rather than design in the abstract.

So, happy 80th birthday, Royal Designers for Industry. The great George Melly once said to me that the great thing about getting old is that you meet new people all the time… Well, you’ve had your Freedom Pass for some time now, but you are still more than surviving — you are thriving — and I’m quite sure that you will be welcoming many new people to your ranks, refreshing the Faculty, for the next eighty years.

This speech was given on 30 November 2016, at the celebration of the 80th anniversary of the RDI.