Issue 202
March/April 2018

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    Kenneth Grange – the man who made Britain modern

    Richard Carr reviews a book on one of Britain's most influential industrial designers of our time

    THE INDUSTRIAL DESIGNER Kenneth Grange is well known (at least to those interested in railways) for his design of the front of the InterCity125, which British Rail introduced as its new high speed passenger service between London and Edinburgh in 1976.

    When he was commissioned to work on the design of the cab, Grange thought that he was being asked to do a decorative job. But that is not how he works. Instead, and at his own cost, he collaborated with an engineer from Imperial College, London, which had a wind tunnel...

    "To find a shape that would cut cleanly through the air whilst also keeping the train clean. By the time we had finished the production model, we had introduced a number of ideas new to BR. One was to get rid of the buffers – big, ugly things – and to hide the couplings, only ever used in depots or in emergencies, in the underside of the glass reinforced plastic (grp) nosecone. This was good from an aerodynamic point of view, but it also gave the power units a more modern look."

    As Jonathan Glancey says in Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern: "The bolt-on cab Grange designed proved to be very effectively streamlined whilst being light and, the same time, immensely strong. A double skinned grp construction combined with a laminated Triplex windscreen meant that drivers would be safe from the impact of a brick at up to 225mph. This was necessary because yobs would frequently throw things at trains from the parapet of a bridge crossing the line.

    However, because the train driver's union insisted on having two drivers in the cab (Grange had originally thought there would be only one), he had to change the interior to accommodate two seats with a control panel in between, which compromised the original shape of the cab. Nevertheless, as Glancey says: "In profile, the two-man HST (High Speed Train) has a prognathous* look that makes the trains seem like mechanical eels sliding seamlessly in and out of stations. It is an endearing and an enduring image."

    When designing the cab, Grange adopted an approach to design that he has followed ever since his early work, including the parking meters that first appeared on British streets in the late 1950s – namely, that what must be considered is a product's purpose, function, use and appearance.

    When considering the parking meter, Deyan Sudjic (another contributor to the book) notes that its compact, streamlined appearance reflected the way in which jet engines had been integrated into the wings of the Comet (the world's first jet airliner) which gave the meter a very modern but also a relatively unobtrusive look. This is what Paul Reilly, then director of the Council of Industrial Design, had hoped for when he recommended Grange for the commission. What would Reilly think of the mess that often characterizes Britain's streets today?

    Trained as a designer at Willesden Art School, Grange was introduced to an architectural and engineering approach to design while briefly at ARCON, who were responsible for prefabs (prefabricated housing).

    Here, Grange says, he had his eyes opened to contemporary design when he encountered white walls enlivened by sticking colourful images on them, huge drawing boards, a table by Ernest Race and Biro pens. An opportunity to work on the Sports Pavilion at the Festival of Britain in 1951 with Gordon and Ursula Bowyer followed by time in Jack Howe's office introduced Grange to the best in contemporary (and international) design. And designing exhibition stands for the UK's Atomic Energy Authority, including one in Geneva, enabled Grange to set up his own design office in 1958.

    That was the year when he began his long association with Kenwood and Kodak. For the former, he began by redesigning the Kenwood Chef food mixer, which was launched in 1960, producing (as Penny Sparke says) "A sleek, minimal, sculptural form which combined a cast iron metal body with moulded plastic parts... and made many aspects of food preparation considerably less arduous than hitherto."

    Indeed, such was the success of the Chef that Grange went on to design some 80 products for the company, and continued as its consultant designer long after Kenwood was sold the Thorn.

    The same success followed his commissions from Kodak that began when Grange designed the 44A in 1960, which transformed the camera from its previous box shape to one whose compact, rectangular form made it very easy to use – and the first to make a profit. (Previously, Kodak had seen its cameras as merely devices to sell film.)

    Thus, over 20 years, followed designs for cameras, projectors, packaging and exhibitions – a long association that has also been seen in Grange's work for A.J. Binns (its modular Variset hanging systems).

    Recognition of his status in the design world came when Grange won a Duke of Edinburgh's Prize for Elegant Design in 1963 for the Milward Courier cordless electric razor – a beautifully sculptured piece of equipment that had a white melamine body and a smoked melamine case that could be hung on a wall. It was as beautiful as anything then being designed in Italy. But it had one flaw: the batteries were not powerful enough to provide a quick, close shave.

    In many ways, Grange's designs reduced products to their simplest forms, as can be seen in the pens he designed for Parker and Platignum, the spectacles for Polaroid and the razors for Wilkinson Sword. And, as in a sewing machine he designed for the Japanese company, Maruzen, in the late 1960s, the geometrically designed plastic housings for the main components are softened by their curves and enlivened by different colours for their tops and controls. And, by shortening the machine's internal shafts, Grange reduced its weight and made it much easier to use.

    Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern ends with a conversation he had with Gemma Curtin, director of the Design Museum in London, in which he comments on how a classic form of modern design whose roots lay in the German Bauhaus of 1919-1931, and the flowering of design in Scandinavia and Italy in the 1950s-60s, has been replaced by post-Modernism.

    Here, he says, Less is More has been replaced by More is Less, and cites how we are being constantly urged to buy a new version of an existing product, and how newness is often expressed, not by improvement, but by the addition of features (in digital cameras, mobile phones, electric ovens and even washing machines) that are difficult to understand and seldom used.

    As for his most recent designs, these include the re-design of the Anglepoise lamp and the traditional London black cab. The lamps were given LED fittings and, in the case of the cabs, Grange rejected a proposal for a completely new design and instead concentrated on improvements, including wider doors to make access easier, safety provisions for children and a wider windscreen to improve the driver's vision. Similarly, when redesigning the Post Office's post box, Grange kept the cast iron container and Post Office red, while widening the box's slot so that it would take A4 letters.

    In the conversation, Grange also notes how badly designed most products are for the elderly, for whom he designed a self-contained shower unit that was made by Ideal Standard in the 1980s but was poorly marketed so it did not sell well.

    Today, James Taylor and Ed Warner of Motionspot are trying to put matters right. As for Grange himself, he has designed a 'really useful' wooden bookcase with rope handles in the shape of a coffin so that, he says, "If ever I pop my clogs, it's books out, me in and, with the lid fixed, up to the great client in the sky."

    Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern is published by Black Dog in association with the Design Museum, price £19.95.

    * For those who weren't quite sure: 'Having a projecting lower jaw or chin.' Oxford English Dictionary

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