Nick Butler is 53 and a big, likeable man. He describes himself as a risk-taker and entrepreneur, and he knows how to run a business – his consultancy BIB is one of the most durable of British industrial design studios – but he is not in the aggressively growth-oriented, materialistic mould of some of his contemporaries. He confesses to being a “lousy short-term tactician… someone more for the long haul”.
Butler is free to speak his mind. As the Master of the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry, he’s got a platform and he’s going to use it, and he won’t need to worry about harming his business. “I’ve been conscious that when I’ve stuck my head out of the trenches in the past, it’s affected BIB. Now I’m in a position where I can divorce BIB from what I say, because they are personal views.”
Butler runs a successful business, but it is a business that reflects his own principles, he claims, because he has no shareholders to please. “Design is both a profession and a business. It’s a business in the sense that it has to be successful at generating income. It’s a profession in that you have standards you fall or stand by. Ten years ago my accountant said we should go on to the USM and get outside people in. I thought, why should I do that? The reason I started this business was to work for myself and believe in the things I believe in,” he says. Nine years ago, BIB turned down a defence-related contract worth half a million pounds: “Morally, I couldn’t do it,” he explains.
Butler set up BIB when he was just 25, and he still owns the majority share in the company. It has been part of his life since 1991, when he moved business and family from Holland Park in London to the rural tranquillity of a former mill house in the village of Pangbourne in Berkshire. This has made it even harder to separate work and rest. Occasionally, after he returns to the home half of the building in the evening, he can hear people still working, and he feels guilty, pacing the floorboards at night, worrying about the business and the design industry.
He proudly defends the achievements of his company and employees. Creating BIB, he says, is the best thing he ever did.
After gaining his MDes at the Royal College of Art, Butler won a fellowship to work under Eliot Noyes, the design chief who transformed IBM’s products into “the image of technical efficiency”, in John Heskett’s words. Noyes himself had studied under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus, and Butler’s measured, pragmatic, unpretentious style reflects this lineage. BIB’s output has been a mixture of consumer products and professional or industrial equipment. Its two Design Council Awards, for example, were for the Durabeam torch range and a blood analyser for Corning Medical. The portfolio also includes diggers for JCB, the Connect 4 game for Milton Bradley, cameras for Minolta, telephones for BT, computers for Apple, pens, watches, lamps and escalators.
Butler’s self-effacement and soft speech have not prevented him from being a consistent spokesman for the design industry. Despite a self-confessed tendency to mix his metaphors, he speaks forthrightly about heartfelt matters. He has served on countless judging panels, spoken at major conferences for 20 years, and was made an OBE in 1988. He was on the Design Council from 1987-93, was a visiting professor at the RCA from 1987-90, and is on the BAA Chief Executive’s design board.
Every other year, he and his wife Kari travel to the Lot region of France to view the 30 000-year-old cave paintings at PÃªche Merle. These are a touchstone for the designer, and serve as a reminder of “what designers should care about” – basic human needs like food, shelter, tools and society, he says.
So what will Butler bring from his own experience to his new public role? As one of the grandees of the consultancy business, is he setting out to promote it? He says not, rather that he wants to promote issues of social responsibility and the environment, and lead “a gathering of Royal Designers for the common good, for the new millennium”.
Instilling a greater sense of responsibility in the design profession will mean going further in reversing the damage inflicted in the Eighties of what Butler calls “the lemming-like rush for consultancies to become like their clients” – big, important and quoted on the Stock Exchange. People – users, employees and so on – have to become important again. “I had a professor who had a massive influence on me and a quote of his is engraved on my mind. It was: ‘Design is a moral act carried out in the sociological and economic conditions as they exist at any moment in time.’ The more you examine that statement, it’s so bloody true.” So what does that mean for today’s designer? Butler maintains that rampant consumerism is on the wane, and that the quality of what people buy will be decisive. Designers can, and should, throw their weight behind these shifts. “We can’t and shouldn’t stop the advance of technology. But the human being doesn’t change at the same pace as technology,” he says. “So the designer has to interpret that and be a philosophical reference in between, caring about people, but also acknowledging that there is no such thing as manufacturers or companies who are philosophers or philanthropists. They use designers for profit.”
In this system, actions speak louder than words and, says Butler, designers can make themselves heard by manufacturing products to their own standards. In other words, do a James Dyson. BIB’s lightweight Turbo Table ironing board (see DW 8 September 1995) embodies what Butler has been saying. The board is lightweight, made from recyclable polypropylene. The company has designed it and is managing its production and marketing. “Designers have to be more entrepreneurial, to make a stand. And whatever they do, they have to start doing some of their own things, take their destiny in their own hands,” says Butler. “They have to start making their own work, like the armourist in medieval England or the farriers or the clothes makers. That, at the end of the day, is something you can absolutely control, 110 per cent.”
Butler feels aggrieved that the Faculty of RDIs – of which he has been a member since 1981 – has spent its time holding “erudite conversations behind closed doors”. He is resolute that the six RDI faculty-hosted dinners planned for 1996 will not simply wind up as so much more talk. The topics he hopes will enliven these meetings are ones you sense are too close to his heart for that.
“These are the issues. It’s not going to be ‘How do we make more money out of this, chaps? Let’s form a club in the City’. If I wanted to make more money I’d open a stall in an East End market and sell apples and oranges. And I’d be very successful at it. I could actually control an East End market in a week. I know how to make money. But I happen to have devoted my life to something I believe in.”