Intimate classics

Ahead of a major Design Museum retrospective, John Stones looks back over the career of the industrial designer behind so many of our familiar products creations ’for ordinary people’ that have helped shape the very texture of British life

Design likes its heroes, and hyperbole is often casually flung around. But in the case of Kenneth Grange, the octogenarian industrial designer whose work is about to be celebrated in a show opening at London’s Design Museum next month, there does truly seem to be some justification. Almost everybody will have directly encountered Grange’s seminal designs from the 1950s to today, from the first parking meter to Kenwood appliances, from Parker pens to the contemporary TX1 London taxi.

Grange himself experiences his own work on his frequent journeys from London to Devon, when he travels on the timeless Intercity 125 train that he designed in 1968, probably his most important piece of work. ’I am still unembarrassed by it and modestly proud,’ he says.

’There’s a tremendous thrill about designing a product like that,’ says Nigel Goode, co-founder of Priestman Goode (the group that designed the Virgin train and is working on new high-speed trains for China). ’However, Grange didn’t just design iconic products, from bus shelters to parking meters to Intercity trains, but he created the product design profession in this country.

’He touched us all. I remember being very influenced at college by his designs, particularly the purity of the work for Kenwood and Kodak,’ he adds. ’What’s also important is that he helped set up Pentagram [in 1972], which was revolutionary at the time and established a working model that has stood the test of time very well.’

Adam White, founder of Factory Design and one of many designers who worked with Grange in the early 1980s at Pentagram, agrees. ’The biggest thing he’s done is to put industrial design, as good practice, in front of us because of his energies in a world of poorly and perfunctorily designed products. As I have said many times, working with Grange was the best finishing school possible.’

The introduction of design thinking from the Continent was, as the show’s subtitle ’Making Britain Modern’ suggests, another important contribution, and Grange still considers himself a Modernist. ’I had the good fortune to work for four different architectural practices at the beginning of my career and all were Modernist,’ says Grange. ’Modernism was naturally thought of as the future, and the heroes then were Alvar Aalto and the Scandinavians, then American designers who continued certain currents from the Bauhaus, as well as some Italians.’

But to this Grange added something new, points out Joe Ferry, who is in charge of design at Intercontinental Hotels Group (and was previously head of design for Virgin Atlantic). ’With [Raymond] Loewy it was about streamlining, and with the Bauhaus it was about form following function. But Grange spoke about joy and was interested in the consumer’s point of view,’ says Ferry.

Grange’s appreciation of the emotive potential of a product is something that White also sees as highly innovative and influential. ’For instance, with a Kenwood Chef, it’s not just about a housing for a motor and gears,’ he says. ’By introducing to it aesthetics, ergonomics and an idea, he made it an infinitely more attractive object.

’Grange designed to introduce an idea, not so that the product would just be useful or functional it also had to have wit. I mean that not in the sense of humour, but as in a moment of pleasure,’ adds White. ’When I worked with him, he would often go off and think about something, and return with a little squiggly drawing that was the result of a single light-coming-on moment.’

Grange modestly puts much of his success down to luck. ’There weren’t terribly many practitioners about then, so it wasn’t that difficult for a few of us to make a name,’ he says. While many younger product designers can only dream of the chance to work with company founders as clients or to design a product for the first time, it is clear that Grange’s success was far from a mere historical accident.

But why hold this show now? Grange’s work expresses a country full of optimism, a belief that design could work for a common good. The predominant values of today are so very different instead of the possibility of many little egalitarian pleasures, there’s an overwhelming obsession with exclusivity and luxury. Perhaps the Design Museum’s show can be seen as something of a corrective, and even if it’s simply nostalgia for the old proprieties of industrial design, then Grange is a perfect peg. ’His work is particularly relevant today as it allows us to look at the core principles of design,’ says the show’s curator Gemma Curtin. ’There is no exclusive designer tag on his products.’

As Ferry says, ’If you speak about design today, people think “designer”, which means something expensive and elitist, but he showed that design can add value to everything.’ It’s something that Grange himself is particularly aware of. ’It is a piece of good fortune to have been working at a time when one designed things for ordinary people I like that, it appeals to me a lot,’ he says. ’Obviously, one is thrilled if there is praise from one’s peers, but I never set out to design for design’s sake that was never my lot.’

Grange is not a celebrity designer like Philippe Starck for instance, the website of the London Taxi Company, for which he designed the TX1, does not credit him. But as a concession to contemporary design culture, Grange will launch the Edith chair to coincide with the opening of the retrospective. It’s my first real bit of furniture,’ he says, and is designed to be comfortable for long periods of time. What could be more modern?

Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 from 20 July to 30 October

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