The great thing about awards like the CSD Medal is that they remind us design has a history. It’s easy to think of the design business as a contemporary invention, fuelled by marketingspeak about branding and the like. But the lifetime achievements of Robin and Lucienne Day, honoured this week (see News, page 3), show that British design had consumers’ interests at heart and a potent international dimension long before the Tory regime of the Eighties identified it as a valuable export as the UK shifted from manufacturing towards a service economy.
The Days have both been fÃªted in the US. Robin won a Museum of Modern Art competition in 1948, for low-cost furniture designed with Clive Latimer. Textile designer
Lucienne became the first “foreigner” to win the coveted American Institute of Decorators prize, in 1952. Both are renowned for innovation. Robin tested the limits of the materials of post-war minimalism, using, for example, injection-moulded plastics, which were then quite new, to create affordable, functional pieces like the simple Poly stacking chair for Hille in 1963. Lucienne drew on contemporary art to create fabrics such as the Calyx design for the 1951 Festival of Britain. For both, design is about simple elegance, low cost and the mass market.
These are exactly the things that should concern UK designers now, particularly with the patronage of mass retailers such as Selfridges and Habitat, now through its UK design head Tom Dixon, aiming to create good contemporary lines. It is one thing to produce a beautiful limited edition, crafted from the finest materials, but a bolder challenge is to create something with enduring quality that appeals to all. Apart from the social benefits, it makes good business sense – the driving force of design in the Nineties.
The Days’ nomination for the CSD Medal is doubly timely. With 18 months to go before the millennium countdown begins in earnest, things have gone rather quiet on the saga of the Dome. But with this kind of lead time, architect Hugh Casson was beginning his battle to get the Festival of Britain off the ground.
He showed it can be done – and events architect Mark Fisher says it takes much less time to get a rock extravaganza rolling. But is anyone really asking what impressions the Greenwich celebrations will leave, and what designs will be their legacy? The Millennium Products will be trotted out, with a view to boosting exports, and there will doubtless be a range of tacky merchandising. But where are the everyday items like furniture and fabrics specially commissioned to touch all our lives?