It is entirely characteristic of Fred Scott that when asked about his work he chooses to enthuse about the work of another designer, Rodney Kinsman, instead. Scott’s 1979 design of the Hille Supporto chair is still one of the best office chairs available, patently the work of someone with exceptional design ability, and one of several beautifully worked out and commercially successful designs he made while working for Hille. Nevertheless, Scott likes to say, without rancour or envy: “Rodney took the right direction. It is not easy, and I admire him. To start your own company and then build it
up to the point where you have control over products and marketing is the ideal.”
Few would dispute that, but few have managed it. And though Scott’s life and temperament have drawn him in another direction, it is one where he has designed products that have enjoyed the admiration of his peers, and he has provided inspiration and encouragement at a very personal level for many students.
Fred Scott scaled the heights of design achievement by a slow but evidently propitious route. Starting as an apprentice cabinet maker in 1956, he learnt the basic skills of tooling and production methods and went on to get his City and Guilds certificates in advanced design and construction. By this time the extent of his skill as a designer was becoming apparent. He was the winner of both the Vita Foam and Crosby Spring competitions, and of City and Guilds scholarships that allowed him to tour Europe to study developments in the furniture industry there. By 1963 he had won a furniture design scholarship to the Royal College of Art and entered that rarefied milieu where the achievers of this world are encouraged to explore their own resources in an atmosphere of support and instruction. It was at the RCA that he recognised an absolute commitment to modern furniture design: “I thought it was so necessary, and we were all very adventurous in the Sixties”. He also began to consider setting up in business as a manufacturer. After an RCA travelling scholarship had taken him around Scandinavia, he embarked on the life of freelance work that will be familiar to RCA stars both then and now: work for Rest Assured, Morris, Texfoam and K-F Interior Stockholm, for whom he designed a chaise longue and a convertible settee. The settee was a model of minimum manufacturing technology, working with a pivot action rather than the cumbersome mechanical actions that were common to such settees at the time.
More interestingly, after establishing a small business with Paul Conti, he began to manufacture his own designs in cast aluminium, “a good, natural material which flows into any kind of form. We made shaped tables principally, but of course there was no capital, and it was the usual hard work selling to retailers”.
It was not long before Scott had little option but to abandon the role of independent manufacturer. And though he clearly regrets not having made a more determined stance, he went on to give of his talent and ideals in other directions.
Most importantly, perhaps, Scott was a part-time tutor at Hornsey College of Art and, for 12 years, at the RCA. The furniture maker David Field, a friend and fellow tutor at the RCA, says: “He was immensely gentle and positive with the students, and because he has patience and real understanding he brought out the best in them”. Peter Christian, managing director of Aktiva, which makes modern furniture and lighting, bears that out. “Fred taught me at the RCA from 1981 to 1984, and was the biggest influence on me. He advised me not to try for a job when I left, but to go it alone. And that’s what I did. He was so knowledgeable, and unlike some of the other tutors he was a successful designer. We really respected him.”
This was a good time for Scott. Hille, under the energetic direction of the late Leslie Julius, was a design-led company of some distinction. It had recently launched his Comforto chair range, and of all of Scott’s work for Hille, this enjoyed the most spectacular success, both here and abroad. Ergonomically sound and easy to adjust, it comprises a few basic elements that can be assembled to form up to 30 different versions. It duly won a Design Council award and, along with his 1974 design for a plastic folding chair, is in the twentieth century collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Fred Scott has struggled against ill health for some years, but he continues his painstaking and expert development of new designs. His East End studio is cluttered with models: some no more than rough sketches of ideas he has had, some fully worked up designs, ready for manufacture. And he continues to work with Hille. Eric Hawes, now the group export sales director, was the factory manager during the time Supporto was being developed. “Fred’s strengths,” Hawes says, “are in his engineering skills as well as in his design skills. He’s delightful to work with, he’s got a great grasp of factory needs – though he’ll never let that compromise his designs – and he’s much admired in the production and research department here. A great designer.”
Like several other leading furniture manufacturers, Hille has been looking at another Scott design called Solar Plexus. An extension of Comforto, it has a seat no more than 20cm in depth, based on the premise that machine operators perch on the very front of their chairs. But, as Hawes explains, the expensive tooling required for its manufacture has ruled it out for Hille in present marketing conditions. Several other designs, which were received enthusiastically when Scott showed them to manufacturers in Italy, have likewise been victims of the current widespread reluctance (or inability) to invest.
Back in this country, Allermuir – which has recently begun to spruce up its design image under the direction of a new design manager, Tim Lishman – has taken one of Scott’s designs to prototype stage and intends to launch it in November at SIT 95 at London’s Business Design Centre. Lishman too benefited from Fred Scott’s teaching: “He was a part-time lecturer at Kingston when I was there, and his criticisms were always positive. Peter Christian took me to see some of the work he’s doing now, and the chair we intend to make is a stacking chair for cafÃ©s in two versions: one in tubular steel and ply, one in polyurethane. Fred has always been in love with mass manufacture.”
It’s rare to hear of designers flying a banner for those who taught them, and we’ve all heard the old saw about those who can and those who can’t. Yet I found plenty of people keen to tell me about Fred Scott’s merits as both designer and teacher. They all speak of his passion for design, of an eye that’s always focused on the future. As David Field says: “None of the magic has gone”.