FX: Here’s to 25 years

Marking this magazine’s 25 years of covering all aspects of the design industry, we republish the first FX design discussion, interview the launch editor Janine Furness, and have memories, anecdotes and congratulations from present-day readers and friends

In conversation

A three-way discussion on perceptions of design and how it affects the relationship between designers and clients.

The Participants

The FX editor

Janine Furness (JF) – launch editor of FX.

The manufacturer

Janet Turner (JT) trained as an interior designer and practice for several years before ‘falling into lighting by accident’. She joined Concord 24 years ago.

The architect / designer

David Lewis (DL) trained as a mechanical engineer before dropping out after a year. He studied architecture at Manchester School of Art and Design, then came to work in London, joining Levitt Bernstein in 1975.

The Client

Tony Key (TK) started out as a mechanical engineer who spent many years managing design in various companies before joining the Design Council in 1968. He was head of design at BAA 1982-87, before taking over as head of design at BT.

Tony Key, Janet Turner, David Lewis
Tony Key, Janet Turner, David Lewis

Design roles

JF: How do you perceive design and your own roles in design?

DL: We don’t have a corporate identity – there is no such thing as a Levitt Bernstein building. We like to get inside the client’s drawers, so to speak, to find out what makes them tick and try and produce a building that works for them – but which is not of the style they ever imagined.

JF: So you see your role as an interpreter?

DL: Yes, that’s it.

JT: When I’m looking at something, whether it’s a building or a product, I want it to be original, unusual or arresting. I think also there should be an element of surprise. As far as Concord is concerned, the product has to look as though it has been thought about, which means it could be all the things I’ve just mentioned, but that it has to work and use technology.

TK: I’m not paid to make my company look futuristic and off the wall. I have to make the visual image of my company match BT’s mission statement, which is to be the world’s most successful telecomms company. I have to make sure all our products, interiors, environments and literature convey that image, and I have to use top-quality professional designers to do that.

Clients and design

JF: Some clients can’t brief design as well because they don’t know exactly what they want. Would you agree there’s still a lot of educating to be done?

TK: In my experience some of the nastiest design is done by amateurs who have a glamorous image of design; they get the opportunity to brief designers, do it wrong and get clumsy design as a result. They get what they deserve!

DL: More often than not, with buildings people have no idea how to brief somebody. If they are theatre clients, say, they know a lot about theatre, but they have no idea about building, no idea what they want.

TK: We like to try and think of ourselves as what designers would refer to as an educated client, in that we know our business and we know a fair modicum of their business. So, we don’t write daft things into the brief that they can’t achieve, and we don’t ask them to go away and be creative on an open-ended brief.

JF: BT is probably very unusual in that sense. How generally can we instigate an education process?

DL: I think to educate people to be able to brief designers professionally is extremely difficult.

TK: If you’re looking for solutions, I guess it’s a long, hard road. If you look at the top 1,000 companies in the UK, probably 10 of us have got a full-time design manager.

JT: That’s very British, isn’t it?

TK: I think that the one thing that might make a change in the use of design and designers in British industry would be for chief executives to realise that design is a business strategy like anything else they use. Design is not something esoteric; at BT we use it in a strategic business way, we target it to produce a result, and you can do it in any company.

DL: The problem is that there are lots of small companies churning out bits and pieces, and for them the overhead for someone involved in design is very large.

TK: That’s a good point! What do you do for little corporations and little companies? I guess that it is down to the sensitivity and responsibility of the MD to realise that design is a resource that he should be using. If he has the blinkered approach that design can never help him, then along will come some Japanese or Italian competitor to prove him wrong.

The design discussion pages from the first issue of FX 25 years ago
The design discussion pages from the first issue of FX 25 years ago

Clients and designers

TK: If we commission a designer, what we expect from him or her is a design for BT to suit BT’s objectives. We don’t want design for designers. We are not asking for a sculptural statement in the street or anywhere else.

Some designers – I’m not pointing fingers at anyone in particular – believe it’s their role in life to make outstanding visual statements that people recognise as their handwriting. I think there is too much of this. I don’t want a particular designer’s handwriting at all. I take that designer on because I think they are best at interpreting my brief.

DL: That should be an objective for most people. Take IBM for example – they wouldn’t in principle employ somebody like Richard Rogers to design a building because they want somebody who is not wilful. They want somebody who is prepared to think.

TK: Turning the whole thing around, it is equally important from a designer’s point of view that the client thinks carefully about his brief and doesn’t slip something in later on that changes the whole ball game. That can happen too.

DL: Being a well-informed client, I assume you get involved in the design process to some extent; do you ever find yourself in a position like the committee that set out to design a horse and ended up with a camel?

TK: I don’t believe in buying a dog and barking myself. There are a lot of very professional dogs out there; why should we believe we can do their job for them? That’s why we commission a good designer.

JT: But you brief, design manage and coordinate.

DL: It’s a very fine line between.

TK: All my design managers are itching to get the pencil out and do some designing. We all resist it because that’s not our job. Our job is to manage design.

JT: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If you’re in lighting, it’s even more difficult because most architects and designers get no training on lighting whatsoever. They don’t understand about actually using lighting in building space. They don’t understand about daylight.

JF: So your role is to be educative to somebody like David?

JT: The engineering aspect and the mechanical and electrical side you can handle; you can see it and then you can turn it on and you can see what it does. But the interesting thing is how to use that object and what it does in specific spaces and what it does to the building.

DL: Your company is probably quite rare, Janet. You must encounter lots of designers who don’t have a clue about lighting, so it means you as a manufacturer and a product designer not only have to sell the product, you have to educate.

JT: Sell the concept, so you are not just a sales person.

JT: Or a manufacturer of an object.

JF: But they have to perceive you as someone who is educated about your products.

TK: I think Janet has to do in her company what I have to do mine and David has to do in his. We have to show the company and the customers what is possible. My job as a corporate design manager is to show my board and my customers visions of how good BT can look. You have to say, just think how magically you can make your buildings or your interiors look using our lighting. And as David says, using our skills you can make your building look elegant and practical – it’s really about orchestrating a bit of vision.

JF: I think the problem is that it’s very intangible; people will say, it’s all very abstract – how am I getting my money back?

TK: What is design worth on the bottom line is what you’re saying. Why should I pay for it? In our case, design is an essential part of saying you’re a global player. If we don’t look like a global player we will be taken for something less.

JF: How do you think we can improve the working relationship between manufacture, designer and client?

TK: You have put me in a difficult one there, because generally our relationships with designers are very good. I think there are plenty of designers out there who are very talented, and very skillful; there is no shortage of good designers. I wouldn’t aim criticism at the design industry for not being able to respond to our needs – they do. But I think there are still far too many manufacturers out there using design clumsily, and then they expect people to buy the result.

DL: I agree entirely with that.

TK: There are too many manufacturers out there doing dreadful design that they believe is good. Walk up any High Street and look in any furniture-shop window, and for any one piece of good furniture you’ll see 100 pieces with brass handles and funny knobs on because they think that’s good design. (Tony Key leaves at this point.)

JF: I noticed no one mentioned the BT logo.

The design discussion pages from the first issue of FX 25 years ago
The design discussion pages from the first issue of FX 25 years ago

In Digression

The Eighties

JF: What happened to design in the Eighties?

JT: When the marketers and the advertising people started to get into design, I think it started to take a dive. It became sort of glam and glitz and everybody thought it would resolve everything. Of course, we know design doesn’t.

TK: I think the reason is a bit like the 'emperor’s new clothes'. People thought that design was the only answer, and if you had some of that and you slopped it on with a paintbrush, everybody would buy your goods. Any designer can make a superficial vision change to a company, and you can use design to camouflage bad things. But what happened in the Eighties was there were companies that set themselves up as merchandisers, who weren’t very good at merchandising. They weren’t very good at selecting product ranges and they weren’t very good at continuity of supply and quality.

JT: It’s a British thing again. When British business people mix in with European business people more they will understand how design and design management is taken much more seriously. I remember one entrepreneur saying that these people who find making decisions about design difficult have very creative accountants within their organisation who don’t seem able to understand that a designer can be just as down to earth and objective as an accountant. We have very strange people in boardrooms around the country making all sorts of decisions about what they think people are about. They are extraordinarily arrogant, with peculiar ideas about class, about sex, about race, about money.

TK: Let’s not bring that into this.

JF: I think it’s important.

TK: OK, it’s a cultural driver.

DL: People like that, I often wonder what their homes look like.

Responding to the market

DL: Who do you think you design for?

TK: The end customer, always.

DL: But the end customer is a mass of 60 million people with endless varieties of taste. You must have an image.

TK: As a company we design environments so that our customers, when they come and see us, have a good experience, feel that they are coming into a modern company.

We want them to feel good when they’re with BT. If you look at a product, we take on professional designers to design telephones the best way we can, and having taken as much from the marketplace as we can in feedback we find out what people want. We used to be a company that was technology driven: we have invented this gizmo, does anybody want to buy it? Now we say, tell us what you want and we will design a gizmo to fix it.

JF: We do a bit of both. Because lighting is still specialised, we respond to the market feeling, but we also think and know enough about the marketplace to know its needs before it does.

TK: Do you think you could lead the market?

JT: Yes, we have!

The design discussion pages from the first issue of FX 25 years ago
The design discussion pages from the first issue of FX 25 years ago

Design education

JF: Why do you think we have a problem with perceptions of design in this country?

TK: This is a personal view, but one of my problems for some years has been the quality of teaching in art and design colleges. Some students come out practically useful in spite of what they have been taught, not because of it. Students in some art and design colleges are clearly taught by people that want them simply to go away and be creative and come up with whoopee things. For years, I sat on the all RSA bursary competitions and things like that, and young students came with portfolios and showed me light fittings.

I would say, sorry, it will fall over if you put it on the floor. They have no idea, no one has told them about the practicalities.

DL: I agree with you entirely, but do you think any of this is because you come from an engineering background?

TK: I think that’s a fair comment. Yes, I have a pragmatic view of design.

DL: I think that where the education system fails is that engineering alone is not enough, styling alone is not enough. It’s the amalgamation of style and engineering that produces good design.

JT: You are either good at practical things in British education or you are good at airy-fairy things like art; therefore you often have to choose.

Comment  - David Lewis

My abiding memory of the In Conversation piece was of Tony Key dominating the discussion and expressing forceful, sometimes misconceived, views on everything design-related, making it extremely difficult for Janet or me to get in a word – irritating in what was a supposedly open forum.

Tony left early and there was a certain amount of eye-rolling, muttering and bad-mouthing from those left behind about doubtful quality graphics of the then BT logo, and poor design of some of BT’s products.

Janet was a visionary of the lighting industry at a time when lighting design was often left to M+E consultants or electrical contractors. In 1992, she was already giving ERCO a run for its money with her designs for Concord. Not only an accomplished designer she also had an engaging personality and was a great socialite, witnessed by regular evening events at the central London Concord showroom.

David Lewis

I met Janine Furness in late-1990 when she approached me about an article she was planning to write for Interior Design magazine on what was at the time the largest-ever commission for Levitt Bernstein involving a project for IBM in Sudbury Hill, west London, that I was in charge of. We met at the site and formed a near-instant rapport. The article appeared in the June 1991 edition and it was a surprise to see my photo on the front cover.

One particular focus of the article was how carefully commissioned artworks had been woven into and integrated with the interior architecture, in line with IBM’s then art policy.

Since 1992, David Lewis has had extensive experience in design and development of cultural buildings, initially as director of Levitt Bernstein for 22 years, and from 1996-2007 as a consultant architect assessor in Arts Council England’s Capital (Lottery) department. Commissioned by the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft in 2007 to assist in refining a redevelopment proposal, and secure Heritage Lottery funding to refurbish/reconfigure the museum. He became a Trustee in 2010 and is currently engaged in developing Phase 2 following the successful completion of Phase 1 in 2013.

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