Credited as being responsible for making Britain modern, the creations of prolific product designer Kenneth Grange are all around. From the Festival of Britain to a current retrospective at the Design Council, he talks to Jamie Mitchell about his career
For most British visitors, the Design Museum’s latest exhibition, Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern, will be a strangely familiar experience. Some will have arrived at the Design Museum in the London TX1 black cab Grange redesigned in 2000; others may have caught a bus from one of his Adshel bus shelters; some will even have coasted into town aboard the Intercity 125 train whose distinctive shape Grange also designed, and which has been speeding along British railway track for a remarkable 34 years.
For me, there’s the Kodak Instamatic camera on which my earliest childhood photographs were taken, the Kenwood hand mixer my grandmother used to whip cream and the Anglepoise lamp under which I did homework. It’s hard to think of a product designer of the past 50 years whose work has been so ubiquitous in British life.
‘There is no exclusive designer tag on his products,’ says Gemma Curtin, curator of the Design Museum show. ‘Instead, his approach to design is simply to make everyday things that function better and are a pleasure to use.’
When I meet Grange at his home in Hampstead he describes being offered a major retrospective at the Design Museum as ‘irresistible’ – though he has one caveat regarding the title. ‘Deyan [Sudjic, director of the Design Museum] suggested it,’ he tells me. ‘I would never have been that immodest. You could read “Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern” and think “Christ, Grange is responsible”, which is nothing like the case. It’s quite a nice association, but also quite a daunting one.’
London-born Grange, now 82, studied at the Willesden School of Art before doing National Service in the Army as a technical illustrator. His design career began at what was arguably the genesis of modern British design, the Festival of Britain in 1951, where he worked as a junior assistant on the Homes and Gardens pavilion. ‘You can genuinely trace the origins of anything to do with modernity in Britain – in a public sense – to the Festival of Britain,’ he says. There was no real modern design between 1930 and the end of the war, and for ‘architects and designers this was the first chance they’d had to do any real work, and it was a big enough show that practically every one of them in the country was employed there’, he says.
When the festival was over, Grange found work with architect and product designer Jack Howe, an experience he describes as ‘the first big break in my career in terms of establishing clearly the direction I would go in’. In 1958 Howe put Grange up for the job of designing Britain’s first coin-operated parking meter when the American model mooted for the UK – and which Grange calls ‘bloody hideous’ – was rejected by the Council of Industrial Design (now the Design Council). The mechanism was to stay the same, but Grange’s job was to ‘put a new suit of clothes on it’.
He approached the task as he would the hundreds of subsequent products he has designed in his long career, simply and methodically. ‘It was going to be as simple as I could make it,’ he says, ‘which meant pretty much drawing lines between the corners, and the rest just fell into place.’
It must have been strange, having had no formal design training to suddenly see a product you designed on pavements across London. ‘You just got on with it,’ he says. ‘In those days you never knew anybody who had led you to think that you were a designer – it didn’t exist as a profession. But it never crossed my mind that I wasn’t qualified to do it. I do have a robust work ethic and you don’t say no in my line of work: if you say no, then you don’t have a job.’
In the five decades since, Grange has said yes to designing a remarkable range of products, including pens for Parker, razors for Wilkinson Sword, door handles for izé, sewing machines for the Maruzen Sewing Machine Company and several models of food mixer for Kenwood, all with the same near-perfect balance of form and function.
‘I was lucky in the beginning,’ he says, ‘because I met the right clients, but back then style wasn’t a requirement, because you could prove that designing a product simply made it the best it could be.’ For Grange there was never any question of designing just one type of product, and he attributes this to his general dissatisfaction with poor-quality design that he saw, and still sees, all around him. ‘I came through such a mixed beginning,’ he says, ‘ so I had enough knowledge of different areas of design to be dissatisfied pretty much persistently. My dissatisfaction goes well beyond my own specialisation.’
In 1972, Grange founded the multidisciplinary design consultancy Pentagram with architect Theo Crosby and graphic designers Colin Forbes and Mervyn Kurlansky. The idea was that it would be a one-stop shop, though in practice the designers worked largely independently of one another.
Grange left Pentagram in 1992, but he’s still a practising designer, as well as being a visiting professor at the RCA. When I arrive to interview him he’s chatting on the phone about a possible new commission, and he’s as keen to talk about his new work, including a chair for British Furniture company Hitch Mylius, as he is the old classics.
Will he ever retire? ‘I don’t think so,’ he laughs. ‘I hope I’m here at my desk, pencil in hand, as I draw my last breath.’
These days he rates Thomas Heatherwick, who he describes as ‘a bit of a star’. ‘We have some great furniture people, too,’ he says, ‘Richard Woodgate, Sam Hecht, Barber and Osgerby. And I really admire Jasper Morrison.’
But he’s also critical of a design industry that he sees as increasingly driven by marketing rather than genuine innovation.
Grange has always been honest about what good design really means, and though many of his products are iconic, he’s never claimed to be an artist. Talking about his redesign of the London taxi he says, rather modestly: ‘I can’t claim that that’s a great icon of modernity, certainly not, but I think I did a good job for the taxi trade and a good job for London. The original was iconic and so I felt that my design should not be conspicuously different’. After all, to embellish David Hockney, art has to move you and design does not, unless it’s a good design for a bus... or a taxi or a train.
This article was first published in fx Magazine.