Well Mannered Anarchists: The Design Research Unit

Written for Creative Review, this piece looked at the career of the ‘DESIGN RESEARCH UNIT’, the subject of an exhibition at the Cubitt Gallery, London in September and October 2010.

When, in 1948, the newly-formed Design Research Unit (DRU) commissioned a set of publicity photographs, the results were remarkably highbrow. The founding members of this pioneering design consultancy gathered around a table in Park Street in London to watch a game of chess between Herbert Read, the anarchist, poet and art critic in his trademark bow tie, and Misha Black, the bespectacled designer. The table was covered with blueprints but all the attention was focused on the next move. It is hard to know what the DRU wanted to signal in this tableau vivant. If the message was that design – then a new and largely unknown profession – requires powerful intellects, it did little, perhaps, to off-set lingering associations of arty dilettantism.

The DRU had been founded by Read and advertising businessman Marcus Brumwell in 1942 and was boosted by the arrival of Black and Milner Gray, an exhibition designer, a few months later. Perhaps reflecting the wartime mood, a spirit of collaboration and partnership shaped the Unit’s ethos. Read provided the manifesto in his 1934 bible Art and Industry (designed by Bauhaus typographer Herbert Bayer) and Gray and Black the first design talent. Others were invited to join, becoming associate members of the unit or occasional collaborators (like Naum Gabo, the constructivist artist). As Britain’s fortunes in the war started to improve and thoughts were turning to a brighter future, the key question was what role might industrial and graphic design play in reconstructing the country and, from the perspective of these left-wing intellectuals, improving the lives of ordinary Britons?

The answers to these questions were far from clear. The DRU’s founding statement flagged an interest in American salesmanship. ‘In the United States of America the design consultant is already recognised and established as a necessary industrial technician’ wrote Read. In the 1930s design superstars like Raymond Loewy had persuaded the captains of American industry of the commercial benefits of styling. ‘Export or die’ – the mantra of the post-war government facing national bankruptcy – meant winning American markets for British goods. It also gave the DRU an early raison d’être.

At the same time, DRU designers like Black and Gray were schooled in continental Modern Movement thinking. Their heroes were Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Walter Gropius, refugees from Nazism who sheltered in London for a few years in the 1930s before making their way on to the USA. A recent Cubitt Gallery exhibition of DRU work featured a beautiful watercolour plan by Gray for the  ‘Design at Work’ exhibition at Burlington House in London in 1945. Like a Hans Arp sketch, Gray’s design presented the ‘design process’ as interlinking organic abstract forms. Wartime exhibitions produced for the Ministry of Information and for the state in early years of the peace presented rare opportunities for the kind of ambitious integration of art, design and technology which had been championed by the continental avant-garde. The Festival of Britain in 1951 – a bold statement of confidence in the nation’s ability to pull itself out of grey austerity – drew heavily on skills of the members of the DRU. The displays inside the massive Dome of Discovery on the South Bank in London – coordinated by the DRU’s Misha Black – offered visitors dizzying insights into the brave new world of future science. Here, the DRU seemed to be fulfilling the promise of the functional and rational words adopted for its name – Design – Research – Unit.

Hard-nosed American commercialism or Modern Movement technophilia presented two poles of design thinking. The DRU sought to reconcile both. This was less a matter of compromise than of providing the designs for the welfare consensus which shaped British life from the 1940s to the 1970s. Like the British governments (of both stripes), the DRU sought to balance market-interests with a social agenda. Council housing, the national health service, nationalized utilities, consumer goods and high-tech companies each constituted a different front in the ‘fight to win the peace’.  The DRU played its part by coming up with functional and elegant designs for the products, interiors and publicity of Britain’s flagship companies –whether in public or private hands. As a pioneer of Corporate Identity or ‘House Style’ as it was known in the 1950s, the Unit’s clients were the flagships of the post-war economy: ICI, British Petroleum, London Transport, British Rail, BOAC and BEA (the precursors of British Airways).

In little more than twenty years, the DRU grew rapidly from a small-scale operation with three rooms furnished with a plan chest and a telephone, to become the British Design Establishment in microcosm. On its silver jubilee in 1968, the DRU team gathered for another promo shot. This time the image was very different. Dozens of members of the Unit organized themselves a neat phalanx, each power-dressed figure staring intently at the camera. There was to be no misunderstanding this time: we mean business.

One does not have to be a die-hard modernist with a taste for sans serif lettering and spare colour schemes, to feel a pang of nostalgia for many of the designs produced by the DRU. The British Rail design programme stands out. From 1956, the Unit coordinated all design-aspects of the rail operator including locomotive design, uniforms, signage and tickets. The Unit adopted Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s Rail Alphabet (recently digitized by Henrik Kubel of A2 in close collaboration with Calvert) for their comprehensive rebranding of the company. When travelers face the confusing experience of rival companies, each clad in brash liveries, running competing services from railway stations where it is easier to find the Pret à Manger than the platform, it is easy to wonder what the word progress really means.

Nostalgia is rarely a productive feeling. It is better to ask what is the relevance of thinking about the DRU today? After all ‘Export or Die’ is not much of a policy for a country which has dismantled its manufacturing capacities. Curator of the Cubitt Gallery show, Michelle Cotton points to the fact that ‘even when working for corporate and commercial clients, the DRU still sought to design the kinds of things which were used by all sections of society, the kind of things which one might encounter on ordinary streets and in ordinary homes.’  For her, it is these democratic ambitions combined with the level of design coordination – evident from early schemes like the Unit’s work for the Festival of Britain – which marks the group’s achievement.  This is certainly true but the kind of systematic approach on which these achievements were built brought its own problems. By the late 1960s the DRU’s output looked much like it was following a kind of formula.

There are perhaps some lessons to be learned, however, from the very earliest days of the group when the DRU operated as a co-operative of creative talents, sharing work and expertise. Lacking the capital and the space to set themselves up in business, the Unit offered its associate designers the kind of administrative support and financial backing needed to practice. These costs were offset against earnings. Like a cooperative, the DRU offered financial security and creative freedom to its designers. In an age when many design companies have gone to the wall, imaginative and flexible ways in which creativity can be fostered are now more necessary than ever.

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