Kenneth GrangeIndustrial Designer (1929 - )
Kenneth Grange - Making Britain Modern, 20 July - 30 October 2011
“The starting point of a design is the belief that I can design something better”
Since the 1950s the British industrial designer Kenneth Grange - founding partner of Pentagram, one of the first multi-disciplinary design consultancies in London, has designed useful, everyday products from small-scale cameras, disposable razors and ball point pens; to medium-scale products such as food mixers, toasters, kettles and sewing machines, as well as large-scale products including a taxi, bus stop and a high speed train. Few British people have not eaten a cake mixed by his Kenwood Chef food mixer designed in 1960, boarded the high speed train launched in 1978 or jumped into the back of his TX1 black taxi designed in 1997. Grange has designed modern, accessible, successful and easy to use products for over 60 years.
The son of a policeman, Grange was born in 1929 in London’s East End. When the family moved to Wembley during World War II, Grange won a scholarship to Willesden School of Arts and Crafts. There he studied drawing and lettering, skills which on leaving in 1947 led to the opportunity to work for a succession of architects - ARCON, Bronek Katz and Vaughan, Gordon and Ursula Bowyer and in 1952 Jack Howe. In the offices of these modern architects Grange absorbed the Post War spirit of optimism - a hurry to heal - that inspired architects and artists to try new materials and forms to rebuild Britain in a new mould. In architecture and design this led to a modern, paired down, clean-lined, functional style that aspired to a new fairer future.
Granges’ career was interrupted by National Service in the Royal Engineers working as an illustrator in a unit dedicated to producing instruction manuals. Hours examining precision-engineered munitions further encouraged Grange towards industrial design. While at the practice of Gordon and Ursula Bowyer, designers of the Sports Pavilion at the 1951 Festival of Britain, Grange was able to visit the Festival to maintain the displays and take in the best of British design. In the office of Jack Howe, Grange designed interior balustrades and light fittings and then was able to take on small-scale free-lance work. These included the design of exhibition displays and stands for Bakelite Ltd and for the UK Atomic Energy Authority.
During the 1960s British manufacturing was eager to respond to the demand for new things for the home fuelled by increased prosperity. Many products had not been changed since before the war and Grange was commissioned to redesign a huge variety of products from the first British parking meter for Venner Ltd in 1960, door handles for Henry Hope Ltd, an award winning Melamine and smoked Perspex electric shaver for Henry Milward & Sons Ltd, hairdryers and lighters for Ronson Products Ltd, electric irons for Morphy Richards Ltd in 1966 as well as a food mixer in 1960 for Kenwood.
The Council of Industrial Design was set up in 1944 “to promote by all practicable means the improvement of design in the products of British Industry”. In addition to organising exhibitions such as “Britain Can Make it” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington in 1946 and the Festival of Britain of 1951 on London’s South Bank, an exhibition that kick-started a swell of new design and architecture, the Council of Industrial Design also introduced manufacturers to designers. It was through the CoID that some of Granges’ early commissions, including the Kenwood Chef, came about.
Subsequently Grange became consultant designer for Kenwood and continued to work on a whole range of products, including the Chefette, a smaller mixer with a detachable whisk, a toaster and in 1968, an electric cordless knife which was described in the publication Design “as the only British product of its kind”. Asked again in the mid 1970’s to update his design for the Kenwood Chef, only subtle changes were made so established had the appearance of the Chef become with the cake-baking public.
By the 1970s Kenneth Grange had a thriving office of about 10 staff and a growing reputation. He had secured high profile clients, such as Kenwood, Kodak and Wilkinson Sword and would sustain fruitful relationships with major clients throughout this period. A new client British Rail would provide Grange with arguably the most important project of his career, the High Speed Train. The early 1970s also saw Grange join forces with four other leading designers to form, Pentagram, one of the most celebrated design agencies, putting Grange at the heart of the design community. Founded in 1972, Pentagram Design Ltd, was originally made up of five partners, the graphic designers Theo Crosby, Alan Fletcher and Colin Forbes, Mervyn Kurlansky, an architect and Kenneth Grange as the product designer. As Grange described later “we could provide genuinely a one-stop shop with graphics, architecture, advertising and product design”. With its large offices it opened up the creative and dynamic world of design to corporate clients, visiting Pentagram’s offices recalls Grange was “like a shot in the arm to the world of business”. Each partner had their own team and was responsible for generating their own work but each was paid the same salary.
An exceptionally creative time for Grange the 1970s saw him designing of some of his most enduring designs. The flexible 1971 Variset hat and coat hook system for A. J. Binns Ltd in extruded, brushed aluminium won a Design Council award in 1972 and is still in production today and functioning equally in an intimate domestic setting or a concert hall cloakroom Also still in use today after its launch in 1978 is the High Speed Train, InterCity 125, a fast, efficient train design that became a symbol of pride for British Rail and for its passengers. It came about in 1971 when James Cousins, Director of Industrial Design at British Rail, asked, as Grange recalled to “do a livery job on a model, they had already made, just decorating the outside”. The diesel powered HST, was seen as an interim design before the introduction of electric trains. Keen to do more than a livery design Grange asked if, without any extra money, he could do some work on the design of the bodywork. “I had my own models made” explained Grange “and, with a consultant aerodynamicist, I took them nightly to the wind tunnel at Imperial College (London). In that way I slowly developed a cogent argument for the shape,” a radically angled nose design.
Grange continued to new secure jobs in Britain with the pen company Parker’s 25 range of pens aimed at the student market. Forgoing the Parker hallmark, the arrow motif clip, the Parker 25’s clip was a plain, thin stainless steel strip with a small square of plastic with the Parker brand applied. Its tapered barrel form gave the metal pen a subtle but distinctive form. The pen was a commercial success and millions were made and sold. In 1975 Grange designed a new Kodak, the Pocket Instamatic. Numerous prototypes were tested on the general public and the final slender rectangular form had a soft curve to the face-side edge and a simple clarity to the graphic treatment of the upper surface. There was great attention to detail in the design and specification, with stylish and innovative features including a sliding lens cover and sliding film wind and the 330 model had a telephoto lens. Grange’s work for Kodak illustrated the benefit of mass production to enable everyday people to have access to the latest technology and designs as Grange later remarked, “behind a camera may lay an outlay of ten million pounds, yet if a million cameras are made, then we can “inherit” those million for only ten pounds”.
In addition to designs for British manufacture, the clout and statue of Pentagram drew attention from abroad and in particular a number of commissions to design for Japanese companies. A particularly elegant design came from working with the Maruzen Sewing Machine Co in Osaka. A large post-war company that exported domestic sewing machines to the US, it employed Grange to design a sewing machine aimed at the European market. The resulting 800 series was marketed in the UK under the name of Frister & Rossmann. With gentle, rounded corners and a smooth, uncluttered surface the 804 clearly showed Grange’s concerned with not only updating the visual appearance of a product but also making it easier and more enjoyable to use. The successful 804 was joined by the diminutive Cub. Compact, portable and even lighter, it weighed only 15lbs. In 1977 Grange also designed with Mervyn Kurlansky the packaging for Tactics, men’s toiletries for Shiseido Co. Ltd. one of the largest makers of cosmetics in Japan.
The diversity of commission’s Grange received throughout his career has been broad and he never became associated with a single type of product, function or scale, equally challenged and enthused by a train for British rail as for more diminutive products such as razors or pens. In 1977 Grange received a commission from the razor manufacturers Wilkinson Sword to work on a radical new product, although shelved; this led to Grange working on the Royale razor, an up-market product using a bonded system and manufactured with high quality materials and construction. This successful project lead to Grange’s appointed as consultant design director and further designs for Wilkinson Sword such as the Retractor (1983) a successful disposable safety razor where the blade could be retracted when not in use.
The 1980s saw a clinical re-assessment of the values of the Modern Movement and by some a rejection of the reduced, clean-lines associated with it in favour of asymmetry, variety of style and pattern, and a new love for historic detailing. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Grange continued to pursue a user-friendly, functionality in his work but as a designer with the insight to adapt and an instinct for the market he gave a gentle nod to the visual mood of the period -“I cannot in my heart go with something if it cannot be a commercial success, it has got to work” remarked Grange. Personally too Grange began to receive considerable public recognition for his work. In 1983 a solo exhibition of his work was held at the Boilerhouse - the fledgling Design Museum – resident at the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington. In 1984 he was awarded a CBE, in 1985 he received an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art, London, in 1986 he became a Master of the Royal Designers for Industry and in 1987 the President of the Chartered Society of Designers.
He continued to design with success for Kenwood, Wilkinson Sword, the speaker manufacture B& W as well as for new clients such as Halfords in 1996 with a design for a motor oil container and importantly a chance to work on the TX1 London taxi. Perhaps Grange’s most successful example of mixing the best of an existing product with the new is his redesign of the London Taxi, the TX1 in 1997 for Manganese Bronze. By the 1980s, requiring a complete new design, work was already far-advanced when Grange was engaged. Not feeling the radical plans were the right design direction Grange persuaded the Chairman that rather than “join in with the current automotive styles, the future of the company depended entirely on the customers - both cabbie and passenger - being reassured that the icon was still there on the street” recalled Grange. So while the essential look of the taxi was retained, changes were made to increase the comfort of the driver, create more space and ease of use for the passengers, especially those with prams and wheelchairs.
After 25 years in partnership, in 1997 Grange retired from Pentagram, bringing to an end a period of enormous productivity and achievement. Grange continued to work as Kenneth Grange Design, the firm that he had started in 1956 and to teach at the Royal College of Art in London. Important recent designs are the Type 3 Desk lamp for Anglepoise, launched in 2003, his shirt design for the fashion designer and retailer Margaret Howell and since 1999 his door handles for Izé workshop. In a long career Grange has maintained enduring and fruitful relationships with clients something that with shifts in manufacturing is increasingly rare. “We all need patrons, I’ve had two patrons Kodak and Kenwood and designers today like Jonathan Ives and Sam Hecht of Industrial Facility, they both have a patron - a successful company - Apple and Muji. In both cases they have managed to assemble their combined effort and it sells. It used to be less rare with firms like Herman Miller, Olivetti and Mobil each creating a working partnership with a designer”.
Reflecting on his success as a designer Grange felt perhaps its root was in his “wanting to please the consumer and client as much as wanting to please other designers - I was not interested in pleasing my peers”. At the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, Kenneth Grange continues to produce design that not only works but that manages to create a sense of joy for the user.
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