Design for life - Sir Kenneth Grange interview

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2015

From the Kenwood mixer to the London black cab – Sir Kenneth Grange’s name is stamped into some of the UK’s most iconic designs. The British industrial designer tells Allie Biswas his frank opinions on today’s design industry, why understanding materials is pivotal to product design, and how comfort – and a little bit of wit – can go a long way. 

Listening to Sir Kenneth Grange talk about his new coffee machine simultaneously underlines the leading product designer’s own ethos, which he has put into practice during a dazzling career spanning more than 50 years. ‘There is a massive rigmarole of ostentatious technology related to coffee, so they offer you 23 versions of these silly little capsules,’ he spouts, with characteristic authority. ‘We get a cup of coffee from a machine that significantly discounts comfort and functionalism in so many parts of it.’

Grange, now 85, has dedicated his career to creating products that make our lives easier, encouraging higher quality experiences of everyday objects. While his name is relatively little known, his work is instantly recognisable and has transformed the design landscape in the UK – from Kenwood food mixers and Parker pens to Kodak cameras, the country’s first parking meter, Wilkinson Sword razors and the London black cab as it is today.

Sitting in the airy living room of his north London home – filled with rows of books, neat wooden stools and Bridget Riley prints on the wall – Grange asserts that he was especially happy with his design for British Rail’s Intercity 125 train, the livery of which he was commissioned to produce in 1968. ‘I think the train will see me out,’ he says of the streamlined, navy-and-yellow-striped vehicle. ‘That is an amalgam of all sorts of materials and processes. It was the first big plastic job I ever did. Nobody thinks of it in those terms because it’s such a massive use of moulding compounds, but it’s all greatly to do with its amalgam with metals.’ The rural post box from the 1990s – a sleek, red rounded rectangle attached to an elegant black pole – is also cited. ‘That will be good for a thousand years. Cast iron takes a bloody long time to wear away, I tell you.’

Grange’s most recent design is the April sofa, retailed by British furniture brand Modus, which was co-designed with Jack Smith – one of his past students at London’s Royal College of Art (RCA), where Grange is visiting professor. The design, which is presented as a system of modular elements that can be manoeuvred into a variety of seating shapes, was launched in September 2014 during London Design Week. ‘I think we got it right,’ says Grange. 

‘The basic geometry is pretty decent. We developed a few pieces, but how to then get those shapes made is not as easy as it looks. There are many different ways of arriving at a three-dimensional form, of which the most common is to mould it or form it, and then stuff it. But when you’re having to be cost-conscious, you’ve got to be wittier than that.’ Comfort, however, was unsurprisingly considered the most critical element in the making process. ‘I’m determined on that front. These days, the only places where you find furniture that even makes offers towards comfort are airports.’

Smith, who was chosen for his computer drafting skills ‘and excellent resourcefulness’, is the first designer with whom Grange has officially collaborated on a work – and he was eager that Smith’s name make it into the credit. On the process of designing with another, Grange comments, ‘It’s not terribly different to having very good assistants who have grown up with you. Where the first spark comes from and then, more importantly, where the real ignition takes place, is often difficult to remember, but those things then send you mutually off on one path.’ The pair will soon be undertaking another job for Modus, which Grange describes as ‘more structurally challenging’.

Having acted as a mentor of sorts to Smith, not to mention his other long-term students at the RCA, Grange is greatly aware of the environment young designers are exposed to today. While he praises the level of opportunity available, he is disappointed about how such opportunities are arising. ‘The sector now is larger than it ever has been. The marketplace has changed tremendously. But that is mostly because the decisions have slipped into the hands of big corporations and these people are ruthless, to the point of being determinedly uncaring.’ Grange also believes that alongside this corporate domination has grown a desire to suck in consumers with short-lived products – ‘whether they’re buying frocks, furniture or coffee, it hardly matters’. The greatest concern for Grange, however, is that designers are losing sight of the eventual customer. ‘That is the most significant fault of the great corporate process.’

Out of industry

When Grange was himself a student at Willesden Art School in the late 1940s, the term product designer did not even exist. In fact, the term design was not even used. ‘It was just faintly known about,’ recalls Grange. ‘Only later did I learn that at that time there was a design department at the RCA, but even then you had to come from a relatively well-off family, because nobody else went on to higher education. That was bloody rare.’ The designer’s own upbringing was within ‘a very decent, god-fearing family’. He describes his father’s exceptional talent for drawing and admiration for the great painters, but ultimately ‘he was a policeman first and foremost’. His mother, on the other hand, worked in factories all of her life and early on, Grange got a job in one of them. The designer has always relied on his inexhaustible enthusiasm for making, which he associates with these former experiences of an industrial environment. ‘I think it is this constructivist part that has always really driven me.’

After completing his studies in Commercial Art at Willesden, Grange secured a position with the BBC as a scene painter. ‘We’d be painting back walls of houses. It was a very honourable profession,’ he reflects. Prior to carrying out national service in the army, where he landed on his feet with a job as a technical illustrator – ‘the glimmerings of meeting the problems of construction and function’ – Grange worked at an architectural firm called Arcon. The company proved life-changing to Grange. ‘It was there that I was introduced to modernism. I’d never seen a room with white walls before. It’s hard for you to believe, but I promise you.’ It was the enterprising nature of the place that also caught Grange’s attention, chiming with his own fierce work ethic and hugely curious mind. ‘The company had landed an important contract in the design of pre-fabricated housing, so there was this definite prospect of being able to learn about the creation of things. I’m 18 and I’m not an unintelligent young man, but I’d probably never even heard of architecture.’

After working with a few architects and contributing to the Festival of Britain in 1951 (‘I made small things. Displays, handrails, bits of staircases – all the product bits of buildings’), Grange started out by himself in 1956, making his living as a exhibition designer for trade shows at Earl’s Court and Olympia, in London. ‘It was an accident that I landed a job while I was doing one of the exhibitions. I became acquainted with Kodak and that’s how I went on to design the camera for them.’

Grange enthuses about the then Council of Industrial Design, which later became the Design Council, that was set up by the UK Government in the 1940s as an agency to promote the sector. ‘They even had a brokerage department where designers and manufacturers could be paired together by the Council. So Kenwood, for example, went to them and said that they needed a designer. The Council would then send them four to choose from.’ He also mentions Design, a magazine published by the Council that he found very influential. ‘It was probably, in world terms, the most accessible publication and offered the best-presented examples of emerging products. I’ve got every issue that was ever published. It’s a terrific library to go to if you want to look at the growth of design in commonplace things.’

Britain’s golden age

Grange believes that the UK was able to resurrect itself very skilfully and creatively after the Second World War. ‘We were way ahead of Europe,’ he declares. ‘Although the German industries had recovered from the war very well, in terms of the modernism of the product, they were so behind. As were the French.’ The kitchenware Grange was designing for Kenwood in the late 1950s is a case in point. ‘Even what I was doing rather instinctively was progressive – where I started substituting plastic mouldings for what used to be metal casing. If you went to an international exhibition you would find that at Moulinex – a huge firm in France, much bigger than Kenwood – every single thing was made in metal. They were still happily making metal whisks for every housewife in France. It was years before they adopted electric motors.’

While the designer describes what may sound like the golden age of design in the UK, does he still feel that we are an innovative nation? ‘If you stand back, I think you can see that the creative and enterprising spirit is alive and well. We have a great community of flourishing entrepreneurs. They only undo themselves when they get so successful that they sell out. That’s the beginning of the end in our society.’ Grange at least has some impact on what approach the next generation of designers may think to take, and he is keen to instil in them some of his core beliefs – namely the intrinsic connection between materiality and craftsmanship that lies at the heart of the design process. ‘I was really delighted that the course I teach at the Royal College includes spinning,’ the designer concludes. ‘It’s an ancient craft, but it is as commonplace today as it was a few hundred years ago. It’s very nice when something that you know has always been there still has value in the minds of the young, because it encourages them to understand the material better – and maybe even to use it more wittily.’

Take three

Grange picks his top three objects that have changed the nature of industrial design:

The hydraulic ram

‘Immensely important. The skyline of any place could not exist without tower cranes, and tower cranes can only really function with these fantastic, powerful rams. Your motor car probably has around twenty or thirty of the things, even if it’s just to lower the hood.’

Electronics ‘Obviously really commonplace now, but this absolutely changed everything.’

The O-ring (toric joint)

‘A hell of a lot of use, all over the place. As the pin is to the dressmaker, so the O-ring is to pretty much every industry I can think of. It’s discardable, cheap and taken for granted.’