CultureCritic interviews Kenneth Grange...
Kenneth Grange is the undisputed master of British product design. Co-founder of collectively run firm Pentagram, his iconic designs have shaped our domestic environment for the last 50 years, and at 82 he is still going strong. From razors to bus shelters, his work includes kitchenware for Kenwood, the InterCity train from 1976 (which still graces our railways) and re-designs for Anglepoise and the London taxi cab. His retrospective, Making Britain Modern, opens today at the Design Museum. We caught up with him on working with Maragaret Howell, and why we'll be seeing him soon in the Sunday papers...
Photo: Luke Hayes
You started art school at a very young age, exactly how old were you?
Well, it's like a lot of things that doing this show has thrown up. Only by setting out your own history do you realise the changes that have taken place. Although I've remarked a number of times on the young age at which I went to art school, you forget that it was the only way people knew to behave in those days. I went aged 14, which seems remarkable today, but it was a pretty bloody good way of doing it. The first two years were half art and half general studies, and then two years of art, so you were there for longer than students are today. The general studies were nicely balanced and taught by really classy teachers. It was much less onerous than being in a classroom in the old-fashioned way.
Did you always want to be a designer?
No, you've put your finger on one of those key differences; design wasn't a word in use, I don't remember it ever being mentioned. It was either commercial or fine art, and if you were going to earn a living, you naturally went into commercial art. That would be what you'd call graphics, but it was nothing like as sophisticated as that. We did a bit of finished lettering which I was good at because craftsmanship was somehow built into my nature. They encouraged you to draw. It was through being introduced to and learning to draw that I got work.
What were the two years like that you spent in the army?
I was old enough I did two years National Service - I didn't want to do it at the time, but afterwards realised that it was bloody marvellous. I got a job as a technical illustrator, again, because I had been introduced to drawing. I learned a little bit about printing, so it was pretty damn good, Her Majesty looked after me.
You worked for architects at the start of your career, how did that influence you?
It was through them that I learned about Modernism. I came from real regular, eggs and bacon, cream and brown family; normal, like everybody's. Smashing parents; loving and all that and happy as Larry, and my father was a very talented artist, but still nothing to do with Modernism, as we know it today, so I had not the slightest introduction until the architects.
Instamatic 33Series, Kodak Ltd, 1968
Is the idea of progress important to you?
I think in many ways we retrogress. As you get older, you get more critical and more cantankerous, that's for bloody sure, so there lots of things that don't get better. There's notional progression though, one step backwards, two forwards, or the other way around... For example, I'm positive that newspapers didn't used to rub black print off on your hands. Yet it becomes part and parcel of common expectation in life. Like Underground trains getting hotter; I'll bet they didn't used to be so bloody hot. Notional progress often brings retrogression in its wake. But human beings are very compliant, the British are foolishly so. In France, they'd all bugger off on strike, and I think one understands that one may be forced to do something like that, but we don't. Things that I think really matter just go past us. Like newsprints, silly things like that
The day-to-day things?
I'm a great believer in queuing, it's one of the finest things the British brought to the world. But then to let the bureaucrats herd us... if you queue for something now, it's not an orderly queue of ordinary orderly people, you're guided like bloody cattle. Nobody complains. If you do, you're in deep trouble. That's where you'll see me next, in one of the Sunday papers, being strong-armed for pushing through barriers. I get into terrible trouble with the wife; she suffers a lot, because I'm a great one for lifting up the barriers and going through them. I know how they work, see? You just click this and take it off... the security blokes get really upset with me.
TX1, London Taxi, 1997 LTI Ltd
How much do you think you are a product of post-war Britain?
Some things are sufficiently good and well organised by their maker that they have a ‘life', and carve out ownership of a period in time. Apple have done so, with their systems, software and method of communicating through the screen: that's their own, and it's already been going for 20 or 30 years. It will eventually be supplanted, but now you can say, ‘that's the period of Apple ownership'.
There are one or two things I've done, that, for a variety of reasons, have owned their bit of time. The Kenwood Chef has run on for 50 years, almost unchanged. But it's not much to do with me, it's more to do with whoever I've done it for, they're the people who can influence it.
Kenwood mini mixer, 1972
How do you feel about the fact that the Austerity Britain aesthetic of the 1940s is experiencing a revival?
I welcome it, because, frankly, we have too much. It's easily said and it's old fart's talk, but there is such terrible, lunatic waste, nobody with half a brain wants to see things just made and thrown away wilfully. My generation thinks waste is really immoral. Younger generations tolerate it, but it is so offensive to me.
You designed a very workmanlike shirt for Margaret Howell. What was it like working with her?
I'm very fond her, we both belong to an old fart's club called the Royal Designers for Industry. We're very critical and selfish about who we let in, so we think they're the best in the world! There's all sorts of designers: in fashion, bridges, boats, what I do, graphics. It's marvellous. Margaret had an idea to ask a designer from another discipline to work with her on something. I was the first and she does it every year now. It's a brilliant idea, I feel very warm about it.
Is there something particular about her design ethos that appeals to you?
She's maniacal about quality. She makes everything here, which also cheers me up. I'll tell you an anecdote: her company is owned by a big Japanese corporation, she's their flagship - a big name in Japan. Because she's so determined about quality in every respect, they love it; they think that's the best of English. I know the Japanese very well indeed, and they could make them at least as well as Margaret, they have impeccable standards of construction, but they insist on them being made here.
Is there an ideology that underpins your work?
If you tried to nail it down to some elementary ideology it would be the old axiom, ‘form follows function'.
Was there a particular moment when you felt ‘I've made it'?
No, I still don't feel that. If I'm immodest I could think that today, well, maybe ‘I'm on my way'.
Something that stands out in much of the press about this exhibition is the idea that ‘you will know his designs but you won't know Kenneth Grange', although your work is so incredibly ubiquitous. Similar things were said about the Design Research Unit exhibition at Tate St Ives recently.
I got a lot of stick from the Mrs about not going to that. The DRU were one of my heroes. They were responsible for the design of the famous British Rail logo, which was imitated all over the world. There is not a more successful logotype. It leaves Coca Cola standing in terms of its influence. When the DRU invented that, they virtually invented Modernism for the railways, and the airlines, and other places. They are real unspoken heroes. I'm sure of it.
Intercity 125, 1976
How much did you have a hand in putting this show together?
Almost everything here comes from my archive. The idea of having one is disappearing though, in the same way that we've got used to inky fingers. Most companies don't regard what they're doing as a bit of history.
Have you ever had any interest in designing mobile technology gadgets?
I've designed mobiles, but they're not very rewarding. I would hate do one today, it's such a banal world. Software is their only merit. They're nothing to do with my sort of design. I've got an Apple one, and it is by no means the most comfortable. It's the sleekest, but not the best in terms of handling: it's too wide and heavy and slips out of your hand. But that's ‘Appleology'.
Is there anything you ever been asked to design and said ‘no'?
No, I've never said no! I might say yes and regret it... but I'll always have a go.
Making Britain Modern is at the Design Museum, London until 30th October. Read the latest reviews here.
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