DIA Logo

DIA Nothing Need Be Ugly Chapter 3 - Education and Exhibtions

Just before the Armistice of 11th November 1918 the Journal reported the Association’s affiliation to the workers Education Association. Harry Peach was to represent the DIA on its Council. A description of the WEA’s work was contributed by R H Tawney, the distinguished social historian (shortly to be a member of the Sankey Commission on the Mining Industry). ‘what’s wrong with education…is what is wrong with art and religion. It is that education is divorced from the daily business of life.’ ‘The great need is to overcome that divorce’.

It was another indication of the earnestness of the DIA determination to improve the ‘taste’ of working people. C Lovat Fraser reinforced this impression of the DIA members in a letter to the first piece-time issue of the Journal of March 1919. ‘Of course, we are all for Democracy, but the thought of Democracy influenced by “The Pictures”...is a gruesome thought.’ Later on, ‘What I am getting at is this: Give some demonstration and proof of the DIA’s aims and creed to the everyday worker. Why not start with a Branch Committee working with the WEA somewhere near, say, Tabard Street, Southwark?’ ‘It should be definitely understood that the thing was not being run “under the patronage of a Society of Ladies and Gentlemen” but by specialist fellow-workers.’ Of course, it was very well-meant and welcomed by the Journal’s editor; but it is unlikely to have done much to extend the social base of membership.

Though the working classes continued ‘to cling to their long-standing fallacies’ the civil service mandarins were clearly susceptible to DIA propaganda. A Ministry of Reconstruction pamphlet of 1919, called ‘Art and Industry’ echoed the DIA doctrines. ‘We have go to believe’ it said, in a concluding section called ‘The Future’, ‘that art is indispensible in life, and there are many agencies at work…to spread that belief.’ The two main ones were the LCC Trade Consultative Committees and the WEA.

‘In addition to these powerful agencies’, it continued, ‘The Design & Industries Association is actively engaged in a campaign for quality in British productions and has exhibitions of industrial works touring the country.’

There was a reference to ‘the now famous exhibition of enemy goods held in Goldsmiths’ Hall, London, early in 1915’: but in the next two paragraphs the report gave a hint of suspicions to Establishment has from time to time harboured about the desirability of the independent, uninhibited (it would be an exaggeration to say maverick) enthusiasms of the DIA.

The Board of Trade. The Board of Education and the Royal Society of Arts proposed, without consulting the Association, to set up an official ‘British Institute of Industrial Art.’ It would establish a permanent exhibition in London, organise travelling exhibitions, introduce designers to industrialists and provide an Information Bureau. The Royal Society of Art would convene an Industrial Art Committee to give scholarships, encourage research and carry out propaganda.

The Institute of Industrial Art was duly formed, with Major Longden as director; and the DIA co-operated with it. Under the Board of Trade, with officers appointed by the civil service, it could be expected to confirm more closely with official opinion than the DIA. Certain the Institute did mount some small but useful exhibitions in its early years. But DIA members had little tolerance of the carful, politic, slow manoeuvring of officialdom and in 1924 dissociated themselves from the Institute. Shortly afterwards, it subsidy withdrawn, the Institute disappeared with little trace.

The last of the eleven issues of quarterly Journal carried an editorial entitled (as if in response to the Government pamphlet) ‘Getting Things Done’. When the war ended, we were all going to work together in a spirit of altruism; ‘the penstroke that would sign peace would also signalise the millennium.’ But ‘life is as it is, and the millennium not yet.’

The Association’s duty was to get down to brass tacks, to gain success (as it had) with exhibitions like the one on Printing. Progress gained must be sustained.

Percy Wells, the LCC and students of its Technical Institutes at Brixton and Shoreditch has cop-operated with the DIA in producing a little specimen collection of furniture, planned for the small ‘homes for heros’ that were promised by the Government. It has been exhibited at Shoreditch in May 1919 and had been welcomed by both manufacturers and distributors. The furniture has to be painted – full, rich colour – ‘the public will gladly, sooner or later, acquiesce in good painted furniture’. Well perhaps later; but in some ways it was an augury for the success of Utility furniture in the next great war.

Another area of ‘brass tacks’ activity was the Textile Industry. An exhibition was planned in Manchester. Letters were sent out to sixty selected companies, inviting them to contribute. Three replied. Undeterred, the members of the organising committees set out themselves to collect the materials they needed. Searching the warehouses provided more exhibits than they could use. Among their discoveries were the fabrics made for the West Africa trade, colourful, traditional patterns entirely suitable for English dressmakers but not marketed anywhere in the UK. The Exhibition was a success with both manufacturers and the public. Major Longden of the British Institute of Industrial Art made one of his few recorded appearances when he spoke at the opening. The planned three weeks’ run was extended to five; and over 75,000 visitors were recorded.

A year later there was another exhibition, once more at the Whitechapel Gallery. It was an exhibition of ‘Household Things’ and it ran from October to December 1920. The catalogue included a general note about the association. ‘The DIA is not “arty”,’ it began. ‘Design has…been chiefly regarded as a means of making good more saleable, more speciously attractive, whereas it should be the means of making them genuinely usable.’

For the first time the Association had endeavoured to select and assemble articles of daily use and utility. There were no trade stands. The selection was unbiased and honest. The source of each exhibit was noted. Heals and Harrods were the most frequent suppliers, though Bournes, the Civil Service Supply Association, Arding & Hobbs, Dryad, John Line and Oetzmann were among others mentioned. The Curwen Press supplied ‘some dainty personal printing’. McKnight Kauffer provided a lithograph and Phoebe Stabler four circular prints and some glass figures.

An innovation was set of eight model rooms. Kitchen-living-room, Kitchen, two parlours and three bedrooms were shown. There was a Cooking and Heating Section; and a Lighting Section, to which the catalogue carried a suitably admonitory introduction. ‘It was advisable’ it said, anticipating the fashionable ‘task lighting’ of the 1980’s, ‘to have at least two sources of illumination; one for local purposes supplied by table or floor standards, and the other for general lighting, probably by means of indirect light reflected from the wall and ceiling’.

And there were fabrics and wallpaper and furniture; waste-paper baskets and woven bedspreads. The collection may have been small, as its promoters, in their modesty, admitted; but it was undoubtedly wide-ranging.

The Exhibition marked the end of the first fine careless rapture. It was the last activity planned before the war ended (reported in the last quarterly Journal of March 1919) and the conclusion of five years’ energetic, almost frantic, campaigning, It was time for the DIA to deal with the demands of peace, more self-seeking, less idealistic than the rhetoric of a national struggle for existence.

For two years there was a gap in publications. In November 1921, the first of four monthly newsletters appeared. It announced the opening of new offices and galleries on the first floor of 6 Queen Square of which the larger rooms were to be used as exhibition space by the various Trade Groups. These were Architectural (chairman: Charles Holden), Decorations (Hall Thorpe), Printing Trades (Fred Phillips), Stage (Albert Rutherston) and Textiles (William Foxton). The pottery Group was in process of formation.

The Household Furnishing Committee was compiling a schedule of Approved Household Things and would welcome suggestion for articles to be included. The DIA Secretary, no longer honorary, Mr Charles Farmer, would represent the Association on the House Equipment Committee of the garden Cities and Town planning Association.

A textiles Exhibtion was being opened at Queen Square by Frank Pick and there were to be addresses by Minnie McLeish, E B Clegg and William Foxton. A Printing Exhibition had already been held there and others were to follow.

New Branches at Bradford and Birmingham were about to be inaugurated. The Dennison Watch Case Company set a precedent followed by British Thornton 60 years later by reprinting Lethaby’s DIA pamphlet ‘Art and Labour’, adding its own imprint and distributing 3000 copies to retailers of jewellery with a special DIA leaflet enclosed. Peace was agreed, but it was not the millennium. DIA highmindedness has to brace itself for survival in a new world of unemployment and impending slump; and against the competition of the flappers and the Bright Young Things.