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DIA Nothing Need Be Ugly Chapter 4 - The First Yearbooks and the Early Twenties

Post-war years in Britain brought strikes, unemployment and, in Ireland, ‘Black and Tans’ civil war. For the DIA, there seems to have been some slackening of heady enthusiasms of wartime.

‘The DIA (wrote Fiona MacCathy in A History of British Design 1830-1970) had settled for a life of common-sense, urging its designers to talk man-to-man to industry: in the interests of appeasement, never mention Art’. Nor did the, at first. They paid great attention (or at least lip service) to the qualities of the machine, and the opportunities it presented for well-made, well-designed household goods within the reach of all but the poorest people. They did their best to suppress their early adherence to Arts and Crafts, not always successfully. Ambrose heal himself protested that it could cost much more to produce plan but beautiful pieces of furniture than one whose ornaments would cover the faults.

Jocelyn Morton in a fascinating book called Three Generations in a Family Textile Firm describes how his father James Morton (another DIA founder member) ‘because of the expensive dyestuffs he was using, was having to sell his fabrics at pence of shillings per yard more than his competitors…but he would have laid stress on the importance of “economy of consumption” rather than “economy of production”.’ After the war, Morton (Sir James from 1936) found himself ‘producing ranges, particularly of printed fabrics, sound in construction, simple, direct and contemporary in design, and inexpensive by any standards.’ It was a realistic justification for the Association’s doctrines.

Nevertheless, it was not the idealistic version of factory production which Harold Curwen had described some years earlier: ‘Industrial unrest is largely due to the accepted aim of working for personal gain rather than to make something or supply some service in the best possible way for the good of the community. Where there is scope for pride in doing a job well, there is nearly always enjoyment or at least absence of boredom. If the thing being made is designed for utmost usefulness, and is actually needed, the mere knowledge of these conditions makes for satisfaction to the workers.’

Perhaps it still is true in the business of printing, which Curwen’s was. In other industries (motor car manufacturer could be an example) it might be questioned. A write in the Journal had already done just that. ‘the way out for the machine-tender is probably rather by way of greater leisure than by any attempt at joy in work’.

But the Journal had gone and the Monthly News letters has stopped. What was to take their place?

Thanks to the co-operation of Benn Brothers, the publishers, in 1922 the DIA begun the publication of Yearbooks, a practice which, though interrupted from time to time continues to this day. Hard back, large format, traditional in typography and well illustrated, the first issue gave a less than impressive picture of the brave words that had preceded it. But is was pictorial; only eight pages out of 160 reiterated the brave words in the introduction by C H Collins Baker, Keeper and Secretary of the National Gallery. ‘Our enthusiasts were not dreamers in Jaeger sweaters with blue eyes fixed on supra-mundane peaks. They did not indulge the view of machinery, a vulgar, vile affair, caused all our modern ills.’

It would have been difficult to guess from many of the illustrations which followed, The furniture illustrated is, with minor exceptions, in the tradition of Gimson or neo-Georgians. The work that was admired by the DIA was, on the whole, well made and thoughtfully designed. It was not produced by machine, nor is it likely to have been within the means of most householders. There was a print cabinet by Peter walls, a music cabinet by Leslie Mansfield, ‘a useful cottage piece in oak’ by Ambrose Heal. There was a distinguished ‘modern adaptation of the graceful 18th century tradition’ in an inlaid mahogany sideboard by J F Johnson. And a lot of can furniture by H H Peach made by Dryad. This cane furniture appears fresher, less derivative in the 1980’s than much that surrounds it in the 1922 Yearbook.

In pottery the division between hand and machine-made products was less easy to define. The unsurpassed Wedgewood’s teapot of the 1920’s is a functional design evolved in the late 18th century. Bourne’s Denby teapot, less visually attractive, is praised as being ‘absolutely dripless’. Wedgewood’s Honey Buff breakfast-ware, also shown, was enjoying a vogue-ish popularity in the shops. T G Green’s blue and white banded jugs appeared in the Yearbook and look as fresh and agreeable as when they (or their identical twins) were on sale in Habitat shops in the 1960’s. There is an extremely elegant garden pot designed by Cyril Carter and made by his company in Poole.

A fabrics section, including attractive machine printed designs by Gregory Brown and hand printed by Claude Lovat Fraser, for W Foxton, was followed by illustrations of kitchen equipment, metalwork, printing, signs and tablets, and shop fronts. The selection gives the impression of being made by people of ‘good taste’, reflecting the consensus of contemporary opinion – in Hampstead, perhaps. ‘A dignified classical treatment’ is considered suitable for windows to display chimney pieces. At this point the DIA seems to have abandoned its admiration for Taut and Gropius and the functionalism of the glass house and Model factory of the Werkbund’s Cologne exhibition.

There is, however, praise for the new transports, the aeroplane and the motorcar. A Rolls Royce tourer has ‘a beauty naturally developed out if its fitness for its purpose’. On the other hand doubt creep in about a splendid-looking Bentley. ‘There is a note of experiment about all closed-in work of a convertible character.’ ‘The right solution will come in the end.’

There was little change of attitude a year later in the 1923/24 Yearbook. Much of the furniture was made by hand. Gordon Russell, J Henry Sellers, Peter Waals and Heals provided most of the illustrations. The Verandah Café and the first-class lounge of the ss Tuscania pointed to the lesson the Orient Line (not to mention the Bremen and the Europa liners from Germany) were soon to learn: that passenger ships need not look like shore side hotels. Crockery doesn’t slide of tables on dry land. At sea you have to make conscious provision to stop it. Honesty demands that a ship looks like a ship. The Tuscania did not.

In this Yearbook the British Institute of Industrial Art makes an appearance with pictures of its stand at the British Industries Fair 1923 (including a display of good travel posters in rather gloomy surroundings); a travelling exhibition in the Hague (dainty objects in glass cases); and more posters in a show at Milan. Fred Taylor, Gregory Brown and McKnight Kauffer are among the artists featured.

By 1924 John Gloag had joined the Association and contributed the introduction to the 1924/25 Yearbook. He put aside the diffidence about using the word ‘Art’. ‘the artist and the engineer are quite often the same man’ he wrote. The DIA was not a society for Art twaddle: ‘practical teaching was its business’. The book ‘can tell by its illustrations a story of real achievements’.

Among them was the 1924 British Empire Exhibition. ‘The fact that every detail was designed…as well as the general arrangement and the more imposing architectural features, affords encouraging evidence of the growing influence of sane, orderly planning’. That was clearly the contemporary DIA view. The Brunner Mod stand by Clough Williams Ellis has a hint of the stage-set qualities that were to give Portmeirion its quixotic charm, a tongue-in-cheek feeling which accords oddly with the’ brine, limestone and ammonia’ among the more innocuous products on sale.

The furniture and pottery shown follow the pattern of the previsou Yearbooks; though beside much in the Gimson tradition there is a fine chest actually ‘by the late Ernest Gimson’ and another piece by Sidney Barnsley. The affection for craftwork was very apparent. Pictures for two factories, both in Leicester, by Pick Everard and Keay, were approvingly printed. Both are sound and conventional, typical of the safe good work of their time.

Noel Carrington made his appearance in the Association at about this time and was to give a great impetus to the DIA’s printed publications. In his book Industrial Design in Britain he describes his introduction to the DIA.

‘In 1924 my next-door neighbour in Hampstead was Philip Alexander, a craftsman in silver, whose family invited me one evening to accompany them to a meeting of a society I had never heard of. For the sake of sitting next to the younger daughter I readily agreed. The meeting was attended by about thirty men and women at Queen Square, Bloomsbury. A lantern-slide lecturer covered a visit to Scandinavia, with illustrations of buildings, glassware and furnishings. The debate which followed was very earnest, if rather inconclusive. The issue was why Britain could not make, or at least sell, such lovely and useful things. Manufacturers present blamed the shops: shopkeepers blamed the public: the public was not present to explain its lack of taste. It was the first of many such debates, which were equally lacking in finality.

‘I saw much of Harold Stabler in the years that followed, because he was an old friend of the Alexanders and had been responsible for Philips Alexander’s quitting the life of a school-master to learn the art of a metalworker. It was Stabler’s view that the DIA was in danger of coming to a standstill, always possible in any reforming society when the initial impetus has subsided. What was needed, he said, was a large draught of younger men and women to replace the original founders, who were getting on in years.’

It was a refrain the DIA has gone on singing for over 50 years. ‘Younger men and women’ have materialised, so far without fail. The next period, though it included crisis and the great 30’s depression, become a time for great influence for the DIA.