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DIA Nothing Need be Ugly Chapter 2 - Printing and Pottery

1916 saw the slaughter of the soldiers on the Somme and at the sea the Battle of Jutland. During the year the British assured the founding of Irish State by executing the leaders of the Easter Rising.

‘I write it out in a verse
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse’

as W B Yeats put it in a moving poem called ‘Easter 1916’.
The DIA records rigorously exclude such event. The beginning of a journal of the Design & Industries Association of July 1916 announced that membership had reached a total of 292 on June 1st and asked for gifts or loans of slides, objects and books from the members for lectures, exhibitions and a library. Groups of traders, manufacturers and designers were to be formed. Professor Lethaby addressed the Drapers Chamber of Trade on ‘The Value of Quality and Design’. Hamilton T Smith Spoke to students of the Brimscombe Polytechnic and the Students Union of the Leicester School of Art. A sub-committee was appointed to report on Education in relation to commerce.

The first General Meeting of members was held on January 27th 1916 in the Art Workers Guildhall with John Marshall in the chair. Marshall (of Marshall & Snelgrove) is said to have initiated the board pen lettering which distinguished his firm’s advertising for decades after his death. A man (according to Hamilton Smith) of deep religious and artistic sensibility, he found ‘no spiritual home in the business world’.

‘When he volunteered for the war, I felt hi did so with a sense of escape; and the news of his death in battle in September 1917 came as a bereavement but hardly a surprise’.

He had, characteristically, refused to accept the chairmanship of the association, but accepted the title of vice-chairman.

‘Some Notes on the DIA creed’ were contributed to the same Beginnings of a Journal. ‘The machine’ they said, ‘ is perhaps especially the concern of the DIA because of the volume of machine production and the studious neglect of it by those interested in the ideals of sound craftsmanship’.

Ornament was not beyond the capacity of the machine if its limitations were recognised. Lethaby was quoted: ‘Art is not a Special sauce applied to ordinary cooking; it is cooking itself if it is goo’. Material must be sound. ‘No simulations, substitutions of fakements’. (The beginning of what Fiona MacCarthy rightly describes as ‘DIA highmindedness’.) The writer saw the benefit for consumers as ‘less futile and more beautiful things in less futile and more beautiful houses and cities’. ‘Which’ he concluded ‘has nothing to do with sandals or a diet of rigidly selected proteids, as too commonly supposed.’

The fourth propaganda pamphlet of the association was written by a Clutton Brock of The Times and called A Modern Creed of Work. ‘We have believed that the competition is the soul of trade’, he wrote, ‘It is not the soul of anything; and the trade cannot live without soul. In Germany the have discovered this fact before we have. When an enemy has a noble lesson to teach, it can only be learnt nobly.’ ‘ Commerce is a dreary business when its one aim is to make money; how dreary many of our articles of commerce prove, for they are made only to sell, and they have an ugliness which betrays the joylessness of all who are concerned with them.’

There was here, the closing pages, some reference to the war. ‘The working man is a soldier in the common cause. He is “Tommy” and a hero…. When he comes back are we going to find him work that will be worth doing for its own sakes?’

If that were done (indeed if it had been done), we should ‘turn him from striker into a soldier in the army of civilisation and peace’.

In the summer of 1916 the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society invited the DIA to contribute to its exhibition in the Royal Academy in October. The Association was allotted a small room in Burlington House for a display of British goods selected from the ordinary traders’ stocks. It was the first time commercial products had been welcomed within those sacred precincts. The spectator wrote of it: ‘Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole exhibition is that of the Design and Industries Association, which has gathered together a collection of pottery and stuff produced in the way of trade….Here, at least, we seem to be in touch with something vital’.

The Burlington Magazine described the room as ‘ant-Ruskin in that it welcomes machinery and seeks to give it designs worth making in 10,000 lots.’

During the exhibition’s run, there was a joint meeting with the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society. Roger Fry, Charles Sixsmith, Joseph Thorp and Harry Peach all spoke and Sir Kenneth Anderson took the chair. Afterwards ‘some 60 members…took lea at the Kardomah café.

In Stoke-on-Trent there was criticism of the DIA’s selection of exhibits. There has been no process work, pottery decorated from transfers of lithographs or engravings. What had been shown was coarse and did not do justice to the high skill of the factories. Hamilton Smith answered that expert craftsmanship did not always go hand in hand with good design.

It was true that many exhibits in the major pottery contribution to the display has been selected on the healthy, but perhaps simplistic, basis for fitness for purpose. Did the jugs and teapots poor well, without dripping? When you pick them up, did the handles fit the hand? Could they be washed up easily and efficiently? Much popular decorative production failed the tests and was rejected. It was a reasonable reaction from Victorian stress on applied ornament. But it upset many manufacturers, who found decoration easier to sell than the slightly puritanical virtues the DIA was applauding.

The criticisms were discussed in details at a conference in London in May 1917. Mr P A Best, a director of Selfridges, was in the chair; and Major Wedgwood spoke for the potters with the skill and discretion of a good opening batsman. ‘They came’ he said, ‘not to give their views but to learn more of the DIA’s aims and objectives’. H P Shapland explained the aims of the selection committee. In the small space allotted it had been decided to make a show of simple domestic pottery. The result has satisfied the Arts & Crafts Society, the public has been insistent to buy, the art critics were unanimous in their praise. Mr George Wade (of Mintons) said manufacturer depended on the taste of store buyers. They wished to co-operate with the DIA. Mr Best optimistically concluded with a forecast (not yet realised) that the buyer of the future would be something of an artist and a craftsman as well as a business man.

In 1918 Hamilton Smith and P A Best were again lecturing the locals in the five Towns. Once result was the setting up of a pottery industry group of the DIA. One meeting is recorded in June 1918; little is heard of the group subsequently. But the suspicions of the DIA that the exhibition had aroused remained in the minds of some (but by no means all) pottery manufacturers for a decade at least.

White the DIA printing Exhibition was on in Edinburgh in 1916, plans were made to form a branch there. Everywhere recruitment was rapid; the first 200 were to be known as the ‘Original Members’. By March 1917, their numbers had more than doubled. 419 names appeared in the membership list.

The membership extended over a wide variety of trades and professions. It included Lord Aberconway – ‘Ironmaster’ – and Miss Adelaide Anderson ‘Principle Lady Inspector of Factories, Home Office’. It recorded the names of Architects – Lethaby, (Sir) Edward Maufe, Charles Holden for example – distributors like Selfridges, Harrods, Derry & Toms, Debenham & Freebody as well as specialist shops like Heals and Ganes of Bristol, manufacturers like C & J Clarks and Stead & Simpson (attracted perhaps by Lethaby’s obsession with boots), Bassett-Lowke models, Josiah Wedgewood & Sons, Nairn Linoleum, bedstead makers (Wales Ltd of Birmingham), linen manufacturers from Belfast, James Morton for textiles, and a blanket maker (Mr Early) from Witney. There were artists like McKnight Kauffer, Grailly Hewitt the calligrapher, and Lucien Pissarro. There was a plenitude of printers and publishers. Meynell, Bemrose, the Oxford University Press and many others. Teachers, especially from art schools, were well represented. And there were the great unclassifiables among whom Frank Pick of the London Underground was pre-eminent.

Hamilton T smith’s contribution to the 1951 Yearbook about his fellow DIA founders has already been quoted. Of Pick he wrote: ‘Two or three years before the coming of the DIA (he) had enlisted the services of Ernest Jackson and other artists, to launch that notable series of Underground Railway posters, which marked a renascence in British poster design and brought a new brightness into the lives of the millions of Londoners. He joined the Association as an original member and was elected to its first council. Later he became Chairman of the Council, afterwards President and then a Vice-President. For a quarter of a century he devoted a large share of his almost superhuman energy to the progress and well being of the Association itself. Buyt the DIA owes him a still greater debt for the way in which he carried out its ideals in his everyday work.

‘Pick’s innate love of the arts had been deepened by an intimate acquaintance with the architecture and art collections of Britain and the Continent; and against this background he looked at current trends with a critical but receptive mind. While still a younger man his administrative talents had brought him into the position of power, in which he had opportunities for influencing design of an immense field. He employed the best artists and designers he could find (many, though not all, fellow members of the DIA), and proceeded to make the London Underground system a pattern and exemplar for all metropolitan railways throughout the world, with is convenient and inviting stations, its clear notices and directional signs in the beautiful type that Edward Johnston designed for them, its gay posters and maps; to say nothing of such small but significant detailed as Stabler’s series of embossed wall-tiles which beguile the moments of waiting in some of the later stations.

‘”The Underground” is a fitting memorial to Pick’s passion for doing everything as well as it could be done; it is perhaps the outstanding example of Fitness for Purpose on a vast scale, and having that touch of graciousness given for the love of giving it, without which mere fitness is apt to be sterile and forbidding.’

Meanwhile, the Printing Exhibition continued to attract new members and its visit to the North West in April 1917 brought the formation of a second branch. The formal inauguration of the Manchester Branch took place in October. In the same year, the Edinburgh branch published a reprint of a lecture Frank Pick had given on ‘Design and Industry’ – the first out-of-London DIA publication. By the end of the year plans were begin made for establishing another Scottish branch Glasgow; in April 1918 the DIA journal reported that its membership was growing rapidly.

In October 1917, there was an announcement of a DIA competition for design for printed fabric. Two designs had to be submitted, one for machine, once for hand-printed fabric. It was a reminder of the Association’s divided loyalties; of its conception in the Arts & Crafts movement and its birth a year or so later with the Werkbund as midwife. Divided loyalties remained for at least a decade. Even in the 80’s they seem sometimes to re-appear in divisions between supporters of fashionable but innovative expensive hand-crafted products and those on the other hand who campaign for the steady improvement of designs for mass production for the mass market.

The printed fabric competition promised, significantly, to buy one design in each class, 15 guineas for a design for machine production, twenty guineas for hand-made. Six competitors in the Journal as Miss Marion Ellis, Mr Lovat Fraser, Miss Dorothy Hutton, Mrs G S Maufe, Miss Elzie Morton and Mrs Isabel Pick. Whose designs were eventually bought never seems to have been disclosed.

In January 1918, the Journal printed a letter from T Sturge Moore, the poet, ‘to a member who had sent him roses and pamphlets’. The pamphlets excited him to

Glut my sorrow on a morning rose

‘good work and comely utensils are desirable’, he went on, ‘but they won’t do instead of roses’. The rose’s ‘very unaccountableness is like that of the stars!’ It was a romantic reaction. The ephemeral beauty of a rose, it might have been said, was not strictly comparable with the everyday pleasure of using a well-designed cooker.

The July issue of the Journal Carried a more serious contribution called ‘Good and Cheap’. The writer rejected the idea of standardisation’. The DIA really wanted ‘atypical set of good and cheap cottage furniture… (to) be made available to the public’. There was a distinction between fine furniture, the privilege of the rich, and good and wholesome things for all. The patronising prose perhaps explains the DIA’s failure to enlist Trade Unions among its supporters. True, there was a pamphlet called The worker’s Right to Pleasure. ‘Discontent…is not merely a question of wages. Many loather their work because they feel that the job on which the best hours of their life are spent is not worthwhile!’ That evoked no response, either.

The DIA’s origins in the Arts and Crafts movement were still showing. Even if its members were considering giving up ‘sandals and rigidly selected proteids’.

Premature as always, the DIA in a memorandum to Dr Addison, Minister for Reconstuction, in February 1918 dealt with ‘ the encouragement of small industrial centres to assist in the reconstruction of rural life and the employment of discharged soldiers’. It was recommended the building of small factories by the State, to be let to private companies’ or co-operative societies or run by the State itself. Various trades were suggested. Some, metal spinning and stamping, die-sinking, electrical sundries, seem familiar enough. Others, like the making of hurdles, besoms and split fencing, sounds a nostalgic echo. The writers, in some way foreshadowed the Bauhaus doctrine by recommending that ‘the association of machine craft and handcraft in the same building should be encouraged, so that one may learn from the other.’ The document was set very well, though in a slightly mannered style; it carried the imprint of Francis Meynell’s Pelican Press, set up in 1916 and published of the C.O’s Hansard, reported of Parliamentary discussion of conscientious objectors’ affairs. Whether this prejudiced the DIA memorandum’s reception by the Government no one will know. At all events, this time it appears to have been ignored; perhaps the decay in rural life was the inevitable consequence of economic change.

At the end of the year the Kaiser abdicated and the Armistice was signed. Votes for Women – over the age of 30 – were condescendingly granted in England. Walter Gropius became the director of the Weimar Art Academy and the Weimar Arts and Crafts School and in 1919 combined them under the title of the ‘State Bauhaus Weimar’. And Cecil Brewer died after years of increasingly ill-health. ‘More than any other man’ said Hamilton Smith ‘he mapped out the path along which the DIA was to advance’.