Kenneth Grange: ‘The government once had ideas about how to use design’
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There was a time, at some point during the 1990s, when you could have lived a life almost entirely ensconced in a landscape of products designed by Sir Kenneth Grange.
You might have been woken up by his Short & Mason alarm clock, had a shave using his Wilkinson razor, made tea in his Kenwood kettle and lit your first cigarette of the day using his Ronson lighter. And that was before you’d even got out of the house. From there you might have travelled on a Grange-designed train, or waited in a Grange-designed bus stop, or slotted a coin into his parking meter, then opened a door using one of his handles, hung your coat up on one of his hooks and signed a letter with his Parker Pen.
Probably more than any other designer, Grange helped to drag Britain into the modern age. (There were other figures too — Sir Terence Conran and Robin and Lucienne Day come to mind — but none with Grange’s output and range.) Now 94, he is mostly retired but, when I meet him at his London home, he shows me a design for a desk lamp he’s tinkering with. Simple, elegant, with an incredible economy of form, it looks lovely. “Frankly,” he says, “what I used to do for clients I now do for myself. I still have a workshop here and in Devon [in a barn he converted] and I still fart about. You can’t change the animal . . . ”
What would he say, I wonder, if I were to call him the last British modernist? He smiles faintly and sits back in his Thonet chair. “Well, it’s flattering, of course,” he says, “but actually there’s still quite a lot of us. You could argue that it’s actually the consumer who is the judge of what is modern, and to what level they actually want to be modern. Fashion confuses people, all the fluff.”
That modernism, he suggests, certainly does not come from his background. “I had a good childhood,” he says, “but it was all brown and cream. Daffodils on the wallpaper. Like 99 per cent of all the other homes in the country. The word ‘modernism’ just didn’t apply to homes, perhaps it did to motor cars or industrial processes. But not the house.”
His father was a policeman and he grew up in London. “I suppose you could say we were from the great unwashed,” he grins, “and I just got lucky.”
He runs through his early career: BBC set-painting studios at Alexandra Palace, working with architect-designer Jack Howe, national service. “I had this letter from Howe,” he says, “which got me a position as a draughtsman, third class. It made my time in the army quite tolerable. I was doing illustrations for weapons manuals, machine guns and so on. It was an education.”
Certainly Grange is an incredible draughtsman: whether sketching a tree or doing meticulous technical drawings, he manages to convey information succinctly and beautifully. “A lot of my early success was about communication,” he says. “There were exhibition stands for instance, they were incredibly important in those days and you could be very inventive. One was trying to explain nuclear power which people were very apprehensive about — they only knew if from the bomb. And my first commission was for a railway timetable.”
His breakthrough product was the Kenwood Chef, the 1960s food mixer that brought tech to backward British kitchens — and would probably have been the only truly modern thing in the room. Stoves were cast-iron, big old boilers sat in the corner, curtains concealed a cupboard beneath an old Belfast sink with a wooden drainer, most kitchens remained largely Victorian. “The mixer was a reflection of an American lifestyle,” he says. “It became an icon of aspiration and status — the perfect wedding present which went with the trend towards ‘fancy’ cooking. And for me the money was immense, it really set me up.”
His next biggest job was the InterCity 125 train, still a familiar sight on the railways after almost 50 years. It has a great tale of chutzpah. “I was commissioned to apply a livery to this new train. It was quite a good commission but I thought I could do better with the design. So we worked in a wind tunnel in Imperial College, I gave the technician a fiver to work overnight and we came up with this design. The livery was presented, alongside our design. And we got the whole job. I think it still holds the world speed record for a diesel electric train.”
He credits German designer Dieter Rams at Braun as a huge influence. “You can see the effect his work had on me,” he says of the sleek lines and stripped-back forms of his early work. He also says the Design Council, founded in 1944, was a cornerstone of his career, a government body which “approved” the right kinds of designs. “It was an incredible thing,” he says. “The government had ideas about how to use design, for how to recover from the war and for society. And it promoted industry too; everything then was made here, now absolutely everything is made in China.” A trip to the US inspired him too: “We went to visit Philip Johnson’s [Glass] House in Connecticut. It was all glass, floating. And it had four Eames chairs! I’d never even seen one. It was like a dream.”
One thing Grange points out is that so many of his designs were the result of central or local government commissions, from the Festival of Britain to parking meters and trains, something almost unthinkable today. “Wouldn’t it be great if [Keir] Starmer, or whoever ends up trying to govern this country, embraced the idea of believing in design . . . in the creation of real stuff that makes real lives better?” He looks off into the direction of his workshop in the garden, a little wistfully.