Monday, 18 November 2013

Industry and the artist: Eric Lee-Johnson and design

Eric A Johnson and his dog, London, about 1937
Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, Purchased 1997 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds
In the painter and photographer Eric Lee-Johnson’s somewhat hastily written and lightly edited autobiography, passing reference is made to his becoming ‘one of the original members of the Institute of Industrial Design’ whilst in London in the 1930s, noting that ‘I was invited to join by the organiser, Milner Grey (sic), and took no active part beyond attending lectures, but was glad to lend my name to the aims of such movements (sic).’ (Eric Lee-Johnson, No road to follow: autobiography of a New Zealand artist (Auckland: Godwit, 1994), p. 31).

There was no such organisation as the Institute of Industrial Design, organised by Milner Gray, constituted in London during the 1930s. However, Gray was one of the founder members of a group of practicing designers that in September 1930 became the Society of Industrial Artists (SIA). The SIA aimed at ‘becoming a controlling authority to advance and protect the interests of Industrial Artists and at raising the standard of Industrial Art in this country, both from an economic and cultural standpoint.’ (James Holland, Minerva at fifty (Westerham, Kent: Hurtwood, 1980), p. 1).

Eric A Johnson – as he was then known – arrived in London in May 1930 and, as an employee of some of London’s leading advertising agencies, initially S H Benson Ltd and, later, Arks Publicity Ltd, he would have been intimately acquainted with the efforts of British designers to obtain professional recognition. Johnson was not the only New Zealander to be recruited to the SIA; others known to have been members included his friend from Elam days, the designer and artist James Boswell and the radical filmmaker and kinetic artist Len Lye.

Eric A Johnson's packaging design for Alfred Imhof & Sons Ltd, about 1937
Lee-Johnson’s activities as an industrial designer remain obscure: as with his photography, he evidently felt that knowledge of his work as a designer would compromise his reputation as a painter. The only known example of his work in this field was the design of the packaging of long-playing gramophone needles that he undertook for the record shop Alfred Imhof & Sons Ltd of 110 New Oxford Street while he was at Arks Publicity Ltd. The packaging design Johnson developed for Imhof was typical of the work undertaken by his London contemporaries such as Gray and Ashley Havinden. Influenced by German modernist designers, it was suited for mass display, employed new font types - usually sans serif, employed high contrast tonal fields and, characteristic of the work of many of the London designers, was slightly whimsical. 

Milner Gray's packaging design for Ilford Ltd, about 1937
The formation of the SIA came at a critical time in the emergence of design as a clearly identifiable practice during the first half of the twentieth century. While the ‘industrial arts’ had been a part of the state’s teaching curricula since the 1830s, it had been regarded as a ‘minor art’, a ‘decorative art’, an ‘applied art’. Industrial artists were regarded as little more than ornamentalists and decorators, who, on the odd occasion they were employed by manufacturers, were required to produce superficial designs that could be adapted to the dominant requirements of mass production. Other designers, such as Johnson, were identified, more often than not equally pejoratively, as commercial artists and typographers and they were often employed as technicians in printing offices and, from the 1890s, in advertising agencies.

But from the first decade of the twentieth century attitudes towards design in Britain – and to a lesser extent in the ‘colonies’ –­ began to change as the decadence of Britain’s manufacturing sector became increasingly apparent. Officials at the British Board of Trade, somewhat optimistically, identified design as a missing ingredient in the production process by as early as 1908. But it wasn’t until after the First World War that the first hesitant steps were taken in an attempt to address design deficiencies of the manufacturing sector.

The most notable of these measures resulted from the indefatigable endeavours of one of the most unlikely design promoters, Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith, permanent secretary of the Board of Trade from 1908 to 1919 and subsequently Chief Economic Adviser to the Government until 1927. In 1919 Llewellyn Smith wrote - anonymously - a short pamphlet, Art and industry, for the Ministry for Reconstruction that argued a greater role for design in the British industrial environment. Shortly afterwards he managed to extract seed funding from the Treasury for the establishment of a prototype design promotion organisation, the pompously named British Institute of Industrial Art, which functioned, anaemically, until 1933. He also published a theoretical text, The economic laws of art production (London: Oxford University Press, 1924) and the following year taught a course on industrial art to students enrolled for the London School of Economics’ new commerce degree; it was not popular and William Pember Reeves, president of the LSE and a former High Commissioner for New Zealand, had the embarrassing task of informing Llewellyn Smith that his services were no longer required.

Llewellyn Smith was also the major driving force behind the next two measures implemented by the British state in what was an, at times, contradictory design promotion strategy: the formation of the Council for Art and Industry (1934) and the introduction of a National Register of Industrial Art Designers (1936), a state-funded registration formwork for designers, which while not offering the same level of professional protection that had been afforded to architects by the 1931 Architects (Registration) Act, at least provided a level of official recognition for the nascent practice: registered designers were able to employ the post-nominal NRIAD.

It wasn’t only officialdom that was interested in design in Britain. While the formation in 1916 of the Design & Industries Association - modelled on the Deutsche Werkbund (1907) - was probably the result of yet another Llewellyn Smith initiative, the private sector, notably the advertising industry, was beginning to understand how design could radically alter consumer preferences. Probably the most innovative advertising agency in London was W S Crawford Ltd. In 1925 its chairman, Sir William Crawford, who had attended the University of Tübingen prior to the First World War, invited members of the Bundes Deutscher Gebrauchsgraphiker, the highly influential professional association of German graphic designers to London, a seemingly fugitive event that not only acted as a catalyst for modernism in Britain but also provided British designers with a template of how to organise design practice. The SIA can be viewed as one of the more tangible results of this visit.
Lee-Johnson returned to New Zealand in 1938 and his career as a practicing industrial designer came to an abrupt close. Lacking any significant manufacturing sector and with a consumer market inured to the traditional, there was no recognisable demand for the well-designed products of modernism, even in the advertising industry where he was employed. Surprisingly, given his involvement with the SIA during his years in London, Lee-Johnson does not appear to have been involved with Milner Gray’s 1949 visit to New Zealand and there is no evidence that he retained his membership of the practitioner body following his return to the country.
Instead of practising industrial design, Lee-Johnson began to write about it. His first article ‘Industry and the Artist’ was published in Art in New Zealand in March 1943. In it he lamented the poor standard of design prevailing across the country, arguing that ‘The bad designing in the past of most things produced in New Zealand […] was the artist’s personal responsibility, although noting that ‘this position exists because of the shortsightedness of the majority of our industrialists.’ (Art in New Zealand, no. 3 (1943), p. 3).
Page from 'New Zealand postage stamp design' from the Arts Year Book, no 7,
edited by Eric Lee-Johnson (1951)
It was not a sophisticated analysis of the situation and took little account either of the realities of New Zealand’s trading position as a captive market for British manufacturers or, indeed, the realpolitik of a wartime economy. Lee-Johnson’s views on design shifted; in his last published essay on design matters, ‘New Zealand postage stamp design’, he recognised that his simplistic analysis of the design process was a more complex process and that good design was not just an issue for designers and manufacturers but also other involved parties such as consumers and, critically, the state. (Arts Year Book, no. 7 (1951), pp. 91-96).
Like that other Elam-trained designer, Jo Sinel, Eric Lee-Johnson can be counted among the first New Zealanders to be regarded as industrial designers yet, due primarily to limited opportunity, neither practiced in the country. Lee-Johnson’s impact on New Zealand design comes through his informed writing about the subject at a time few New Zealanders were even aware of the practice.