Sunday, 7 September 2014

An incidental impetus?

Milner Gray (1899-1997), logo for the Society of Industrial Artists, about 1933
In April 1949 the New Zealand Listener published a short article by the poet, lecturer, textile printer, music critic and general gadfly A R D Fairburn entitled ‘Art and industry’. Seen from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, the article has good claim to represent a bit of a threshold moment in the history of design in New Zealand as it was probably the first time the subject of industrial design was raised in a popular forum, rather than in specialist publications such as Home & Building, The Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand or the recently launched New Zealand Design Review.
Probably the first popular discussion of industrial design in New Zealand. A R D Fairburn, 'Art and industry',
New Zealand Listener, 20: 513 (22 April 1949), p. 8
Fairburn’s article discussed a visit to New Zealand by the British industrial designer Milner Gray, then president of the Society of Industrial Artists, a design practitioner body formed in 1930 'to advance and protect the interests of [designers] and to raise the standard of [design] in [Britain]'. Between 28 March and 10 April 1949, under the aegis of the British Council – the propaganda arm of the British government, Gray delivered a series of lectures on aspects of industrial design to audiences in Auckland and Wellington. Fairburn’s article, while the only critical commentary, wasn’t the only published record of Gray’s New Zealand expedition. His itinerary was tracked in the newspapers – in the women’s columns (‘Housewives helped by good design’, Auckland Star (29 March 1949), p. 3.) – and abridged versions of his lectures were subsequently published in the Wellington-based Design Review and some months later in Modern Manufacturing and the New Zealand Manufacturer as well as in The Australian Artist; Gray's tour also encompassed Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney.
E Mervyn Taylor (1906-1964), cover of Design Review, 2:2 (August-September 1949). Gray's visit coincided with the Architectural Centre's commissioning Taylor to re-package the New Zealand Design Review. Taylor's cover design incorporates one of Gray's pre-war designs; the issue contained an abridged transcript of Gray's lecture 'Package design in Great Britain' 
These reports and transcripts were for some time the only published records of Gray’s fortnight-long visit. Notwithstanding the singularity of the event, Gray's foray into the Antipodes has been excised from his biographies as being of no relevance to his role in creating design as an identifiable practice. From a New Zealand perspective, the visit subsequently became something of an embarrassment and the presence of one of the key figures in British design circles, was, until recently, air-brushed from the history of design in New Zealand, possibly because it was considered a diversion from the emerging national design discourse. In part, this reflected political reality. Some seven months after Gray left for Sydney, a conservative National party government was elected. The new administration had no interest in design matters and withdrew the scant funds that had been previously made available in the fields both of research and promotion on the grounds that subsidising such activities was inappropriate in a country whose primary function was to export the barely processed products of grass and to import the manufactured commodities of the ‘mother’ country.
Gray's lecture 'The industrial design profession in Great Britain'was published in the winter 1949 edition of The Australian Artist, edited by Richard  Haughton James, the first president of the Melbourne-based practitioner body, the Society of Designers for Industry. Reference to Gray's text is made on the upper left of the cover
The idea of sending someone to the Antipodes to talk about design generally and British design specifically seems to have occurred to British Council in early 1948. Design was not an unknown field to the council. The influential secretary of its Fine Arts Committee until late 1947, Alfred Appleby Longdenhad been involved in a number of the British government’s design promotion initiatives since 1906; the committee's long-standing chairman was Eric McLagan, director of the Victoria & Albert Museum and, prior to the Second World War, a member of the Council for Art and Industry. However, the most notable exponent of design in the committee was the ubiquitous Kenneth Clark, formerly director of the National Gallery and an active member of the Board of Trade sub-committee that, in 1943, had recommended the formation of the Council of Industrial Design (CoID); the Council came into being in December 1944. Clark was, incidentally, from 1945-47, adviser to the Melbourne National Gallery of Victoria’s Felton Bequest and was a close friend of the recently appointed Herald Professor of Fine Art at the University of Melbourne, Joseph Burke – formerly private secretary to the British prime minister Clement Attlee – who had not only been involved in the formation of the CoID but was also acquainted with key members of a recently-established, design practitioner body, the Melbourne-based Society of Designers for Industry (SDI). 

In March 1948 Violet Merriman of the Lectures Department at the British Council, approached Cycill Tomrley, design advice officer at the CoID seeking advice as to who might be recruited as ‘a practical speaker with a knowledge of the distributive and selling side of consumer goods as well as the design side, so that he (sic) is equipped to inform and enlighten any sort of audience even the specialist trade audiences and students of design, rather than discuss the social and theoretical aspect of industrial design’ (University of Brighton Design Archives, 85/12, Memo from C Tomrley to M Hartland Thomas, 06 April 1948). After extended discussions with the CoID and having rejected a number of the proffered candidates – such as Bill Newman, editor of the retail trade journal Store – the British Council finally selected Gray.

Milner Gray (1899-1997) for A J Wilkinson Ltd, 'Bizarre for Clarice Cliff' earthenware plate, 1935.
Te Papa Tongarewa/National Museum of New Zealand. Gift of Walter Cook, 1992 (CG001946)
CC BY-NC-ND license
As a practicing designer, Gray was perhaps not the obvious candidate for a tour of the frontiers of what was still referred to as 'the Empire'. His urbanity and wit were qualities not usually held in high regarded in provincial circles, but he was an articulate speaker and an effective motivator. He had been the key figure not only in the establishment in the late 1920s of the Society of Industrial Artists (SIA), the most enduring design practitioner body in Britain but also in its post-war reconstruction. During the Second World War, Gray had been appointed head of the Exhibitions Branch and principal design adviser at the Ministry of Information. He also played a part in the formation of the CoID where he both acted as an advocate for design practitioners as well as contributing to the understanding of what design entailed amongst those directly responsible for its formation. In 1942, together with Misha Black, Marcus Brumwell and Herbert Read, he founded one of the most successful twentieth century British design consultancies, Design Research Unit.
Unidentified photographer, Meeting of the Design Research Unit's board of associated designers, March 1948. In what seems to be a parody of the iconography of the Christian 'last supper', Gray is seated third from the left
From M Cotton, Design Research Unit 1942-72 ([London]: Koenig Books, [2010]
British Council tours of the Antipodes – which began in 1946 following a change in government foreign policy – had hitherto focussed on exporting British cultural values: music, art, the theatre and literature. In 1947 the Old Vic Theatre Company, led by Lawrence Oliver and Vivien Leigh, and the Boyd Neel Orchestra toured Australia and New Zealand to considerable acclaim and profit. In 1948, the Council exhibited Henry Moore drawings and sculpture in the Australian state capitals – although not in New Zealand – again and surprisingly, to popular acclaim. This new proposal for a design-focussed tour with ‘a practical speaker’ was, as Merriman acknowledged ‘rather the opposite of what one would expect of the British Council’.  

The rationale behind the British Council's design tour is obscure but it is evident that it was not prompted by any specific recognition of an interest in design emanating from either Australia or New Zealand, notwithstanding the emergence of a modernist design discourse in both countries. While the British Council’s representative in Wellington, John Bostock, was undoubtedly aware of the activities of the Architectural Centre and its publication the New Zealand Design Review, this was not a factor in the Council’s decision. Moreover, the decision to add a New Zealand leg onto Gray's touring schedule seems to have resulted from concerns in the newly-established Wellington office of the British Council that New Zealand businesses and consumers were increasingly swayed by United States influences. In 1946 New Zealand negotiated a settlement of its Lend-Lease Agreement debts with the United States in a manner that ensured the acceded funds –  some USD4million –  remained in the country, being used to acquire property locally and to foster cultural initiatives such as the United States Foreign Information Service (later the United States Information Agency) and the Fulbright Programme. As in Europe and Japan, assimilation of United States technologies and management methods largely stemmed from local manufacturers, businessmen and, to a lesser extent, officials from government agencies.

While design had next to no profile in New Zealand at government level, the British post-war Labour government saw design as a critical component of the country's export-led economic recovery programme. As Stafford Cripps, president of the Board of Trade, declared in a speech to the SIA in December 1945 'The efficiency of our industries depends to a very great extent upon our combining the latest results of scientific and industrial research on the part of large and small firms alike with an attractive and suitable appearance and shape.' (S Cripps, 'The industrial designer', Democracy alive (London: Sedgwick & Jackson, 1946), p. 87). Cripps' vision did not sit well with British manufacturers who, rather than subscribing to this brave, new world, reverted to manufacturing the sort of thing they had produced prior to the war, employing the same outmoded processes in the expectation that their overseas markets were as conservative as their taste. In an effort to overcome this opposition to innovation, Cripps inaugurated a series of working parties formed of representatives from both employer and employee organisations. A part of their brief was to address the issue of design and its applicability to industry. In the case of the Pottery Working Party, this move failed to gain the support of both manufacturers and the unionised workforce; it was rejected out of hand. Designers, the Pottery Working Party argued, should, primarily, be industry-trained and, in any case, 'Creative designers are born, not made'. The government's industry-based Design Centre proposals were summarily dismissed as something that might be contemplated in the future. (Great Britain, Board of Trade, Working party reports: pottery (London: HMSO, 1946), p.23; p. 32.)
Reforming British industry or vindicating existing practices. Unidentified designer, cover of Great Britain, Board of Trade, Working party reports: pottery 
(London: HMSO, 1946) 
Charged with articulating the government line, the CoID responded to the snub. Writing in the trade journal British Industries, its newly appointed director Gordon Russell asserted 'The Council is most anxious to be of service to industry and there is little doubt that there are many firms whose design standards are not good enough to maintain sales in the face of real competition. I was told the other day of a case in New Zealand where a consignment of a certain British commodity was being jobbed off at about 50 per cent of the ceiling price because the standard of design was low.' (G Russell, 'Britain a pioneer in design', British Industries, 35:5 (May 1948), p. 135.) Just as the success of the British fine arts pavilion at the Christchurch New Zealand International Exhibition of 1906-07 had sparked a British government design initiative - the formation of the Exhibitions Branch of the Board of Trade, so reports of trading failures in New Zealand seem to have prompted the British Council into entering into the field of design promotion.

In the eyes of the British Council Gray's fortnight in New Zealand passed off satisfactorily, almost successfully. In the afterglow, Fairburn declared that Gray had 'done more, perhaps, than any other man to raise the profession of industrial designing to its present high status', an observation that suggests he had been speaking to someone with direct experience of Gray's activities in the SIA - possibly his friend Eric Lee-Johnson. In both Auckland and Wellington Gray delivered four carefully scripted lectures to audiences of between 150 and 200 persons in Auckland and around 100 in Wellington, as well as undertaking radio interviews in both cities. Throughout his lectures Gray sought to counteract the perception that British design was deficient although he allowed that 'The design of cheap mass-produced articles is still, with few exceptions, as unsatisfactory in Great Britain as in most countries.' The problem, Gray asserted, lay both with manufacturers and designers and he argued that 'the approach to industrial design must be a synthesis of the three ideals of form and function, sales appeal and economic production–fitness for purpose, design for selling, and design for making.' (M Gray, 'Design in everyday life', New Zealand Design Review, 2:1 (June-July 1949), p. 10).
E Mervyn Taylor (1906-1964), cover of New Zealand Design Review, 2:1 (June-July 1949). The most tangible record of Gray's visit was the 'Industrial Design Number' dedicated issue of the Design Review, which reproduced abridged transcripts of two of Gray's lectures.
New Zealand Electronic Text Collection 
But if the British Council was hoping that Gray's tour might prompt a resurgence of faith in British manufactured commodities they were sadly mistaken. Reporting on Gray's visit Bostock observed that 'owing to the pressure of other business, it was impossible for the Minister of Education and for the Minister of Industries and Commerce to meet Mr Gray'. Instead he was lunched by the governor general, Bernard Freyberg, attended 'a small cocktail party given by Mr Vernon Brown, architect and lecturer at the [Auckland] University [College], and attended by representatives of the University [...] and the Auckland Manufacturers' Association.' A meeting with members of the Manufacturers' Research Committee of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research led to a request for 'a small travelling Exhibition to illustrate good design'. Bostock speculated that Gray's tour might prompt the formation of a local 'Society of Industrial Artists, whose members would initially be drawn from the fields of Architecture and Art, there being no recognised Industrial Design Specialists as yet in this country.' Such a society, he opined, would probably 'reduce the "piracy" of designs which is at present widespread here.' (National Archives of the United Kingdom, BW83/9, Letter from J Bostock to Lectures Department, 12 April 1949).

Bostock's prognostication as to the incidental impetus Gray's visit might have on New Zealand design proved wrong. By the end of 1949 the Auckland Design Guild, 'an association providing for the exchange of ideas on the arts and sciences connected with design', which had been established in the July following Gray's visit had folded on unrecognised ideological grounds; the incoming government had withdrawn the small subsidy provided to the Architectural Centre for publication of the Design Review; and New Zealand manufacturing companies, notably the newly established Crown Lynn brand, continued to pirate imperfect imitations of British commodities. Moreover, the production standards of British manufactures continued to be criticised: in July 1952 a National party backbencher, T P Shand, was moved to comment in the House of Representatives about the quality of imported British goods, declaring that 'I say to the English manufacturer and his agent in New Zealand that they are doing a very bad turn when they put rubbish on the market [...] we have had some shocking rubbish by way of English crockery in the last three or four years [...] I think it fair to say the the New Zealand manufacturers of crockery got blamed for some of it' (NZPD, vol. 297, (June- August 1952), pp. 86-87). By identifying the connection between manufacturer and importer, Shand got it right. The problem with British manufactures wasn't the deficiency of British design, but rather a deficiency in what was despatched to this, the least critical of consumer markets; Gray's 'cheap mass-produced articles', invariably retailed in New Zealand at highly inflated prices

In his post-visit report to the British Council, Gray was somewhat less sanguine than Bostock in his opinions, observing that 'No Australasian style of design in mass-produced goods has yet evolved, and in most cases it is evident that little or no thought has been given to the subject. There are few competent designers practicing in either Australia or New Zealand, and the present tendency is for those of outstanding ability to emigrate to the UK or USA, where greater opportunities are offered.' (National Archives of the United Kingdom, BW83/9, Memorandum from M Gray to the British Council, 21 April 1949). The British Council heeded Gray's advice; industrial design was subsequently deemed a subject best ignored when considering tours of New Zealand. It would take the best part of a decade before steps were taken to invest design with an independent institutional profile in New Zealand.