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DIA Nothing Need be Ugly Chapter 1 - Official Support and Initial Successes

DIA Nothing Need be Ugly Chapter 1 - Official Support and Initial Successes imageDIA Nothing Need be Ugly Chapter 1 - Official Support and Initial Successes image
What is needed at the present time is the gathering together of all the several interests concerned with industrial production into a closer association; an association of manufacturers, designers, distributors, economists and critics. It is, therefore, proposed to found a DESIGN & INDUSTRIES ASSOCIATION which shall aim at closer contact between the branches of production and distribution and.... explain its aims and ideals.... to the public. We ought to obtain far greater results from our own originality and initiative than we have done in the past. We must learn to see the value of our own ideas before they are reflected back on us from the Continent.

These words were printed in “A PROPOSAL FOR THE FOUNDATION OF THE DESIGN & INDUSTRIES ASSOCIATION", distributed to businessmen who visited the special exhibition of German goods of successful design at the Goldsmith’s Hall in London in March 1915. It appeared under the names of an Acting Committee: Cecil C Brewer, Ambrose Heal, F Ernest Jackson, J H Mason, Harry H Peach, Hamilton T Smith and Harold Stabler. Two months later, in May 1915, at an inaugural public meeting at the Great Eastern Hotel with Lord Aberconway in the chair, the Design & Industries Association was established. By June there were 78 members; by the end of the year, 200. ’Entirely practical’ said The Times, ’not vaguely artistic’. The Athenaeum wrote: ’We welcome the DIA because of its sanity and the sweep of its operations’. Over-optimistically it added, ’it is this spirit of co-operation towards a common end which will be the salvation, not only of our economic system, but also of our whole national life’. Alas, salvation is still in the future.

The inaugural meeting was not, of course, achieved without a great deal of effort. Disquiet had been growing for many years over the separation of the Arts and Crafts from the increasingly mass produced goods which appeared in the shops. Even the idealist William Morris, for all his socialist views, had discovered that his carefully designed, craft-made artifacts could only be bought to satisfy the ’swinish luxury of the rich’. The failure of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition of 1912 accentuated the demands of the younger members of the movement for a new approach. The year before, C R Ashbee, architect, town planner and leader of the Guild of Handicrafts which migrated from Toynbee Hall in London to Chipping Campden in rural Gloucestershire, was already having doubts. ’Modern civilization rests on machinery’ he wrote, ’and no system for the endowment or encouragement or the teaching of arts can be sound that does not recognise this’. As for the Arts and Crafts movement: ‘its growth has been arrested for the last ten years in the country of its birth. The principles of the movement are now more consistently and logically studied in Germany and America’.

The Germans were particularly alert to the progress of English architecture and design. Hermann Muthesius had been attached to the German Embassy in London for several years about the turn of the century, making an official study of English housing. In 1903, he returned to Germany and next year published the first of three volumes of’ Das Englische Haus, one of the influential works which, as the DIA prospectus said, ’reflected back on us from the continent’. Manufacturers in Germany were quick to learn. A year later, a Dresden exhibition included furniture specially designed for mass production. In 1907, again at the instigation of Muthesius, the German Werkbund came into being, including in its membership (just as the DIA would do eight years later) manufacturers, architects, artists and interested laymen.

The catalytic event in the establishment of the DIA was, in fact, the Werkbund exhibition of 1914 at Cologne. The Werkbund’s acceptance of the need to design for mass production techniques was evident. Two exhibits in particular – the model factory designed by Walter Gropius and the Glass House of Bruno Taut revealed a totally new concept. Harry Peach (of Dryad in Leicester), Harold Stabler (silversmith and sometime director of the Poole Pottery firm of Carter Stabler & Adams), and Ernest Jackson, the artist, had been discussing the possibility of setting up a similar organisation to the Werkbund in England. Harry Peach went to the Cologne exhibition with Ambrose Heal and Cecil Brewer and returned home determined and enthusiastic.

The working committee met in the offices of Smith & Brewer at 6 Queen’s Square. Then, as now, it also housed the headquarters of the Art Workers’ Guild. The development from the Arts and Crafts movement was clear. It became the DIA headquarters until 1939. (Incidentally, Smith R Brewer were the architects of Heals’ new shop of 1916 in Tottenham Court Road – a building which retains its distinctive efficiency nearly 70 years later.)

By this time, the First World War had broken out. Alongside the appalling battles of flesh and blood, the barbed wire and machine guns in Flanders, the commercial struggle between Britain and Germany continued. The blockade gave Britain opportunities its industries might exploit. The Board of Trade organised exhibitions of enemy goods which British businessmen were urged to copy. Mostly they were chosen for their economical production. (Cheapness and shoddiness is an unkind description). One of the examples held up was a penknife which sold for a penny. The quality of their design was ignored.

The working committee seized on the deficiency. It set itself a first task of preparing a memorandum urging the promotion of an exhibition of enemy goods selected simply for the excellence of their design. The memorandum was to be sent to the Permanent Secretaries of the Board of Trade and the Board of Education and the Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. It was delivered in November 1914.

The signatories were Lord Aberconway, chairman of the Metropolitan Railway, Kenneth Anderson of the Oriental Steam Navigation Company, Frank Brangwyn, the artist, Fred Burridge, Principal of’ the Central School, B J Fletcher, Principal of the Leicester School of Art, St John Hornby of W. H. Smith and Imprint, John Marshall of Marshall & Snelgrove, James Morton of Sundour Fabrics, Frank Pick of the London Underground, Gordon Selfridge, Frank Warner, the silk manufacturer and H G Wells. It also carried the signatures of the seven members of the working committee. Very quickly, the committee was invited to a meeting with Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith and Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith, the permanent secretary of the Board of Trade and the director of the V & A.

The memorandum was approved. Not surprisingly. Much of the content has a topical ring today. ‘The remarkable expansion in German trade.... has resulted from untiring efforts which the Germans have made to improve the quality and design of their work’. And later on: ’In England.... commerce and art education remain two separate unyielding and opposing activities. This condition makes for a sterility of education and the degradation of commerce. It is desirable, above all things, to bring the two into true relationship so that education may become a preparation for commerce, and commerce the fulfillment of education.’

Finally, the memorandum offered ‘any assistance we might be able to render’ and added, apparently as an afterthought, ‘encouragement could be given to the formation of a Society analagous to the Deutsche Werkbund.’ And so it was.

The exhibition was held at the Goldsmiths’ Hall in March 1915, and with the approval of all concerned, it was used as a recruiting ground for the projected Design & Industries Association. Along with the official publications at the Goldsmiths’ Hall was first of the series of DIA pamphlets: Desiqn and Industry: a proposal for the foundation of a Design & Industries Association.

It was the year the Lusitania was sunk, the year of the landings in Gallipoli, of the Rupert Brooke, the year which saw the screening of D W Griffiths’ film: ‘Intolerance’.

The DIA aimed to encourage ‘a more intelligent demand amongst the public for what is best and soundest in design’. It insisted that ‘machine work may be made beautiful by appropriate handling’ and that ‘many machine processes tend to certain qualities of their own’. It stressed the continental influence of the English Arts and Crafts movement, especially on the German type founders. (Edward Johnston, whose type face for the London Underground is still in use today, had worked for Count Kessler’s Press.) Design, it said, in its restrained and elegantly reticent style of printing, was too often thought of as an inexplicable mystery; it should be ‘just the appropriate shaping and finish for the thing required.’ Manufacturers puzzled over what would sell. They should ask rather ‘what is the best that can be done for a given price’ and the question of design would be at least simplified. Half a century later, the managing director of a company producing consumer durables summarised an intelligent businessman’s concern when he declared that ‘every design improvement should be a cost reduction; every cost reduction must show a design improvement.’

By the time of the Exhibition, committee-member Hamilton T Smith wrote in the 1951 Yearbook, ‘We seven had gathered a small following of like-minded men and women, and, under the aegis of the Board of Trade, the whole strength of the embryo DIA proceeded to comb the shops of London, and to ransack their own homes, for well-designed German and Austrian goods. Harry Peach lent a number of exhibits including a collection of finely printed German books and pamphlets.’

Perhaps war gives an impetus to enthusiasm. The DIA was inaugurated in May and by October 1915 was mounting the first of its own exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery. Design and Workmanship in Print was composed largely of commercial work, though the book-work of a number of the private presses was quite properly represented. There were posters by Frank Brangwyn, Fred Taylor and Toulouse-Lautrec, book illustrations and ’Folio pages in simple type’. The Curwen Press, the Westminster Press and the Baynard Press were well represented.

The exhibition was a success. From Whitechapel it went to the Art Galleries of Liverpool, Leicester, Leeds, Edinburgh and many other towns. With additions and revisions, it toured South Africa. In London 30,000 people visited the exhihition between 13th October and 24th November. This first public manifestation probably did more than any other single activity to establish the DIA’s reputation.

But it was not unique. Before the DIA was formally inaugurated the committee reprinted and published an article from the January 1913 issue of Imprint called ‘Art and Workmanship’ by W R Lethaby. Professor William Richard Lethaby was the Principal of the Central School. His article anticipated DIA policy by a couple of years. ’Art’, he wrote ‘may be thought of as the well-doing of what needs doing. Art is the humanity put into workmanship; the rest is slavery.’ Lethaby became the guru, the philosopher-figure of the Association. Quite properly there is a plaque commemorating him on the house he occupied in Calthorpe Street in London. His admiration of William Morris, his clear lucid prose and firm liberal-mindedness set the tone of the membership the DIA attracted. Some were Liberals, many were gentle socialists, some were pinkish (or should it be ‘wet’) Tories. They all felt the need for both industry and designers to be motivated, not merely by the pursuit of commercial profit but by some sense of social purpose and responsibility to provide consumers with well-designed and well-made products.

Art and Workmanship was not the only DIA publication of 1915. Design & Industry was produced for the Goldsmith’s Hall Exhibition. A New Body with New Aims included reprints of press comments, especially articles by A Clutton Brock in The Times. There was as a leaflet Aims & Methods, followed in November by Rules and Aims to which was added the list of members, then 200.

The last event of the DIA’s first year was a conference of members, ‘certain prominent Art Workers’ and distributors in mid-December. Plans were made then for a further meeting at which manufacturers and ‘representatives of labour’ were to be present.

As the war ground on, and casualties mounted, the New Body could feel satisfied that its New Aims had been well established. Despite the distractions that the Great War amply provided, it had found a response from enough very dedicated people to ensure its future.