A CHAMPION OF DESIGN

“…good design is not precious, arty or highfalutin…It is true that new styles not infrequently start in luxury markets…but mass production so spreads the cost that there is no reason why well-designed things should not be available for everyone to buy. The idea that only wealthy people like well-designed things is as false as that they are the only people to get pleasure from looking at flowers, listening to music, or reading Shaw. Equally false is the notion that because a thing is low in price it cannot be of good quality.”

Gordon Russell

DESIGN FOR ALL

When Gordon Russell returned from service in the field during the First World War he had a heightened awareness of the common man. This concern for Everyman translated itself into the desire to produce furniture not just for the wealthy but also for everyone to afford. It would mean he would break from the tenants of the Arts and Crafts movement, which had so influenced him as a young man and embrace the potential of the machine.

By 1929, he had handed over the role of designing to his brother, Dick Russell, a trained architect who introduced the clean lines of Modernism. Under Gordon’s management and Dick’s creative control the company started to develop well made and well designed things – things of quality – which were produced by machine to a considerable extent. This simple, modern, often low-cost unit furniture proved to be very popular and along with a lucrative contract from Murphy radios to create radio cabinets, saw the firm through the difficult years of the 1930’s depression. Indeed the experience of making radios for Murphy revolutionized the working methods of the company. Its tradition of craftsmanship and commitment to quality became wedded to high standards of engineering in wood. Not only were the cabinets enormously popular at the time they are now recognized as design ‘icons’.

DURING THE 1920S AND 1930S

During the 1920s and 1930s Gordon Russell became an articulate propagandist for good design and its impact on people’s quality of life. He understood that it was vital to educate not only the public but also the retailer and manufacturer to his way of thinking. Later, in his career as Director of the Council for Industrial Design, he devoted his life to that end.

In 1942 his vision for well-made, affordable, furniture was harnessed by the socialist Hugh Dalton, president of the Board of Trade, to join the Utility Furniture Advisory Committee. Given the escalating war damage there was a serious need for the state-controlled production of domestic furniture. Gordon saw it as an opportunity to break with the pre-1939, pseudo Victorian tradition of reproduction furniture and use the austerity and production constraints of war time Britain to introduce a less ornate, more honest and modern style of furniture, accessible to all.

BRITAIN CAN MAKE IT

After the war Gordon Russell continued to pursue the importance of good design, both within his own company in the form of simple, modern furniture but also in his role as Director of the Council for Industrial Design. In 1951 he was involved in overseeing the Festival of Britain, a celebration of British industry, which he felt marked an important turning point in the improvement of design and architecture in Britain. He had hoped that it would lead to a series of government-sponsored development to improve British industry but these never materialised. Undeterred he decided to open a Design Centre, a permanent exhibition of the best of British design and industry which would inspire and inform the public.

In 1956 the Design Centre was officially opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in the Haymarket. It quickly attracted a stream of visitors from all over the world and consolidated the Council’s strong international reputation. The Design Centre became the fountainhead of a host of new initiatives and a model for many design centres in other countries. Russell soon assumed the role of international ambassador, travelling the world promoting the best of British design. In 1962 he was awarded the Albert Gold Medal by the Royal Society of Arts for ‘services to industrial design’. The recipient the previous year had been Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.

Gordon Russell’s belief in the influence of good design on the human spirit continued throughout his career. His commitment to honest design, quality and detailing in the context of mass production, along with his passion for design education has influenced many designers, including Sir Terence Conran, who remarked that Gordon Russell was ‘one of those particularly English geniuses who are not given the full recognition they deserve.’. The impact of his vision is still felt in today’s vibrant British design industry and the public’s growing interest in design.

INTERVIEW: TERENCE CONRAN

Terence Conran, interviewed when he formally opened the Museum in April 2008, describes the many similarities between his ideas and enthusiasms, and those of Gordon Russell. He emphasizes that Gordon Russell was so much more than just a designer; he was interested in the product but also in the life that surrounded it – the garden, the food, the hotel keeping – all of what is now termed as lifestyle. Conran also enthuses on the importance of this Museum for continuing his interest in design education. Conveying the meaning of design, and the process of making things, to future generations.

FESTIVAL OF BRITAIN

For ambitious young designers in the post war years the Festival of Britain both focused the country’s attention on the quality of contemporary design, and gave a much needed impetus to creative confidence and opportunity. Trevor Chinn enthuses about the excitement of the Festival and Ray Leigh describes how it gave him the opportunity to begin working with the Russell family, initially for Dick Russell on the design of one of the Festival buildings.