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This article was written on 30 Oct 2014, and is filled under AGA History, Rayburn History.

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The 1951 Design Congress

The revival of civil production post war was a critical period in British economic history. The ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition in 1946 was part of a series of initiatives which highlighted the importance of manufacturing to the economy. The need to include design as key component of the recipe to create growth was a major theme of the period.

The Council for Industrial Design had been pre-war a force in seeking to establish Britain as an industrial design hub. With the founding of the Design Council providing a Government-led initiative in 1944, the design agenda was being given particular force. A ‘Design Congress’ was held at The Royal College of Art in London in 1951. The conclusions were that design was critical to industrial success – a proposition which then and now requires constant reinforcement. W.T.Wren as one of the speakers produced a paper which highlighted his conclusion that design was a Board issue and needed championing from that level. He gave the AGA cooker as a positive example to show what a multi-disciplinary team could achieve, with appropriate backing for the technical needs of the business from the Board.

I am going to reveal some lines from the papers on ‘Designs as responsibility of high management’ which was the topic of the congress. I am able to share these extracts thanks to the kind support of the Design Archives Brighton.

Design in London Transport
By the Hon. Lord Latham

Unless someone at or near the top of an industry has the faith, the vision and the power to set a standard for those below to follow and live up to, those who, as we must always remember, actually do the work cannot be expected to create it of their own accord. And certainly it cannot merely evolve or create itself. On the contrary, there are far too many examples of how lack of enthusiasm for design at the highest levels results in apathy at all levels and an increasing deterioration in standards of design throughout the undertaking.

Paper by W.T.Wren
Director Allied Ironfounders
Managing Director, AGA Heat

Having noted the names of others who have prepared for this Congress and recognising the success of organisations they must be proud to represent here, it seems to me unlikely that any of them would suggest that design is anything but the responsibility of higher management, and that it is clear beyond doubt that contemporary industrial enterprise cannot remain successful if it ignores the importance of design.

Whilst it may be true to say that industry has been responsible for a great deal of shocking bad taste in design, it has been responsible for a great deal of excellent design: designs which have sprung from the minds and hands of men completely lacking in the skill, training and experience attributed today as essential to the top flight figures in this rising art or science of industrial design. The beauty and competence of their work came from that innate sense of form and shape inherent in the first-class engineer and craftsman, and I believe that nothing but good will come from the cause of good design , which we now foster, if from time to time we remind ourselves, and all industry, of the good old designs as well as the good new ones.

There is a close affinity between industrial design and advertising and marketing. The advertisement is a job of highly skilled professional men whose experience has taught them all the ways of making the message memorable or noticeable in some way or another. And so I think it is with the designer, especially the outside professional consultant. Like the advertising agent, he works from a vast fund of knowledge and experience extending over many and varied industries.

Design should be the responsibility of top management is that only from that level can many of the difficulties that design will encounter ’down the line’ be overcome.

Employment of industrial designers

Some industries, especially the younger ones in the field of plastics, radio, aircraft and modern transport are possibly more ready to embrace the work of industrial designers; but so are some of the older industries such as ironfounding, and I am proud to say that in 1937 the company I represent were among the first in this country to employ the services of a designer of international repute, Mr. Raymond Loewy.

The occasion was when he first opened an office in London and appointed a young American, Carl Otto, as his London man. We asked Otto to work with us n a new design for a slow combustion heating stove, hundreds of thousands of which exist in this country. The result of his work was considered so successful that when the product was manufactured we named it the OTTO stove; since then it has proved one of the most popular and successful designs in the country.

Stove_Otto_AGA

When it was first costed we found the design imposed quality in manufacture which meant it would have to be sold at a price higher than that which my company considered possible for previous stoves. Fortunately by Board agreed that the new product could be backed up by extensive advertising. Today, nearly 14 years later we have asked Mr.Otto to work with us again on another new heating stove, and may I indicate here that even industrial designers have a sense of humour, because he said ‘’Having been named after the original Otto Stove,
I am very happy to accept the commission’’.

During the last few months we again employed the services of Raymond Loewy Associates and have produced a new design of domestic gas cooker, which they proudly claim to be the most expensive gas cooker in Britain today. It is important perhaps to interject at this point the thought that there is always a market for the best of its kind.

In contrast to these particular design products mentioned, the AGA cooker which for twenty years has deservedly, I think, earned the praises of those competent to express opinions on design, has never had the hand of a professional designer upon it. Possibly in this case the original design of the cooker itself was such in its pure functionalism and simplicity that the action of clothing it automatically became simple and right.

Many times during the past twenty years it has been suggested we should bring out a new appearance for AGA and (falling into the trap of jargon) give it a ‘’new look’’. We have spent time, and bought advice and designs and made a number of prototypes , but despite our eagerness always to press on this field, we have rightly abandoned them all because we believe that no design should be changed for the sake of change. May I again quote Carl Otto. Who worked with us on this particular AGA project as saying on one occasion: ‘The darned thing looks like the Bank of England, you charge a lot for it, who not leave it alone?’’.

With the framing and operation of a design policy, it is important to have the courage to begin and to know when, how and where to stop!

You can download the full booklet which celebrates the 70th birthday of the Design Council from here:

AGA and The Design Council 

AGAandTheDesignCouncil

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