I recently interviewed Kenneth Grange for Australian magazine The Smith Journal. He was a pioneer of product design, responsible for styling everything from the Intercity 125 and the Anglepoise lamp to the Kenwood Chef and London’s black cab. Here’s the piece.
Formidable movie exec, godfather of the picture studio Samuel Goldwyn once defined luck as the sense to recognise an opportunity, together with the ability to take advantage of it.
In short, he didn’t really think there was such a thing. Another of his famous quips goes: “I was lucky. And the harder I worked, the luckier I got.”
The life of Kenneth Grange could perhaps be another one in the eye for those who believe field-changing careers can be fashioned out of little more than fluke and perseverance.
Reflecting on his work, the pioneering product designer says a number of times during our conversation “I did just get lucky, I suppose…” but he’s just being humble.
He may feel lucky to have achieved so much, but considering his success as a product designer over a career that began way back in 1958 and the impact his creations have had on everyday life for people all over the world, chance doesn’t come into it.
Anyone might get lucky and happen upon one great design in their lifetime. To design genuine icons such as the Kodak Instamatic camera, which transformed the fortunes of the company, the Kenwood Chef food mixer, virtually unchanged in almost 60 years, the Wilkinson Sword Protector razor, still unimproved, 35 years on, despite the manufacturer’s best efforts, the world-famous London Black Cab, class-leading Bowers & Wilkins speakers, classic Anglepoise lamps, a range of typewriters for Imperial, and the InterCity 125 train, which revolutionised high-speed rail travel the world over, suggests supernatural talent, above all else, is responsible for Kenneth’s all-encompassing hit rate. “Perhaps I just had a knack for being in the right place at the right time?” he offers, still downplaying a remarkable lifetime’s work.
After studying, then doing his National Service with the British Army in the late 1940s, Grange briefly worked as a set painter for the BBC before moving to an architects’ office where he was introduced to the concept of design, and most importantly, Modernism.
He went on to work on the Festival Of Britain in 1951, and seven years later set up his own company, Kenneth Grange Design having carved out a sufficient name for himself in the design world. Among his first commissions was the parking meter. Initially brought over from the U.S., they were deemed too ugly to appear on London streets by the gatekeepers of style, The Council Of Industrial Design, a government advisory body who demanded a reshape. Kenneth duly obliged and came up with a svelte, almost paddle-shaped object that immediately became part of the London landscape. It’s little wonder when film-makers want to recreate a period scene the meter is one of the first Swinging Sixties’ signifiers they go for.
If there is any element of luck in Kenneth’s career, it was early on, when he was charged with laying out Kodak’s display 1958 Brussels Expo. It was here a throwaway comment changed everything. “My boss asked how it had gone, so I said I was ‘pleased with the display, but the cameras were really bloody ugly’.” The remark eventually found its way back to Kodak and the following morning Kenneth received a call from the firm’s head of development saying “I understand you’re going to design a new camera for us?” Within a year the Kodak Brownie 44A was launched, to monumental success, while successors such as the 44B (1961), which introduced a focussing lens, variable aperture and two-speed shutter, the Brownie Vecta (1963), designed primarily to reduce camera shake, and the first Kodak Instamatic (1963), propelled Kodak’s worldwide sales to more than $4 billion. Between 1963 and 1970 alone, the company manufactured more than 50 million Instamatics.
Now 82, Kenneth resides just outside Exeter in England’s south west. He and wife April live in a barn they bought in 1996 and converted. As you might imagine, given Kenneth’s wildly creative mind and formidable practical skills, he did much of the renovation work himself, incorporating several outhouses he uses as a workshop, archive and storage for his beloved mini digger.
His love and understanding of design – from the smallest touch to the biggest idea – is present everywhere. The windows, for example, all open inwards to enable easy cleaning, while clever wooden panelling hides all cables, plumbing and electrical wiring. Guests to the house are greeted in the hallway by a bookcase shaped like a human body. In actual fact, it’s a coffin Kenneth designed for himself.
“When I pop my clogs, April will empty out the books and put me in it,” he says, enthusiastically showing off the build quality and standing in front of it to prove the accuracy of his creation’s measurements. “The lid is nailed to the back of the bookcase, ready and waiting to seal me in.” The bookshelf coffin stands next to a sweeping wooden spiral staircase, something of a masterpiece. It’s the only set of its kind in existence but, as is his way, Kenneth has worked out a formula so that the design can be altered to fit in any space, should a manufacturer wish to put them into production. “The stairs were originally only a temporary thing,” Kenneth admits. “I made a big hole in the floor so I could install an elevator, but since I had my new knees a few years ago I don’t need a lift and the stairs will do just fine.”
Above the dining table hangs one of Kenneth’s favourite design pieces, the Artichoke; a copper lampshade designed by Danish designer and great between-war thinker Poul Henningsen. “It’s an old design and sculpture, and extraordinarily clever. Unless you were to lie directly underneath it, there’s no way to view the lamp and see the bulb. It’s a stunning object.” Kenneth’s number one object, however, is a pair of Wilkinson secateurs designed by Hulme Chadwick in 1950. He still uses them most days and is constantly impressed by their functionality and elegance. “That’s an example of an un-improvable design,” he says, holding up the 62-year-old item, still shiny and razor sharp despite the heavy use. “Wilkinson never made a better pair; they’re such high quality and were absolutely built to last a lifetime.”
It’s a quality that exists within Kenneth’s work too. The mixer he designed for Kenwood in 1958, for example, while the many food processors, blenders and electric hand whisks he dreamed up for them will still be in operation around the world due to their somehow both contemporary and timeless design and high build quality. Perhaps above all aesthetics, Kenneth designed items intended to last a lifetime. Of course, not everything he designed turned to gold.
There was one occasion during Kenneth’s tenure as Kenwood’s lead designer when he unveiled a new blender to the board of directors. “This was at the end of the 60s; the pace of development was crazy. I was in their offices once a month with a new creation,” he begins. “Anyway, this blender was about as simple as it got; a base attached to a blade with a jug on top. I was more than happy with this design, so took my prototype to the meeting. Without any malice at all, one of the execs took one look at it and said ‘It looks like an elephant’s foot’.
He wasn’t being unkind, but the bloody thing became known within the company as the Elephant’s Foot and it was damned – it was never manufactured. If he hadn’t have said that, who knows? It might’ve been a big seller.”
Another doozie came while conducting business with Imperial typewriters in the States. The company had just been bought by New York-based firm Royal, who had won the contract to supply the U.S. Government with typewriters. It was a huge deal, and a great compliment to Kenneth when Royal said they were interested in rolling out his electric design across the country; hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people tapping away on something he’d designed.
The resulting meeting, on the New York’s Madison Avenue led to a particularly memorable day at the office. “It was exactly like Mad Men,” he says. “When that show started I thought Christ, this is like a re-run of my life. This office on was just like the inside of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce. I’m not exaggerating at all; the men wore sharp suits, the girls were beautiful, and everything was just like you see it on screen.
“I was in my late 30s by this point, and I was confident enough to be quite forceful in my opinions. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but I’d obviously been holding forth on my typewriter, probably being a real pain in the arse about some minor detail. I eventually lost the battle and it came time to leave the office for the day. I walked out with this guy who was exactly like Don Draper; immaculately tailored suit, smart overcoat, briefcase, and fedora with a small brim. We were walking down Madison Avenue into a gale-force wind, against the flow of people. The man from Royal turned to me and said ‘Ken, if you gotta have it, learn to love it.’ It was good natured and good humoured, and it was a genuine piece of advice from an older man who knew that world. Basically, stop fighting it, enjoy it and get over it.”
Thankfully Kenneth didn’t stick to this advice when it came to redesigning the iconic black cab for London Taxis International (LTI) in the mid ‘90s. Even though he came up against stern opposition from the company’s staff designers who, understandably, didn’t take kindly to “some ponce of a consultant” being brought in by the director and ruining their once-in-a-career chance to do something significant. “When I came along they were pretty far along with a cross between a Land Rover and a Ford Sierra. This department had been given a task and they’d come to life, after years and years of waiting for a chance to prove themselves. They had a prototype, detailed production plans, everything, but I knew immediately it was wrong and not what the company should be doing. I didn’t think their design served either of the Black Cab’s masters: the driver and the passenger. I told the boss what I thought and came up with a design of my own.”
As a result, the LTI staff actively hated him making things difficult, but his design for the TX1 was on the money; it was an instant hit with cabbies, Londoners and the millions of tourists that travel in them each year. In 2007 LTI rolled out the TX4 which features only minor changes to Kenneth’s original, 15 year old design. “If I’m in a cab it occasionally comes up that I was the man that designed them, and I always get a good response from the driver,” he says. “It’s yet to result in a free fare, but I’m very pleased by their appreciation.”
Back when Kenneth was an art student in the 40s, product design, while existing in the post-World War II boom time, wasn’t known as such. At Willesden College Of Arts, there were just two options available to aspirant artists, fine art and commercial art, which almost always led to sign-writing, or hand drawing the odd book jacket for a forward-thinking book publisher willing to take a chance on a recent graduate.
“Art school was primitive back then, but it was also a free-wheeling, liberal sort of place. We students benefitted greatly from it being the post-war time. Art college in 1946 was like a New Jerusalem; young men coming back from the war, looking for excitement.”
While it might not have been articulated at the time – this was stiff-upper-lip 40s Britain after all – people wanted vibrancy, colour and aesthetically pleasing things after the austerity of the war years. Material possessions as basic as bicycles were unobtainable luxuries for most, but these were optimistic times, full of hope and brimming with opportunity. Having seen such hardship, it’s understandable Kenneth takes a dim view of the disposability of today’s culture.
“Old farts like me talk romantically about that time, but it’s very difficult for young people to realise what it was like coming out of the war. And perhaps they never will. I hope not, but it saddens me that we could go to the local dump this morning and pick up a TV in working condition that someone had thrown out because they didn’t need it anymore. It’s an immature way of looking at things, and we get more immature the more money we have.”
Of course such a gifted eye for detail can’t be turned off, and Kenneth constantly sees things he’d like to improve. The door of the Aga in his kitchen is top of the list (“it’s bloody stupid, you can’t get hold of it properly”) and various garden tools have been modified to make them easier for someone of advanced years to use.
He says he’s constantly critical of badly made products, although with his wealth of experience in the industry, he all-too aware it’s the mechanics of business and the endless quest for profit that’s the cause flawed products, not bad design.
He enjoys the aesthetic appeal of Apple’s products, believing the Cupertino-based giant is the only technology firm in the world still interested in form as well as function, while former giants in the world of aesthetics such as Olivetti, Pirelli and Braun have been forced to abandon their particular visions of Modernism due to shifting priorities in the face of falling revenue.
“Apple products can be a bit too clever for their own good at times, though,” he adds. “I have a Mac Mini, and the on-and-off switch is on the back. Why? It just doesn’t make sense for everyday use. It’s approaching design art, of which I am very scornful, and it’s a betrayal of the high position occupied by Apple. But against what they’ve succeeded in doing, this is a small matter.”
Aside from Apple, modern design worries Kenneth. Or perhaps it’s modern production processes that worry him more. He takes a particularly dim view of the technology giants in the Far East who, in his view, settle on the most effective lowest common denominator, which is nearly always price, and build their product accordingly. It’s part of what Kenneth calls ‘The Chinese Phenomena’, where manufacturers are disinterested in aesthetic culture to the point they’re cynical, resentful even, of the West’s desire for the products they’re making.
“The consequence is, they’ll make whatever you want as long as you order enough of them, and they don’t give a fuck about what it’s like or how long it’s going to last,” he says. “That completely betrays a Western ideology of trying to make something better. It’s cost-driven rather than product-driven, but we can’t blame them. Ultimately the biggest villain in this scenario is the buyer. You should not be able to buy a 42” flat-screen TV for £300, but you can. We need to realise that if you can pay so little for an item like that, someone isn’t getting paid properly and it’s almost certainly not being made properly.”
With that, Kenneth’s off again, back to his workshop where he’s currently working on a sofa to match the ‘Edith’ armchair he designed for Hitch Mylius. “I don’t feel I’m responsible for anything I’ve done that’s been a success,” he says, finally, powering up a bandsaw. “I had the good fortune to be taken up by firms who had an ideology that chimed with my own.
“Classic designs come from a manufacturer having their own motives for wanting to make a superior, long-lasting product, and after some hard work what you’re left with is a remark about the time in which it was made.
“Or, as I said earlier, it just comes down to luck.”