guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 12 October 2010 15.47 BST
We use the word "austerity" so freely these days that we could be forgiven for forgetting that there was an original "age of austerity". The immediate postwar years may be best remembered for rationing and queues, but as the nation geared up for reconstruction, British design was coming into its own. One firm in particular stands out: the Design Research Unit. It was the first multidisciplinary design agency in the country, working across architecture, products and graphic design – a feat that is still rare today. And although you may not have heard of the DRU, its work will be familiar: it includes design items as various as the British Rail logo, every street sign in central London, seat covers on the District line of the tube and hundreds of pub signs across the country. In short, the design that has helped generations of Britons get to work, steered them through the city streets, and then pointed them towards an after-hours pint. At last, courtesy of the Cubitt Gallery in London, the firm that defined British design for three decades is getting a reappraisal.
The DRU was formed in 1943 by the poet and art critic Herbert Read with the architect Misha Black and the graphic designer Milner Gray. It was a versatile, if unlikely, outfit. But, as one of the agency's founding documents claims: "Like every aspect of modern industry, design should be a co-operative activity." The group's aim was not just to bring "art and industry" together – along the lines of Read's famous 1934 book of that name – but to produce design that was for everyone. For all the privations of postwar Britain, this was a profoundly optimistic time, when the Labour party was forging the National Health Service and the welfare state; and when everyone, designers included, were desperate to break with the past.
In design, those ambitions came to a head in 1951's Festival of Britain. The idea of celebrating the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition had been in the air for some time. In 1946 Misha Black drew a fantastical plan for the South Bank site, exhibited at the Cubitt, that makes it look like the Crystal Palace reinterpreted by the creators of The Jetsons. It's a somewhat tongue-in-cheek proposal, you suspect, yet it evokes a time when London was prepared to dream. In the end, Black was one of the co-ordinating architects for the (much more sensible) Festival, and his patch included the Dome of Discovery – the radically modern but short-lived precursor to the Millennium Dome, in which the DRU designed an exhibition celebrating British scientific and creative discoveries.
Clifford Hatts was drafted fresh out of the Royal College of Art in 1949 to work on the exhibition. He recalls that he and his DRU colleagues were divvied up into "flat boys", or graphic artists, and "round boys", the architects and product designers. "Our brief was exactly what it said on the tin: present British discovery in a simple, straightforward way," Hatts, now 88, told me. He decided not to visit the Millennium Dome 50 years later because, with its vague exhibition, it seemed to lack the sense of purpose of its predecessor. "Design was written in big letters in those days – it was all about turning our backs on the war."
While Black was handling the architecture and product side of the business, Milner Gray was revolutionising British corporate identity (in fact, Gray has been attributed with coining the term "corporate identity", which superseded the more limited notion of "house style"). Gray's concept of the total brand makeover was put to fullest effect for the Watney Mann brewery in the 50s and 60s. At least 400 London pubs were destroyed during the blitz – a quarter of them owned by Watneys – and from the mid 50s they were being rebuilt in cheap modern fashion, many of them for new housing estates. Watneys commissioned DRU to provide a coherent look for its premises across south-east England, and Gray delivered in a manner that was to influence pub signage for the next two decades.
Gray wanted to maintain the idea of a local pub with its own style and yet, as a moderniser, he believed in a degree of standardisation. So he devised five "architectural style groups" that gave a modern red-brick pub (like the Cock & Lion on Wigmore Street) appropriate lettering distinct from that of a stuccoed-pilaster pub (like The Prince Alfred in Fulham). The new pubs used what is known as a slab serif font – bold and modern, yet retaining the traditional tails on the letters. This was among the first signage to use pressure-formed plastic, which was soon to become a high-street craze.
For me, the Watneys signage is some of the most evocative of DRU's work, not because I ever spent much time in Watneys pubs, but precisely because I didn't. By the time I was of drinking age they had lost their cutting edge. I have no idea whether I'm recalling Watneys pubs or others that had jumped on the plastic signage bandwagon in the 60s, but by the 80s and 90s such signs just looked cheap and depressing – their whites and yellows faded and grimy. Worse, they looked inauthentic, which is ironic for such a quintessentially British branding effort. Not many survive.
DRU provided the branding for all sorts of companies, from former chemicals giant ICI to Ilford photographic materials, but no doubt its most famous logo was for British Rail. In 1965 British Railways, as it was then known, had a makeover and DRU provided its soon-to-be-ubiquitous mark. The logo, evoking two train tracks with arrows pointing in opposite directions, was designed by a young lettering artist on the tube to work. "It was back-of-the-envelope stuff – that old cliche," recalls Gerry Barney. It was very much in keeping with the fashion at the time, particularly in Swiss and German graphic design, for pictograms. Naturally the press ridiculed it – "They said British Rail didn't know whether it was coming or going" – but it remains a classic, and despite the privatisation of the railways is still used on every station platform.
A name change wasn't in the original brief, but Gray convinced British Railways that "British Rail" was catchier – a move that prefigured the more interventionist role that design agencies play these days. Gray, who used to carry a false moustache in his pocket in case meetings got boring, and who used to persuade his young protege to join him for a sly gin and tonic in his office (topped up, in his case, with ginger ale in order to make it seem like whisky, and thus not offend distillery clients), seems to have operated with all the swagger of a Mad Men executive – with a requisite dash of British eccentricity. Having founded the first design consultancy in the UK in 1934, he is remembered by Barney as "one of the gods".
As well as venerable pioneers such as Gray, the DRU also fostered a generation with which we are much more familiar. Richard Rogers became an associate architect there, along with his then-wife Su, after they broke off their partnership with Norman Foster. In fact, the Rogerses designed the Unit's offices in Southwark – a highly modern roof extension they described as a "zip-up structure", which looked like the top of a Routemaster bus. It is still there, on Aybrook Street, albeit now painted a modest grey rather than that hot hue of 1972, orange.
Although the DRU produced some noteworthy buildings, including the small mammal house at London Zoo, it is the graphic identities that were most influential. The evidence of it is strewn across Britain, and in particular London. DRU's street signs have become graphic shorthand for the capital, while Victoria line platforms retain the tiled artworks that locate them solidly in the late 60s. These details are so implicit in the scenography of Britain that we barely notice them. It's wonderful to be taken back to their inception and to meet the designers who set the standard.
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