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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

A Review of Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern at the Design Museum

Reflections and highlights from a retrospective Design Museum exhibition on Kenneth Grange’s extraordinary career, during which he designed some of Britain’s most iconic and beloved objects.

Written by Caitlin Sinclair

1. Kenneth Grange by Sophia O'Connor
Kenneth Grange exhibition by Sophia O’Connor.

Art galleries can sometimes make one feel a little ill at ease, whether it’s the worry that you will somehow damage the pristine white walls and gleaming floor tiles, or that you simply won’t understand the content of the exhibition, what it all means. Entering the Kenneth Grange exhibition at London’s Design Museum though, visitors looked instantly at home.

15. Kenneth Grange by Sarah Jayne
Kenneth Grange by Sarah Jayne Morris.

Mostly, this is because Kenneth Grange’s work is so recognisable that it puts people at ease. We are relieved to find things we know: Wilkinson Sword razors, a Kenwood mixer, Parker pens, Kodak cameras, Thermos flasks, the black London taxi and red post box. This is a useful starting point from which to ask people of all backgrounds – creative or not – to consider what made these products so well-used and enjoyed, what design elements were required to achieve commercial success, and what kind of principles Kenneth Grange followed to produce a body of work which varied enormously in its subject matter, but was broadly consistent in its simple, understated character.

2. London taxi cab by Luke Hayes
3. Pens by Luke Hayes
Photography by Luke Hayes.

Stepping in to what sometimes felt like a homewares store, it quickly seemed that Kenneth Grange was concerned to create products which were useful to people. This sounds obvious, but it is perhaps one of the reasons the general public is so familiar with his work. Only a few of the products on show were unrealised, and Grange is himself quoted in the exhibition, saying ‘I cannot in my heart go with something if it cannot be a commercial success, it has got to sell.’ And in order to sell, Grange designed his products to fit with the times, demonstrated particularly with his range of Wilkinson Sword razors, which he developed over decades according to ergonomic principles and blade technology. He focused on ensuring clients were happy by showing them models and prototypes, and doing extensive testing. For example, we learn that he came up with the first Kenwood Chef design in only four days and had half a model ready to explain how it worked.

4. Kenwood mixers by Caitlin Sinclair
5. Kenwood mixer by Caitlin Sinclair
6. Wilkinson Sword razors by Caitlin Sinclair
Photography by Caitlin Sinclair.

This exhibition really excelled at telling the story of Kenneth Grange’s life, from his youth at the Willesden School of Arts and Crafts in the 1940s, his early career working for various architects including Gordon & Ursula Bowyer and Jack Howe, starting his own company, Kenneth Grange Design in 1956, and later co-founding the Pentagram consultancy in 1972. His products were displayed chronologically so that we gained a sense of Grange’s career through the years, and there were helpful contextual notes to explain how his work fit in to larger developments within the post war design industry and modernism movement.

7. Irons by Luke Hayes
Photography by Luke Hayes.

8. Thermos flasks by Caitlin Sinclair
9. Cameras by Caitlin Sinclair
10. Reuters computer by Caitlin Sinclair
11. Men's toiletries by Caitlin Sinclair
Photography by Caitlin Sinclair.

Most fascinating were the glimpses we received into Kenneth Grange’s work ethic and personality, which gave an added depth to the content on display. For instance, we were told how he created a plasticine model for the UK’s first 1960 parking meter while on honeymoon, and that when working on the High Speed InterCity 125 train, he was merely asked to design the exterior decoration but instead overhauled the train’s entire body and set a world speed record.

12. Parking meter by Caitlin Sinclair
13. Train by Caitlin Sinclair
Photography by Caitlin Sinclair.

Amongst the more popular pieces, some genius, lesser-known gems spoke of Kenneth Grange’s playfulness, including:

• A 1965 Varaflame Comet lighter, with a special surface produced by placing mouldings in a drum with walnut shells, meaning that the plastic absorbed the shell oil and didn’t reveal fingerprints.

• The 1971 Design Council award-winning Variset hat and coat hooks, where you can adjust the number and type of coat hooks on display, and slide trousers out easily through a clever gap in the hanger’s corner.

• The 1973 sherry bottle which makes a glugging noise when pouring, a project Grange completed with graphic designer Alan Fletcher.

14. Collarless shirt by Caitlin Sinclair
• A smart, collarless shirt designed with Margaret Howell.

• The delightful mustard-coloured Edith Chair for the elderly, which really could be perfect for all-ages sitting.

16. Really useful bookcase by Caitlin Sinclair
• A 2002 Really useful bookcase, which doubles as a coffin – quite morbid, but hugely practical.

Overall, Making Britain Modern worked brilliantly because it mimicked the same philosophy applied by Kenneth Grange to his products, making art gallery going a friendly experience, and rather a lot of fun.

Kenneth Grange – Making Britain Modern closed at the Design Museum on 30 October 2011.

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