Achieving the right balance between form and function has defined the work of Kenneth Grange, who has been responsible for some of the UK’s most distinctive industrial designs. Jon Excell reports.

Kenneth Grange’s CV reads like a list of iconic British products. During a career spanning half a century he has designed the UK’s first parking meters, the Kodak Instamatic, the Kenwood Chef, razors for Wilkinson Sword, typewriters, loudspeakers, Anglepoise lamps, Parker pens, London taxi-cabs, and — arguably his crowning glory — the distinctive nose cone of the Inter-City 125. It is fair to say that few industrial designers have influenced so many areas of our lives.

Talking to The Engineer from his Devon-based workshop, Grange reflected on a career that began when he decided to study commercial art — a forerunner to graphic design — at the Willesden School of Arts and Crafts, London in 1944.

Following National Service, during which he trained as a technical draftsman, Grange freelanced for a number of architectural firms before founding his own design company in 1958.

His first big job, which set the tone for the rest of his career, came about when the Council of Industrial Design (now the Design Council) asked him to design the UK’s first paid parking meter. The council, which had the power of veto over everything that went on in the UK’s streets, thought the US version too ugly and Grange rose to the challenge.

Although parking meters have now largely been replaced with pay and display machines, his teardrop-shaped design was an instant classic. Grange suggested that the top-down approach to aesthetics espoused by the Design Council may now be making a belated comeback.

Grange has garnered a lifetime of awards and the unbridled respect of his peers with a design philosophy that has consistently struck just the right balance between form and function.

He has achieved this balance, he explained, through an unending and meaningful dialogue with everyone involved in bringing a product to market. ‘I’ve always felt that a designer is only as good as the team he has the fortune to join and that team is a three-cornered affair, including the maker, the designer and the user.’

The designer’s role, he said, is to make sure a product marries form and function in a way that will satisfy both marketing people and end users.

He said: ‘[a marketing department] might come to us with a brief with a strong fashion component but that might not have a strong slant on whether its functionally is as good as it should be. The designer has to use his wits to keep all these things in balance, one without the other is a lost opportunity — that is the nub of the designer’s role.’

But Grange does not see much evidence of this fine balance today and believes that the disproportionate influence of the marketing department has changed the role of the designer for the worse.

‘The world we live in is all about presentation. A lot of it is very transient. That doesn’t make where it comes from any less talented, but it’s not assumed it’s going to be there for five or 10 years. And on the back of that has grown quite a different responsibility for the designers.’

Another casualty of the modern world is a bond that Grange believes is critical to good design: the relationship between manufacturing engineer and designer.

He said the trend to shift manufacturing to low-labour-cost economies such as China has meant the dialogue with manufacturers that characterised much of his career is often no longer possible.

‘The whole of my working life has been an education at the elbow of engineers. If, as a designer, you don’t have that you’re inevitably either going to simplify your design or learn to love what you get. The Chinese, knowing they have no competition, could say to the designer “that’s the best we can offer, take it or leave it”. Now that’s not the classic engineering designer relationship.’

Denied easy access to the machines that will manufacture their products, many of today’s designers are, he added, missing out on another important experience. ‘I’ve always thought the aristocrats of the engineering world are the machine builders, and when you see how a machine can work it inspires you as a designer to aim to make [the design] use the machine as efficiently as possible.’

Despite this somewhat gloomy picture, Grange claimed there are still pockets of UK industry where the old relationships still exist. ‘In the automotive industry there is still sufficient fundamental engineering enterprise and capital for the designers to learn everything they need to know about automotive engineering from people who are their local allies.’

The other area where this still holds true is in an environment that Grange has always favoured: the world of the plucky, innovative family firm.

A good example is Worthing’s celebrated hi-fi speaker specialist Bowers and Wilkins, for which Grange has developed numerous designs over the past 30 years.

Although the company today boasts offices all over the world, it has, said Grange, remained true to the entrepreneurial spirit that its late founder, John Bowers, brought to the business.

‘I could call him on any Sunday, any day of the year and he’d be at work,’ he recalled. ‘The result was that he inspired such loyalty that any engineer working for him inherited his enthusiasm’.

For Grange it was heaven. ‘You respected the bloke because you knew his heart was in it 100 per cent and that original ethic is still at the core of the firm.’

Grange believes the same spirit is behind the success of another, more prominent UK success story: Dyson. ‘James Dyson is a man I hugely admire — he doesn’t get pushed around by marketing fashions, he’s very single-minded, he puts his money where his mouth is and there can’t be anyone in the country who employs as many designers as he does.’

Despite his misgivings over outsourcing manufacturing, Grange believes that the Dyson model — setting up its own factories — is one that works.

‘What Dyson has done is set up a manufacturing operation in another country, but his own people are there so the line of communication is not compromised. It enjoys the physical benefits of labour low cost but everything that matters to sustain the importance of the brand is kept in its own hands. I think that’s the only way you can only really control the finished product.’

But it is his own recollections that reveal the most about Grange, and none more so than the story behind the 125 nose cone.

‘I was asked by British Rail to do a cosmetic job tarting up the livery on a model they had developed for a new high-speed train.

‘On the way I thought, just for my own interest, whether I could improve the design of it and the only way I knew how to make that a credible proposition was to try wind-tunnel testing.

‘We used to make models night after night, take them down to Imperial College and pay a bloke down there a few quid to let us use the wind tunnel. Gradually we teased out a design that after a number of years became the one that’s still running today. It started off with a paint job and ended up a major piece of my reputation.’

Remaining in anecdotal mode, Grange turned to the equally fascinating story behind the design of one of the UK’s best-loved kitchen appliances, the Kenwood Chef.

Running out of time before a presentation to the firm’s intimidating founder Ken Wood, Grange hit upon he idea of making half a model and taking along a mirror. The ruse worked. ‘I think he said yes to the design as much as anything because of the ingenuity of my selling it to him — we clicked personally and I did everything for Kenwood for the next 35 years.’

It is this sense of fun, and an infectious enthusiasm for personalities, that has driven and continues to inspire Grange. This, coupled with the ubiquitous nature of his designs, means there are daily reminders of the good times.

‘Every time I see a particular bus shelter or parking meter or other things I’ve designed I remember the detailed personal history, the conversations. I can picture the people. And that’s what makes the designer’s life so wonderful and enviable.’