Studio International

Published 13/05/2005

Design and Engineering

James Dyson's resignation as Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Design Museum in London is a reminder of a debate that has been going on in Britain since the second half of the 19th century, when Sir George Gilbert Scott declared that engineer William Barlow's beautiful engine shed was not good enough to stand behind Scott's neo-gothic hotel at London's St Pancras Station. The debate can also be traced even further back to the Great Exhibition of 1851, when Prince Albert, Sir Henry Cole and others had realised that although British manufacturers should be celebrated, they needed to be more aware of the existence of foreign competition if they were to maintain their pre-eminence in world markets. Their fears were justified: by 1900, both the USA and Germany had overtaken Britain in terms of their gross domestic product.

Dyson's resignation has been incorrectly associated with a recent exhibition at the Design Museum, celebrating the flower arrangements of Constance Spry. Together with her friend, the interior designer Sylvie Maugham, Spry had a tremendous influence on interior decoration from the 1930s to the 1950s and was responsible for the floral arrangements accompanying Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953. However, as Dyson made clear in the Richard Dimbleby lecture he gave on BBC1 in December 2004, he resigned not because of the Spry exhibition, but because he believed that the Design Museum was failing in its remit (established when it was founded by Sir Terence Conran in 1989) to focus primarily on the manufactured object. He described an interview - conducted with English florists on the BBC's radio programme, Today - about his resignation. After the florists had made proclamations about the life-enhancing properties of lilacs, the interviewer asked them whether or not they thought that flower design is as important - or even the same - as designing an aeroplane. They replied in the affirmative and Dyson states that this convinced him that his decision to resign had been correct.

One of the original reasons for founding the Design Museum was that the Design Council in London - originally known as the Council of Industrial Design (CoID) - was no longer a potent force. Established in 1944, specifically to promote 'by all practical means the improvement of design in the products of British industry' (initially under the auspices of the Board of Trade), its progenitors realised that Britain would be in a seller's market at the end of the Second World War and that there was a danger that British industry would return to the bad habits of the 1930s. However, despite the need to export (in the 1950s, 90% of all cars exported throughout the world were made in Britain) and the success of early post-war developments in nuclear power, aircraft, cars, scientific equipment, such as the electron microscope, and early computers, the Design Council soon became involved with consumer products. These dominated both the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, held at London's V&A museum in 1946 and the 'Festival of Britain' in 1951. Their importance was reinforced by the CoID's index of some 20,000 domestic products that followed the Festival and the opening of the Design Centre in London in 1956 and the Design Centre Awards in 1957. Consumer products also dominated the design centres later opened in Glasgow and Cardiff.

It was not until 1968 that the CoID introduced awards for engineering and medical equipment (including awards for a shunting engine, earth moving equipment and lathes). In 1972, the CoID changed its name to the Design Council, linking up with the Council of Engineering Institutions, taking on the kinds of activities that the engineering institutions should have been doing themselves. These included persuading engineers to resist concentrating solely on matters of detail, to look at a product in its entirety and to establish better links with the rest of the world.

By the time the Design Council came into being in 1989, Britain had invented the hovercraft, the tilting train, the body scanner and the jump-jet aircraft (as well as the fighter-reconnaissance plane, the TSR2, abandoned when Britain joined together with France to develop Concorde). Britain did not need better engineers, but training in how to make and market these products around the world, rather than selling the patents to other countries.

The 1970s saw the collapse of Britain's car industry and, in the early 1980s, the miners' strike led to the demise of the coal and steel industries. By this time, the Design Council had left its Haymarket premises in London and exhibitions featuring hospital design, British Rail and the QE2, were memories from a distant past. When the Design Museum opened its doors, it filled an important gap. As Dyson says, while places such as the Victoria & Albert Museum in London stage exhibitions on the decorative arts and The Lighthouse in Glasgow, dedicated to architecture, design and the city, the Design Museum is almost the only place that continues to display the manufactured object.

However, this now seems to be changing. Most of the museum's exhibitions relating to the manufactured object have concentrated on cars and motorcycles - the Citroën DS in 1991, the British motorcycle in 1992, car design for the elderly and disabled in 1993, bicycle design in 1997, the Porsche in 1998, the Mini in 1999 and the E-Type Jaguar in 2004. The few other 'engineering' exhibitions have included one featuring Buckminster Fuller and another on Swatch. And while surveys on Scandinavian design and exhibitions on designers such Eileen Gray, Charles and Ray Eames, Arne Jacobsen and Philippe Starck have taken in furniture, light fittings, textiles and architecture, there have been many more on graphics (posters, housestyles and comics), photography, jewellery and silversmithing, the Coca Cola bottle and erotic design. Dyson's criticism of the museum's exhibition programme, over which he says he had no control, is that it reflects a late 20th /early 21st century attitude towards design that puts styling first. This, Dyson says:

... is a lazy conceit. One that has passed its sell-by date. This world is driven by technology. We have no choice but to shake off our obsession with styling and focus on creating new, more advanced products.
Dyson's words apply not only to the Design Museum, but to the rest of Britain. In the Dimbleby lecture, he made it clear that even concentrating on creative innovation and designing products manufactured in China, is a short-term policy. The Chinese have recently bought IBM personal computers, Thomson, RCA televisions, Alcatel mobile telephones and Dornier aircraft (as well as the blueprints for Britain's Rover cars) and make products for Sony and other major companies. It will not be long before China moves from being a source of cheap labour to one of the world's great industrial powers.

As a consequence of the destruction of Britain's engineering industries in the 1980s, Dyson has now moved production of his bagless vacuum cleaners to Malaysia; though the company's research facilities remain in England. He began exporting to the USA in 2003 and last year, his sales grew by 350% to 891,000, putting his models into top place. Dyson believes that Britain must now return to conceiving, designing, developing, manufacturing and marketing industrial products if the country is to sustain its current GDP. And, while the Design Museum begins the search for his replacement as chairman, Dyson has just launched his latest product. The 'Ball' is another bagless vacuum cleaner, whose motor is in a spherical unit at the base of the cleaner and whose manoeuvrability, Dyson says, is as precise and as exciting as that of a motorcar.

Richard Carr