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Celebrating Kenneth Grange, Unsung Hero Of Everyday Design

A forthcoming exhibit at the Design Museum London tributes a man whose hand touched everything from park benches and trains to razors and Kodak cameras.

You might not know the name Kenneth Grange, but you certainly know his work. He has designed everything from Parker pens to Kodak’s cheap, portable Pocket Instamatic. His legacy is most evident in the UK, where the streets moonlight as his portfolio: He has turned his hand to public benches, the classic High Speed Intercity 125 train, and London’s button-cute black taxi cab. He’s an unsung hero of the sort of industrial design that’s both ubiquitous and totally mundane.

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Grange quietly shaped some of the world’s most familiar products.

Now, his work is being pulled off the pavement and out of the home and set down on the pedestals of the Design Museum London. On July 20, the museum will open Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern, its first retrospective of the octogenarian designer who painstakingly, and quietly, shaped the look and feel of some of the most familiar products, appliances, and public fixtures of the past 50 years in the UK and beyond. The show was designed by James Irvin and Jasper Morrison, another giant of British industrial design.

Grange doesn’t have a signature style — at least not in the way we think of style nowadays, in which a designer gets famous for doing one thing then does that one thing over and over and over again — but he is very much a product of his time and place. He came of age professionally at the height of modernism, when simplicity reigned supreme and people believed, unironically, that design and technology could better the world. This was also an era when Britain had a robust manufacturing base that supported design innovation.

We see these influences at work in the best of his designs, which pair no-frills industrial utility with a seductive timelessness. Just look to his slick Short & Manson steel clock from 1966 (not pictured ) or his 125 train for British Rail, with its futuristic, aerodynamic cone nose, from 1976 (above). This stuff is more than 30 years old and still looks brand-spanking new. The 125 remains the reference point for high-speed train design, something Grange is endlessly proud of. “[I]t sounds arrogant but there’s not much I would change about it today,” he said in the Financial Times last month.

What’s perhaps most impressive is how deeply Grange has pervaded both public and private life in England. He has designed adshell benches, Morphy Richards irons, Kodak cameras, Kenwood appliances, Reuters monitors, Geeco watering cans, rural mailboxes, Wilkinson razors, the list goes on. Somewhere in there, he also found time to cofound Pentagram. “Well, I’ve always had a bit of a work ethic,” he told the Financial Times. “If you work 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, you soon find you’re ahead of every other bugger.” It’s no accident that the subtitle of the show is “Making Britain Modern.” With someone like Grange at the controls, Britain had no choice but to hightail it into the modern world.

[Images courtesy of Design Museum London]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.

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