Meet The Designers Who Reinvented Britain After WWII

If you’ve taken the Tube, walked around central London, or sipped a pint in a British pub, you’ve seen the work of Design Research Unit, whose methods presaged the design mega-firms.

The United States was a hive of creativity after World War II, but it certainly wasn’t alone. Across the pond, a company by the name of the Design Research Unit (DRU) was busy updating pubs, branding British Rail, and mounting street signs throughout central London. In effect, DRU was inventing the look of post-war Britain.


A touring exhibit–currently on view at Cooper Gallery of the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, in Dundee, U.K.–reveals the inner workings of a firm whose designs quietly organized the visual landscape of a nation desperate to recover from the chaos of war. Like Kenneth Grange, another giant of 20th-century British design, their work managed to be both anonymous and totally conspicuous. They designed seats for the Tube, tapped sculptor Naum Gabo to design a car for Jowett, and modernized Watney Mann breweries all over southeastern England (about a quarter of the 400 London pubs destroyed during the blitz were owned by Watney). They also developed scads of corporate identities: for British Rail, the London Transport network, the photography company Ilford, and the (now defunct) chemical producer Imperial Chemical Industries. It’s said that Milner Gray, a cofounder of the Design Research Unit, actually coined the term “corporate identity.”

Even more intriguing than what DRU produced was how the office was organized. Initially under the charge of a poet then founded by an advertising entrepreneur and two designers in the 1940s, DRU pioneered a model for group practice: It was the first British consultancy to gather under one roof graphic designers, industrial designers, and architects. (Starchitect Richard Rogers worked there.) It’s easy to forget at a time when all the major design firms, from Smart to Pentagram, bill themselves as interdisciplinary that design professionals weren’t always so eager to embrace other experts. It fell to the Design Research Unit to not only modernize design, but also to modernize the way designers worked.

Design Research Unit: 1942-72 stays up at the Cooper Gallery until December 16. More info here.

[Images courtesy of Scott Brownrigg]


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.