From parking meters to food mixers: How designer Ken Grange has helped to shape Britain

Now, aged 82, a new exhibition is giving him the recognition he deserves. Corinne Julius meets him
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The Independent Culture

Leading product designer Ken Grange points at a bookcase. "I designed this in the shape of a man," he says. "When I die, all my wife has to do is chuck out the books and put me in instead. That's real design for recycling."

It is this clever, quirky thinking that has helped Grange to create one of the world's most admired design practices. If you've ever travelled by 125 InterCity train, used a London taxi, put coins in a parking meter, snapped a picture with a Kodak camera or whipped up a sponge with a Kenwood Chef, you've most likely used a product that he designed.

Now 82, and still working, Grange is the subject of a new exhibition, Designing Modern Britain, at the Design Museum in south-east London (www.designmuseum.org). He is one of Britain's unsung heroes: a man who has improved the quality of our daily life and become a part of social history. Grange is an unreconstructed Modernist who believes that, rather than creating exclusive and expensive art objects, the real purpose of design is to make things better and to improve society. He owes his interest in how things work to his mother, a machinist, who worked for many years making springs. "Most modest living rooms like ours would have a chair with a lamp beside it; my mother had a bloody great spring. In a fire, she would have saved that spring before anything else," he says.

Grange worked in the same factory while studying drawing at Willesden School of Art. He was an architectural assistant at the Festival of Britain and it was while working for the architect Jack Howe that he started freelance exhibition design, setting up his own company Kenneth Grange Design in 1958.

His earliest product design was the first parking meter, "designed, to my wife's distress, on our honeymoon," laughs Grange. In the same year he designed Kodak's presentation at the Brussels Expo. While installing an exhibition for them he commented out loud: "This would be a wonderful exhibition if the cameras weren't so bloody awful."

A passing Kodak executive asked how much it would cost to design a camera and the next day Grange was given the job. He designed for Kodak for 20 years, and more than 25 million of his Kodak Instamatic 33, launched in 1968, were sold.

He had a similarly close relationship with Ken Wood, founder of the eponymous electrical company, and his Kenwood Chef became the standard for food mixers. He says: "The secret of my success is that I was best friends with the people I worked for. I grew up with makers not designers." And he understood their manufacturing requirements, and commercial realities. He says that he has been lucky, but often seems to have made his own good fortune.

In 1968, asked to design the livery for the new 125 train, he thought it "so bloody ugly" that he decided to have a go at redesigning the whole thing. He tested his models at his own expense at Imperial College and then landed a contract. The 125 is the design of which he is the most proud.

One that got away was a new bottle for men's toiletries, which he designed for Shiseido. "I made a bottle like a man's armpit," he says. "They hated it. I loved it."

This rejected design was done with colleagues at Pentagram, the renowned multidisciplinary design partnership he helped to found in 1972.

Grange's enthusiasm remains undiminished. He is visiting professor at the Royal College of Art. The students love him and he loves them. "I love it so much, I would do it for free," he says. He designs door handles for izé and is just launching a new easy chair for Hitch Mylius.

"I designed it because I saw how difficult it is get out of a chair as you get older. Age doesn't mean you don't want good-looking designs."

He is also design director for Anglepoise and has helped to rejuvenate the company's fortunes.

"It goes back to my mother and that bloody spring," he says. "I was sitting next to this young chap called Terry at a dinner. I said, 'My mother always thought Terry springs the royalty of springs', and asked if he was related. He was, the company owned Anglepoise." And Grange got the job. His newest design for them was launched in Milan this April.

The exhibition at the Design Museum is showing Grange's range of designs, including Ronson lighters, Parker pens and Wilkinson razor blades from 20 July to 30 October.

Shopping guide

* Design Museum shop, Grange's Anglepoise Yellow 1228 lamp is £185

* The book Kenneth Grange 'Making Britain Modern' (Black Dog Publishing) is £19.95

* Edith chair for Hitch Mylius, from £1,300 at Viaduct in EC1 (020 7278 8456; www.viaduct.co.uk)

* izé door furniture from www.ize.info, or call 020 7384 33302

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