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Hurry to Kensington and marvel at the mother of all degree shows. For the Royal College of Art is 100 years old, and staging an exhibition celebrating the work of former students, creators of such classics as motorway signs designed in the Sixties, still in use today, and the Duracell torch. But one brilliant design school does not a nation of design lovers make. Jane Withers talks to three graduates whose time at the school spans 50 years, and discovers that in the world of innovation, there is aggravation, too.
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The Independent Culture
Ross Lovegrove

RCA 1980-83

works from an industrial building at the rough end of Portobello Road, where the antique market turns into London's best example of the urban global village, brimming with vegetables from the Caribbean, sardines from Portugal, and home-brewed crack.

His design studio is on the ground floor - he and his partner, architect Miska Miller, recently converted the building - the living space above. It, too, is a good example of a global village - this time the Nineties virtual version in which design practices call on manufacturers worldwide.

All around are the ghostly monotones of model makers' samples, to be made by companies from Wandsworth to California, from Pisa to Tokyo. The Thermos Lovegrove designed for the German manufacturer Alfi - a reassuringly curvaceous silver flask encased in futuristic translucent plastic in zingy colours - has sold well for four years.

Lovegrove, now 37, studied industrial design at the Royal College of Art after art school in Manchester. "It was the time when Memphis was becoming the big thing. I was surrounded by people who'd make a box, stick funny shapes on top, spray it powder blue and call it a fax machine. It was a fabulous justification to make anything and call it anything. With models, you can lie to your heart's content. I wanted to come to terms with why a thing should be like it is."

Experimenting with new materials and organic forms has been part of Lovegrove's success. Before finishing college he was hired by Frog Design, a German-based industrial design consultancy, who were impressed by his project for a transparent camera; he soon found himself working on products for Apple, AEG and Sony.

Given new technologies and materials, and the microchip revolution, how something should look is wide open to the designer's interpretation. "Once, a designer had six materials, six processes and six clients," says Lovegrove. "Now everything is more complex. It's a full-time job just to keep up."

After the design boom of the Eighties - and its legacy of products whose cartoonish charm has now worn off - designers are wary of being classed as gimmicky or marketing-led. "I take great offence when people say, 'Oh, but your stuff is so designed.' It's not. I like things that are au point, just perfectly cooked: a handle that has no more materials than it needs. It's not a funny shape first, and then let's hope it works. Life is complicated enough without having to learn new ways to use everyday things."

Yet, inevitably, prolonging the life of a product is a manufacturer's key concern. Now Lovegrove is working on the Thermos again, "to keep the product alive by trying to keep pace with contemporary taste". In tune with current fashion, new samples are in pale tangerine and mint green, opaque pastels that look almost Sixties.

A mixture of brilliance and bullish ambition has put this designer in the international league, yet he is disappointed by his reception in the UK.

"There are some innovative companies, but the British are just not as sophisticated as people who purchase design in other countries. Here, well educated people generally gravitate to the City, and deal with money rather than manufacturing. In Italy, if you are a manufacturer you are God, you're a pillar of society. I go to these people's homes and they have beautiful oil paintings next to fabulous modern lights and bonded glass tables. There's such a richness. It sounds pretentious, but do you struggle to educate someone here before you work with them, or keep working abroad where there's enthusiasm for what you do?"

Robin Day

RCA 1935-39

Robin Day, designer, may not be a household name, but there can hardly be anyone who hasn't sat on one of his polypropylene chairs. Standard issue for three decades in schools, stadiums and conference halls from Paisley to Poole and far beyond, the plastic chair, born in 1963 using state-of-the-art technology, is one of the most successful post-War British designs. The basic adult model still costs less than pounds 15.

Day estimates that the polypropylene range has sold at least 40 million to date. "I was always interested in making good design available to people all over the world. Travelling to primitive villages in remote parts of Africa, and seeing chairs of mine that are decent to sit on and almost indestructible has given me a lot of pleasure."

At 81, the dapper Day still runs a design studio from the Chelsea house where he has lived with his wife, textile designer Lucienne Day, since the mid-Fifties. The Georgian house, filled with Robin's handsome and understated furniture and Lucienne's striking textiles, is an elegant survivor from the height of modernism. Volumes of press cuttings and magazine features from the Fifties and Sixties record the couple's work and reveal what trendsetters they were, when, for a moment at least, it seemed as if the middle classes might trade in ersatz period style for a modern way of life.

Yet when Robin Day began designing, the likelihood of producing modern furniture in this country seemed remote. Born in High Wycombe, Day grew up in the heart of the traditional furniture industry and his first job was as a worker in a furniture factory. A scholarship to the Royal College of Art got him out of High Wycombe but not into quite the world he had imagined.

"All the time I was at the RCA, I never heard the word Bauhaus. In the Thirties, the RCA was a school for painting, sculpture, ceramics, hand-printed textiles and so on. The professor of the so-called design school was an expert in repairing medieval frescoes. There was no possibility of pursuing product or interior design, although these were my main interests," recalls Day. He considers himself largely self-taught, having soaked up what he could of new developments in America, Scandinavia and Italy from books and magazines.

Day's big break came when he entered a competition to design low-cost furniture held by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1949. He found himself collecting first prize for a plywood-and-aluminium storage unit alongside his hero Charles Eames, who won the seating section. MOMA's recognition proved the ideal catalyst for Day in Britain. He began an association with the furniture manufacturers Hille, then a small East End firm making period furniture. He persuaded them there was a market for modern contract furniture. That partnership continues today, albeit on a different footing, following the sale of the company in the mid-Eighties.

As Hille's design director, Day took on everything from the logo to the showrooms, but the gamble that made the company an international success was the polypropylene chair. "I'd often been asked to design a fibreglass chair but Eames had done it so well, I didn't want to do one just for the sake of being different. When I read about the invention of polypropylene, which used a different technology and had mass-production potential, I put it to Hille. The investment required for tooling up was pounds 6,000 - then a considerable sum - but the chair was an instant success and there were soon 50 licensees manufacturing it around the world."

The current vogue for mid-century modern furniture has kindled new interest in Day's work, but he isn't interested in the Nineties fashion for recycling earlier modern styles. "Around the time of the Festival of Britain in the Fifties, there was a tremendous idealism about design. Now there seems to be more concern with getting work and making money." Asked by a newspaper what his choice would be for a millennium project, Day focused not on the spectacular designer theme parks that have become the norm for world fairs and mega- celebrations, but on ecology, and a proposal to save an endangered area of Scotland. "Our way of life is inflicting damage on the natural environment. A designer's key concern should be to modify the destruction of the environment."

Jane Dillon

RCA 1965-68

The building in the back lanes of Camberwell, south London, where Jane Dillon lives and works is no time warp, but its bold interior leaves little doubt as to where the designer's early allegiances lay. An elegant building, with improbably soaring windows (it started life as a bottle factory), it has walls painted an icy powder blue and acid yellow, held together with a chocolate-box stripe of flowery pink wallpaper - a homage to the assault against the dull orthodoxy of modernist good taste led by Ettore Sottsass and the anarchic Memphis group in the early Eighties.

In 1965, when Jane Dillon, now 52, arrived at the Royal College of Art, London may have been swinging and British art schools may have been in the vanguard of the Pop Art explosion, but the RCA's furniture department, was, Dillon recalls, "still hovering in Scandinavia".

At college she designed "the movable chair", a radical, sculptural reduction of a chair to an abstract arrangement of planes that works as a sort of frame of movable parts, to support the body leaning against it in different positions. It looks rather like a sophisticated piece of gym equipment. Dillon still considers it was her best piece of work at that time, but she had to struggle, against her tutors' advice, to exhibit it at her degree show. This design seems to have had most in common with the buoyant, abstract compositions of the New Generation such as Anthony Caro and Philip King, who took sculpture off its pedestal in the Sixties, and backs up Dillon's belief that "designers follow artists, at least those who look, do".

When Dillon applied for a scholarship to America, the college "apologised for not giving it to me because they felt 'it was a position that had to be represented by a man'." She did land a job with the innovative American designer George Nelson, but opted instead to work in Italy: Ettore Sottsass had offered her a job while she was there visiting fellow RCA student Charles Dillon, whom she later married.

Sottsass headed a design studio at Olivetti, turning out innovative office products, and Dillon worked with an international team on the design of an early office system. Her job was to choose the colours. Breaking the mould of battleship grey, she applied a strong Prussian blue, a rich burgundy, and slate. Her choice of a single colour on each system was inspired by a trip to Amsterdam, where she had seen the bicycles adopted by a revolutionary group: they had been painted all over, including the spokes.

After Milan, Dillon returned to London in the early Seventies and, with her husband Charles (he died 14 years ago), began to knock on British doors. "We went along to Heals with a little standard light - a joke on the standard lamp - and were given a lecture about how ill-conceived it was. Hadn't we noticed that all modern light fittings had chrome bases and round tops?"

They did produce a series of lights, such as the "Cometa", inspired by the idea of a light that would float like a kite, which they took to Terence Conran. He told them it was "far too sophisticated for the average punter". They eventually met a Spanish manufacturer who was keen to put it into production; and the economical light became a cult design of the time.

Dillon has continued to work mainly for manufacturers abroad, but says she still feels strongest about British manufacturers' "reluctance to bank design". "Actis", a family of office chairs she designed which was made in Spain, has sold half a million. "That could have been made by a British company. We knew about the technology of using inexpensive moulds long before anybody outside Italy and Spain, but they wouldn't listen. They just aren't interested"

'Design of the Times - 100 Years of the RCA' is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Kensington Gore, SW7 until 20 March, 10am to 6pm, admission free