The trendy aristocrats of Retroland

Radical product design has become a given in a decade when almost everything must signal one style or another. Forty years ago innovative design was the exception, not the rule

Design, it seems, is not quite the exclusive domain of febrile Persons in Black. In 1959, a person - nay, personage - given to Savile Row suits, and whose addresses included a rather large detached property at the west end of The Mall, decided that design was A Good Thing.

Design, it seems, is not quite the exclusive domain of febrile Persons in Black. In 1959, a person - nay, personage - given to Savile Row suits, and whose addresses included a rather large detached property at the west end of The Mall, decided that design was A Good Thing.

That man was the Duke of Edinburgh and in that year he instituted his Prize for Elegant Design. The first ever award went to CWF Longman's Prestcold Packaway refrigerator and it must have been the first and last time a frigid white oblong that hummed and gurgled could be so described. But the sentiment was sound. The intention, said the Duke, was to "reward the contribution of the designer to the success of industrial and commercial enterprises".

The remark, which draws on the form-and-function imperative, has stood the test of time and remains one of the key aims of the Design Council. And it is this confluence of design and apparently mundane end-use that often produces the most intriguing results.

But the Duke's award - which, since 1997, has been known as the Prince Philip Designer Prize - delivers something else too: a fascinating glimpse into what has become highly fertile territory... the world of Retro. The list of winners through the last 40 years is a treasure trove of the mundane, the oddball and the purest touches of brilliant innovation. Auditorium seating by Peter Dickinson in 1965; a gas-flow system by David Carter two years later; Jack Howe's cash dispenser for Chubb in 1969.

The Seventies sparked an even wider range of products, and none more unexpected than Derek Power's atomic physics teaching apparatus, or the industrial laser by Dr David Dyson for Ferranti. And then, in 1981, a fascinating double award: the first of the joint winners was Westland Helicopters 30 Series; the second - moving from the grand to the grommety - went to the Dandy clip made by Wonderclip Ltd.

And woven into this list of worthy winners is a stream of products that, today, are entirely collectable. The pre-1970 tranche in particular form part of what Neil Bingham has described in his new book, Modern Retro, as "a single cohesive thread which ran through design between 1920 and 1970. Different styles came and went in rapid succession. Yet, viewed from our new century, this was a period of explosive energy and purposeful direction in art, architecture and design."

Bingham, curator of the drawings collection at the Royal Institute of British Architects, says the start of the Sixties saw a crucial, if at times confusing, crossover in design from the confident, clean lines typical of the Fifties - Knoll chairs, for example - to out-of-the-blue approaches that broke moulds. The trend emanated from London and was fuelled by post-Beatles teenage consumerism and radical social change.

There was an explosion in dynamic two-dimensional design: posters, wallpapers and paint colours which, by today's standards, often featured bewildering colour combinations or weird geometric patterns... lava lamps, Op Art textiles, Casati & Ponzio's lamp in the shape of a giant white and yellow drug capsule, and Robin Day's Polyprop stacking chair, of which more than 14 million have been produced since 1963.

One of the Duke of Edinburgh's prizes for elegant design featured just such a cult item. The 1961 award went to the Rio transistor radio designed by Eric Marshall for Ultra Radio and Television. This wonderfully angular, modernist object - the Bauhaus of trannies - has the hallmark of early Sixties design: a literally sharp confidence of line.

The Milward Courier cordless electric shaver, designed by Kenneth Grange for Needle Industries Group Ltd, is from the same mould: simple lines and, apart from a single steel band dividing the shaver head section from the hand-grip, no obtrusive decoration whatsoever.

By the Seventies, with the arrival of a more historically conscious approach, trendy design showed subtle returns to classicism. And this was coupled with the first mass-produced products whose fabrication relied on higher tech refinements.

This was the Habitat decade. Or was it? According to Neil Bingham, the real breakthrough in terms of widely affordable "modern" furniture was achieved in the late-Seventies by the Swedish retailer Ikea, whose combination of clean postmodern design and rock-bottom prices has, so far, set an apparently unbreakable benchmark in the mass-market.

Strangely enough, the Duke of Edinburgh's raft of awards in the Seventies did not pick up the thread of postmodernism in any obvious way. Dartington glass, a picture-framing system, digital micrometers - they all suggest that the flavour of the decade was based on high-tech performance; aesthetics was demoted to the back seat.

The Eighties produced an eclectic collection of award-winners - but, again, with a high-tech slant. Apart from furnishing fabric by Collier Campbell, and a patchwork sampler collection, the prizes went to things that went bump or whirr in the night.

And, if the Duke's judges can be faulted the finger can surely be pointed at the Austin Metro, the 1981 winner. How could this automotive plain Jane have been singled out when Alec Issigonis' innovative original whizzabout, the Mini - with its huge technical and cultural significance - had been overlooked by the competition's judges in the Sixties?

Since 1990, the Duke's prizes have been awarded for bodies of work rather than individual product or system designs. Will the work of these still "pull" in 50 years time? Will James Dyson's wonderful sucker-monster of a vacuum cleaner look lumpily dated? And what about the Casio Baby G watch range, by Seymour Powell? Will it still be in the tick of things, coveted as an obscure object of Retro desire?

'Modern Retro', by Neil Bingham and Andrew Weaving, was published last week by Ryland Peters & Small

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