Obituary: Milner Gray
Wednesday 08 October 1997
The pioneer graphicist Milner Gray was born into the Arts and Crafts movement and was one of the few who were able to bridge the gap between that movement and today's computerised design businesses. Throughout his life he remained loyal to the movement's ethics and deep respect for craftsmanship and materials.
In a calling commonly thought, in its early days, at best to be a refuge of the less intelligent, Gray was unique. With a clear understanding of the future importance of design to Britain, he had a vision of establishing design as a profession and was largely responsible for forming, in 1930, the Society of Industrial Artists (later the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers, or SIAD). Gray was Honorary Secretary 1932-40 and went on to be President 1943-49 and again 1966-67. He served continuously on various SIAD committees until 1984.
Gray was born in Blackheath at the turn of the century. Educated at Colfe's Grammar School, he studied graphic design (in those days called commercial art) at Goldsmiths' College, London. He left during the First World War to join the 19th London Regiment, then transferred to the newly formed camouflage school of the Royal Engineers. After the war he formed Bassett- Gray, the first British design consultancy.
At this time, he was sharing digs in Blackheath with the artist Graham Sutherland, who was to remain his great friend for life. Sutherland's last portrait was of Gray in 1989, commissioned by SIAD to honour Gray's contribution to the profession and presented to him to mark his 80th birthday. During the 1930s Gray returned to Goldsmiths' to teach and was a lecturer at the Royal College of Art and also Central School of Art, as well as Principal of the Sir John Cass School of Arts and Crafts 1937-40.
The Second World War saw Frank Pick of London Transport invite Gray to join the Ministry of Information exhibition division team which quickly achieved a reputation for innovative and popular presentation of government messages such as "Dig for Victory". While working for the Ministry he realised the crucial role that design could play in the regeneration of British industry after the war and decided to form the Design Research Unit to advise both the state and private sectors.
With a flood of work from leading names in industry, the practice established and maintained a reputation for high standards and modest fees. Projects varied, from the Festival of Britain signage to identification for Unilever, ICI and the then newly formed British Rail, pubs for Watneys, packaging for Courage and the interiors for the passenger ship Oriana.
During this time Gray was appointed Royal Designer for Industry by the Royal Society of Arts. He was a member of the Council of Industrial Design, and founder member of its Stamps Advisory group and until recently, sat on the Royal Mint design committee. In 1955 he was the first recipient of the Design Medal for outstanding achievement from the Society of Industrial Artists (later the Chartered Society of Designers).
Although he was a successful packaging and interior designer, he was essentially a graphicist and was a brilliant draftsman. Of all his work he professed to be most fond of his heraldry and I recall during lunch at his home, he left the table to rummage through his piles of memorabilia (including a photograph of himself, as a boy, proudly wearing his kilt, and a later one in his RCA Doctorate robes) to show us his original coat of arms for the 1953 Coronation reproduced entirely in pencil, which he preferred to ink. Gray enjoyed his eccentricities and explained to me one day that he drank gin and ginger ale in order that it would look like whisky and not offend his distillery client.
Gray was quirky and impish with a great sense of fun. An assiduous member of the Arts Club, Gray's infectious humour would crowd the bar when he could be prevailed upon to recount one of his frequently risque jokes or limericks and his dinner table repartee never dimmed as time passed. Indeed his memory for names and events surprised us all as well as his endearing modesty about his life's achievements. He was inseparable from his wife Gnade and will be widely remembered as a very real, compassionate man.
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