Obituary: Bill Pugh
Thursday 30 June 1994
BILL PUGH was an innovative designer whose ideas and flair did much to shape some of the best- known consumer products of the second half of the 20th century. He and his Leicester-based team placed Britain in the forefront of the plastics industry during its great period of development between 1948 and 1965. The first look-alike squeezy lemon in plastic was Pugh's. He introduced plastic nasal spray bottles; and he put plastic for the first time under car bonnets and on to dashboards. Many of his original designs - dating back as far as 40 years - are still in production. In the mid-Sixties he moved into toys, where his sophisticated refinements to Action Man contributed to the doll's huge success.
Pugh was born in East Ham, London, in 1920. His boyhood interests were predominantiy painting and sailing. From art college, he joined the navy and met his Scottish wife Margaret, a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, when he was sent for treatment at the Royal Naval Hospital, Aberdeen. The guest-list for their golden- wedding party in August was half drawn up at the time of his death.
It was largely chance that took Bill Pugh into the burgeoning plastics industry. In London after the Second World War, he registered his interest in design work with the Council of Industrial Design. He worked initially for an advertising firm, building stands for the British Industry Fair. Cascelloid of Leicester, a plastics company who had been given Pugh's name by the council, wrote inviting him for interview. Pugh replied smartly, 'I'm busy. I can't come.' Cascelloid persisted, and their far-sighted managing director Henry Senior finally prevailed.
Soon after Pugh's arrival, the company imported a plastic bottle- blowing machine from the United States. It was one of only two in the world. Faced with a new machine, a new process, and one trial American mould, Pugh had not only to master the art of making plastic bottles but to sell the idea that they were a good thing. On a Nile cruise with Margaret in later life, he was deeply saddened as hundreds of empty two-litre bottles drifted by. Pugh felt in a way responsible for something he could never have envisaged at the outset.
In 1949 he designed the first ever novelty shaped bottle, a pale pink teddy-bear with a screwtop for Vinolia baby powder. He modelled it by hand in clay, then cast it into plaster for mould-making. The squeeze lemon, marketed now as Jif, began life as a wooden core carved by Pugh, then covered painstakingly with fresh lemon peel. He cast it into a plaster mould, experimenting until he had it just right. He was patient and a perfectionist. In similar vein he made amusing plastic fruits, a gaudy tomato-shaped ketchup bottle for cafe tables, and a range of nasal sprays.
The industry's rapid progress encouraged the building of bigger and faster machines. Carboys - large plastic containers holding water or petrol - were the next challenge for Pugh. Then as the process of printing plastic bottles developed, his team got involved with artwork and shape for cosmetics, detergents, bleach, salt, house and kitchen cleaners.
Pugh, who was always interested in the nature of ideas, in what makes them occur to people and in how to turn them into products, was approached in the early Fifties by Rolls Royce, who wanted a noise-free car air-
conditioning unit. He devised for them a method of making louvres for the dashboard in molten nylon (used mainly for stockings until then). The louvres worked efficiently but were scarred by flowlines - little hair-like black lines that appeared as the nylon cooled in the mould - that spoiled the appearance. Pugh disguised these by colouring the nylon with carbon. It amused him for the rest of his life to see practically every motor manufacturer fit similar 'fashionable' black airvents.
When Cascelloid split into two in 1965, Pugh decided to concentrate on plastic toys. He became Director of Design, Research and Development at Palitoy, heading a staff of 22 designers, engineers and chemists. These were set to be exciting times, in which they devised exacting techniques to make precisely detailed electric locomotives in plastic.
Bill Pugh kept a few model trains into retirement, but loved to astonish people by declaring that he did not even possess an Action Man. His main interest lay always not in looking back, but in what he would do next. In the 1970s he travelled the world, and knew personally everyone who was engaged in similar work. In 1980, he became European Director for the US plastics company General Mills, working from Maidenhead and doing much travelling. Two years later he returned to Palitoy with health problems.
He retired aged 62, and relearnt navigation so that he and Margaret could put to sea once again. In retirement they paid visits to many of the friends he had made around the world. And he filled the house with his paintings and sculpture.
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