Obituary: Louis van Praag
Monday 07 June 1993
LOUIS VAN PRAAG was a textile manufacturer who for 30 years spent a great deal of energy and time, with little reward to himself, trying to convince British industry of the crucial importance of design.
He was passionately aware that unlike, most conspicuously, Germany, Italy, and Japan, Britain's economic performance was undermined by a pig-headed refusal to recognise that success in export markets must depend on the production of goods that customers found attractive as objects.
The British, he constantly said, treated design as an afterthought - as decoration that could be tacked on after the product was made. He ascribed this fundamental error to the history of British manufacturing. Britain in the 19th century had showed the world how to make things, from Sheffield cutlery, to trains to bridges; they then assumed that, since all these world-beaters had been produced by engineers, the same approach would work in the 20th century. Businessmen and industrialists took the style of their products for granted.
To Van Praag, there was no mystery about design. The Italians conquered the offices of Britain with their computer terminals because they built them small enough to fit. The industrial success of Japan and Germany was equally dependent on good design.
Van Praag maintained that designers must from the earliest stage of the development of a product play as important a role as engineers, technocrats, or accountants. He had allies of course. But he had a particularly persuasive and gentlemanly manner, business experience, and a cosmopolitan air (emphasised by a monocle) that made him an especially effective advocate.
He was, in origin, Dutch; his father settled in England before the First World War, though Louis was educated at the Sorbonne, which gave him impeccable French. He was in the Royal Air Force in the Second World War. After the war, he took over his father's textile business, with its headquarters at Sunbury-on- Thames, and set up factories in the north of England and Portugal serving markets in Japan and Europe. His firm, Sabre International Textiles, acquired a wide reputation for well-designed clothes, especially sweaters.
After years when British tycoons remained indifferent, the tide began to turn when Margaret Thatcher, in 1982, seized on design as a spur with which to prod British industry, and invited designers to Downing Street. One consequence was that Van Praag became head of a working party that drew up a design curriculum for inclusion in management courses, alongside marketing, finance, labour relations and the rest. Both the French and the Americans valued the ideas produced under his leadership.
The advancement of British design education was his constant concern. It was, he said, the best in the world; what was wrong was British management's indifference. It was a source of constant frustration that every year the best young British designers were scooped up by foreign firms.
Van Praag worked on or chaired numerous working parties, design councils, and art-school governing bodies. His politics were by no means conservative, but he worked closely and happily with Thatcher's Industry minister John Butcher, and at the time of his death was operating in close alliance with Baroness Denton, who, as she said this week, came to rely on his commitment, knowledge and generosity.
The great irony of his public life occurred in the late Eighties, when the Thatcher economic policies about which he had been complaining for years, because of their effect on small and medium-sized businesses, forced his own company, like many others, into liquidation which did not for a moment cause the government to stop using his talents.
He was charming, stubborn, and very funny. His house in Oxfordshire was used to make the television series of John Mortimer's Paradise Postponed. Van Praag's study was transformed into the lair of a Thirties left- wing vicar, with a bust of Karl Marx and rows of Gollancz's orange Left Book Club books. One Sunday, when the film people were away, John Butcher came to call for the first time; Van Praag showed him into the study, and observed with relish the Conservative minister's stunned reaction.
In his latter years, he lived in Oxford, where his great love of the arts led him to become Chairman of the Museum of Modern Art and a member of the Advisory Board of the Ashmolean Museum. A man of natural generosity, both in Oxford and his Tuscan farmhouse he loved to share the good things of life with his large and loving family - his children's ages range from 14 to 43 - and vast circle of friends.
Van Praag bore the anxieties and pain of his last weeks with great, though typical, gallantry. Until almost the end he was still active, advising Marks & Spencer, and running the Lead Body for Design, a Government initiative to bring designers and industry closer together.
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