Obituary: Louis van Praag

Louis van Praag, industrialist and design consultant: born London 9 August 1926; Chairman, Sabre International Group 1976-88; Chairman, Design Research Committee 1976-79; Chairman, DTI Working Party on Management of Design 1980-84; CBE 1986; Chairman, Department of Environment Working Party Industry Lead Body for Design 1989-90; Senior Partner, Design Resource 1989- 93; Chairman, DTI Steering Group for Management of Design 1989-93; married 1947 Angela McCorquodale (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1964 Kathy Titelman (one son, two daughters); died Oxford 1 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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before