Obituary: Richard Stevens

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The Independent Online
Richard Stevens, Royal Designer in Industry, was concerned with the function of everyday things, and for 14 years was head of all industrial design for Post Office Telecommunications (which later became British Telecom). He recognised, as indeed had the Royal Commission that preceded the 1851 Great Exhibition, that what was lacking in British manufactured goods was not technique but art.

His greatest professional achievement and opportunity was to be at the helm of the most advanced and extensive, graphic and product design exercise of post-war Europe. He was himself a designer of innovative lighting, and had pioneered the development both of injection-moulded streetlighting lanterns and (in 1959) the application of low-voltage lamps and associated equipment in display lighting.

A new future was opening for telecommunications in the 1970s but it was difficult to share the vision of a then remote digital world with politicians. Design was to help translate this vision into something tangible. Possibly the first report of the lack of commercial synergy between mail delivery and telephone services came in a graphic identity proposal for the various Post Office businesses in 1980, but the political and executive directive to the designers then was to hold them all together, however superficial their relationship. When change came, it was the responsibility of Richard Stevens to put an appropriate face on these technological and structural mysteries.

Shortly after the 1980 introduction of British Telecom with its own visual identity as a separate entity from the Post Office, an aggressive question was asked in Parliament: "Would the phone box in the high street follow the new vehicle livery and be painted yellow?" A junior minister caught wrong-footed blurted out, "Of course not." By 7.30am the next morning Stevens was being doorstepped at his home in Surrey by an early bird from an evening newspaper. Always courteous, Stevens asked him in for breakfast and gave him the agreed formula, "British Telecom would paint kiosks with due sensitivity for the environment in which they were placed." The idea of the design manager giving any answer without passing it through the press office of British Telecom upset protocol, but what really did the damage was being shown in a large photograph in his dressing gown at the table with a cornflakes packet and milk in a milk bottle: cheap sneers all round.

Stevens was sensitive to both public opinion and public environment and by that time, with the encouragement of the Director of the Design Council, Paul (later Lord) Reilly, his designers already had half a dozen Gilbert Scott kiosks painted in rich and sober liveries with special Roman lettering, ready for trials at "heritage sites". The parliamentary incident killed those off.

There was always a gentle naivety about Stevens that left him defenceless in a large and political organisation. He was sometimes not well served by his staff and it was not unknown for a career opportunist to carefully set out a banana skin for him to step on. On occasion it took the combined vigilance of the three wiliest birds in the business to keep him out of hot water: Whitney Straight, the deputy chairman of the Post Office, Sir Hugh Casson and Lord Reilly. His designer's integrity was reinforced by his opposite number at the Royal Mail, Stuart Rose, who had reinforcements to spare of determination and commitment to the notion of "design as an expression of goodness". Sadly not a fashionable idea in today's marketing-led world.

These were exciting times in telecommunications when new systems were being made publicly available; there was enough money to do his job well and he was waving the flag for a new public service culture within British Telecom. At one moment "Prestel" video text was the wonder, the next he was back from an International Swiss trade fair to say that "System X" was sweeping the world, and British Telecom personnel were "walking tall". Somehow the potential of these technologies did not immediately turn into export orders but he would quickly pump up the next head of enthusiastic conviction.

I remember returning with him from a tour of future public systems in Tokyo and he was convinced that British Telecom was far ahead of Japanese technology: "We've got them beaten," he kept saying over 14 hours of flying time. On his own design front he had got them beaten: he commissioned the best troops in the design field: Nick Butler, David Carter, Banks & Miles, Martyn Rowland, Ken Grange (the latter on "Confravision Studios", a truly advanced system of linked private television meetings that then quietly disappeared like so much else at that time through lack of promotion). He sought out design talent and it found him.

He was that now rare creature, a design manager who could do the job himself. For him it was not a matter of talking in marketing cliches but of understanding the concerns that were behind the words, or better, the sketches. Stevens was a very distinguished practitioner in his own right, recipient of three Design Centre personal awards and a gold medal at the 1957 Milan Triennale; chief designer at Atlas Lighting 1954-63. As design manager of Standard Telephones and Cables 1963-69 his work earned the warm respect of his chairman, Sir Jules Thorn. In 1977 he won the RSA Presidential Award for Design Management.

An engineer with a degree in Physics from Regent Street Polytechnic, Stevens had first worked as a lighting technician with Siemens (1942-53). His first job with "designer" in its title was with Metropolitan Vickers (1953-54). From then on he believed in an essential intuitive input into a design solution. He looked for a marriage of logic, aesthetics and care for detail: the goal was "quality".

At home, he was an excellent photographer and made superb pieces of cabinet- work. One of his proudest possessions was a huge cross-cut saw inherited from his father, a railway worker; this was put to good use when he retired to the smart little "cabin" he had made for himself and his French wife, Anne, in woods near Reigate.

Dick and Anne Stevens were fit and prodigious walkers and were eager for a fruitful and happy retirement. No sooner had they all the pieces in place when she was struck with an appalling stroke. He was a constant and attentive nurse until she died in 1994.

Colin Banks

Richard Stevens, industrial designer: born Dorking, Surrey 1 October 1924; chief designer, Atlas Lighting Ltd 1954-63; industrial design manager, Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd 1963-69; design manager, Post Office Telecommunications (British Telecom from 1980) 1969-83; President, Society of Industrial Artists and Designers 1972-73; RDI 1973; married 1947 Anne Hammond (died 1994; one son, one daughter); died Reigate, Surrey 21 March 1997.