OBITUARY:James Gardner

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The Independent Online
James Gardner - known and admired all over the design world as "G" - was an extraordinary man whose eye remained as alert as a hawk's even into his eighties.

That eye had X-ray qualities - an ability to look at a piece of machinery such as a valve or an aileron and be able to see instantly how it worked and why. He had learnt the skill as a young man when he earned a living doing cutaway drawings of car engines or radio components in motor or aircraft magazines and catalogues. All through his life this visual understanding, coupled with a reliable physique, carried him through a career in design with objects as small as bracelets or as large as the QE2 (designing the ship's superstructure in 1966 was his favourite job, he told me).

He left school to become an apprentice to Cartier in Bond Street in 1924. Mr Cartier took to his enthusiasm and skill and gave him a tiny table with a silk-shaded Edwardian lamp on which G managed to work, jammed against the chairman's desk.

From there he graduated into advertising, doing sectional drawings for aircrafts and then on to actual design work (one of his first jobs was the design of an Imperial Airways lavatory). The Second World War crept up on him and he was drafted into the Camouflage Training School at Farnham and within a few months he became the Director. His favourite attitude to concealment problems was double bluff - he succeeded once in deceiving Monty in a problem in the Western Desert.

His first big post-war job was to design "Britain Can Make It", an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1946. This brought out his wonderful quality for solving a crisis. The exhibition proved that Britain could make it perhaps but not always finish it and Gardner's abilities for instant design were constantly in demand.

His next large assignment, from 1948 to 1949, was to join the design group set up to produce the Festival of Britain and the major exhibitions in Belfast and Glasgow. His main contribution in London was almost total charge of Battersea Park Fun Fair. Our group met virtually every day until the festival opened on time in 1950 and was a huge success. G returned to normal life - designing exhibitions and shop interiors. We saw less of each other from then on, except occasionally in an airport lounge. He worked frequently abroad, always taking his favourite crew, whose gear inevitably included a teapot. His work included exhibitions at the Evoluon Museum in Eindhoven (1966), the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles (1993), and as recently as this year he was working on the design for the Nelson Gallery at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

He lived quietly with his family and avoided posh restaurants and flash cars and was always, it seemed, glad to see you for a gossip. He looked like a countryman - squashed green hat above blue eyes and a pipe projecting from a thin alert face topped tweeds and stout shoes. I don't think I ever saw him in a suit. G was a truly modest man. You never saw his picture in the papers and more importantly you never caught him looking for it. He never got fussed in a crisis, he knew the names of his contractor's men and was rewarded by their loyalty. He was a true professional.

Hugh Casson

James Gardner, industrial designer and consultant: born 29 December 1907; jewellery designer, Cartier Ltd 1924-31; Chief Deception Officer, Army Camouflage 1941-46; designer, "Britain Can Make It" Exhibition 1946; RDI 1947; chief designer, Festival Gardens, Battersea 1950; designer, British Pavilion, Brussels 1958; CBE 1959; designer, British Pavilion, Expo 67, Montreal 1967; Senior Fellow, Royal College of Art 1987; author of Elephants in the Attic 1983, The Artful Designer 1993; married 1935 Mary Williams (two sons); died London 25 March 1995.