Never was a machine a more complete expression of British vice and virtue than the Spitfire. The Spitfire was beautiful and agile, but Reginald Mitchell's aerodynamics demanded a wing so thin that the Spitfire could not carry sufficient armament. And its complex structure made it expensive to make. Meanwhile, the Germans made ugly fighters on production lines. The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine used antique carburettors that made it cut out in dives. Messerschmitts used fuel-injected BMW blocks that never missed a beat.
Britain's first motorways, the Preston bypass and the M1, were conceived in a delirium of Macmillan-era futurism for families to travel the country in their Ford Consuls and Morris Oxfords, directed all the way by Jock Kinneir's signage. This was perfect information display - colour-coded with clear type and hierarchies so intelligent as to be read subliminally. Nearly 50 years on, Kinneir's assumptions have not been seriously challenged.
Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band & Power, Corruption & Lies
The American Blue Note jazz label pioneered the art sleeve, but its high point was London in the Sixties. Peter Blake's montage singularly illustrates all the cross-currents of the age when rock bands became artists and artists went slumming for record labels. When the word "design" assumed popular currency, Saville showed us what it looked like. He is now creative director of Manchester - a world-first.
Few people have been responsible for more powerful symbols of Britishness than Sir GG Scott. The K2 box speaks of national pride, civic utilities, public service and other things we have forgotten about, including the architecture of Sir John Soane that inspired it. Not content with designing the most successful street furniture ever, Scott gave us Battersea Power Station.
The 1959 Mini was one of the most original and influential machines ever made. How something so radical emerged from Longbridge and Cowley is a mystery, but the Mini was a revolution. Front-wheel drive, a transverse engine with a gearbox in the sump and advanced suspension were combined in a brilliant package providing astonishing accommodation. Unfortunately, BMC's financial controls were as typically British as the Mini was untypical. Only in 1976 did anyone realise the car was being manufactured at a loss.
Grand Theft Auto & Tomb Raider
As if to prove a silly national preoccupation with crime, comedy and light entertainment, British software is poorly represented in high-technology, but internationally pre-eminent in frivolous computer games.
Timeless, influential, functional: Harry Beck's London Underground map is an unrivalled masterpiece of rational graphics, imitated all over the planet. The curious thing about Beck's design is what an abstraction it is. The real-world plan of the Underground looks like a spaghetti disaster, but using grids, distortions and insight Beck made sense of it. "Putting form on the indeterminate" was Goethe's definition of genius. Here is a map of genius.
The first pocket calculator to be commercialised was British. With its nearly-German purity, Clive Sinclair's Executive calculator would have been a fine monument, but his follow-up C5 "car"made of planks with a washing-machine motor betrayed a fine legacy.
The ad-hoc creation of the Catseye fulfils our expectations of loveable and quirky genius. There is also the get-rich factor that appeals to the national psyche. But, like Barnes Wallis's bouncing bomb (which never worked), the Catseye is one of those British "classics" that no one abroad noticed, still less imitated.
The British have had a calamitous history in manufacturing but unrivalled achievements in communications and media. Just as the old industries were sighing their last, new creative industries replaced them. The Face magazine, with its audacious typography by Neville Brody, showed Thatcherworld there was an economic future after the last factory closed down.
A to Z
The great thing about the A to Z is the way cities are compressed into neat, consumerised capsules of information. Buy an A to Z and you possess the whole conurbation. And the methodology is fascinating: the A to Z is obsessed not with monuments or landscape, but roads. Thus the distortions are surreal, if effective. Jamaica Road, in Rotherhithe, to judge by the A to Z, has more cartographic significance than the Tower of London. In this almost Futurist sense, the A to Z is exhilaratingly modern.
The first-class Spitfire, Concorde excited because, far from being technologically advanced, it was technologically backward. Elitist, irrelevant, expensive, unprofitable and heartbreakingly beautiful, it was an exercise in imperial nostalgia even before its first revenue flight in 1976. Meanwhile, Boeing plodded on with mass aerial transit, far more profitably.
Nowhere else on earth has an old bus acquired such totemic value as the Routemaster. Its continuing popularity represents a yearning for a return to a past pre-Ken, before Eurocracy. Its designer, Douglas Scott, was a genius who flourished in an age before the media made designers celebrities while robbing them of real credibility. Scott, who died in 1990, has a claim to be one of the most successful English designers of all, yet modestly said: "I have always designed for the market... private and personal aesthetics are out of place in industrial design."
We feel sentimental about the Anglepoise desklight because it was one of the last great hurrahs of West Midlands manufacturing, when men in brown warehouse coats worked in drawing offices, designing products that changed the interior landscape. Carwardine's Anglepoise is a pure diagram of forces, based on the mechanics of the human arm. It far exceeds in intelligence and usefulness anything coming out of the revered German Bauhaus. When form follows function, something near-perfect emerges. It is almost impossible to improve on the Anglepoise.
So typically British in its artful appropriation of something foreign. The original Dr Maertens were sports-orthopaedic footwear for Bavarian climbers. Translated to this country, they were commercially insignificant until the first youth cults (another British speciality) acquired them as badges of rank.
Aston Martin DB5
This most seductive example of great British design reveals the absurdities of national identity. People called Bertelli and Marek were fundamental to the company's history. The movie product placement that immortalised it used a Scottish actor who looked quintessentially English because he was wearing an Italian Brioni suit. And that beautiful body? It was designed by Carrozzeria Touring of Milan.
There is something pitiably elegiac about the Chopper, with its crude yearning for West Coast customising. A witless sample of Seventies industrial camp, it was the last gasp from the company that invented the safety bicycle. With its crude technology but flashy looks, it was a demonstration of the British disease - a direct contemporary of the Morris Marina and Bond Bug.
Mary Quant said she "disagreed with what women did to themselves". Her motivation was the same as Terence Conran's - an enlightened urge to modernise London. So much so that by the Seventies, the expression "Mary Quant's London" was a historical style label. Her mini skirt appeared in 1964, the same year the first Habitat opened in Chelsea.
Feline, taut, sexy, the first production car to be on permanent display in New York's Museum of Modern Art, the 1961 Jaguar is considered among the most beautiful cars ever. The result of a fertile working relationship between an idiosyncratic and headstrong proprietor and an aerodynamicist of genius, the E-Type's explicit phallomorphism anticipated the Sixties sexual revolution.
The Penguin was the iPod of its day. Paperbacks were very familiar in Europe, but Allen Lane's initiative was singular. Before Penguin, book design was a by-product of the printer's craft. But Lane had a conviction that well-designed, neatly consumerised products, available everywhere, provided an accessible capsule of culture so readers could enter worlds of their own while commuting on the Metropolitan Railway. More than any Education Act, Penguin redesigned the intellectual landscape of Britain. It was that rarest of things - a great modernist project that worked.
As F R Leavis said of the Sitwells, they made a greater contribution to the history of PR than to the history of literature. So too, perhaps, with James Dyson and design. But his ingenious cleaners have been consistently and adroitly promoted, making his name generic in record time. There are questions about performance and reliability (not to mention garish aesthetics) but by making an everyday appliance stand out, Dyson added vitality to the domestic landscape, and made a big international statement about "British design".
Matthew Carter's Verdana is designed to be read on a screen, although it also works on the printed page. Character heights are exaggerated for clarity, and special care was taken so that vertical letters such as "l" and "i" are not easily confused. He is the great typographer of the computer age.
The internet was developed by the US to secure its missile systems in the event of an attack, but it took an Englishman to realise its true potential. Tim Berners-Lee's development of the World-Wide Web is as significant as Gutenberg's creation of movable type.Reuse content