Design Research Unit 1942-72

The Design Research Unit created some of the UK’s most iconic pieces of graphic design, from London’s street signs to the British Rail logo. A UK touring show, which has started at London’s Cubitt Gallery, celebrates four decades of the group’s work.

British Rail Corporate Identity Manual, c. 1965. All images by John Maltby, courtesy Scott Brownrigg (unless otherwise stated)

The Design Research Unit created some of the UK’s most iconic pieces of graphic design, from London’s street signs to the British Rail logo. A UK touring show, which has started at London’s Cubitt Gallery, celebrates four decades of the group’s work.

The DRU was founded in 1943 by poet and art critic Herbert Read, advertising entrepreneur Marcus Brumwell, and designers Misha Black and Milner Gray. From the outset the group intended to consolidate design’s position in the world, expressing a desire to bring “artists and designers into productive relation with scientists and technologists”. The group were also highly unusual in the range of disciplines that their work spanned: they were the first practice to combine expertise in architecture, graphic design and industrial design.

DRU’s London street sign design in situ, with the BR logo featured in advertising on the bus behind

The show at Cubitt begins by giving an insight into the working life of the designers before the group was born. Various objects relating to the Bassett-Gray Group of Artists and Writers (1921-35), where Black and Gray first worked together, are displayed, including documents relating to the annual Bibbing Ceremony dinners, where new members were initiated into the group, as well as the ceremonial ‘bibbing cup’. There is also a charming advertisement created for the Industrial Design Partnership on display, which states simply ‘We believe that there is no better way of selling your goods than that we design them’ and is undersigned by six designers, including Black and Gray.

Packaging and stationary for Ilford Ltd, c by the Design Research Unit
Packaging and stationary for Ilford Ltd, c. 1946

Fascinating documents from the formation of the Design Research Unit are then shown, which outline the group’s aims. These emphasise the desire to provide a functional design service to society. The first aim is “to provide a practical design service for industry”, while the next is “to collect and correlate information about industrial design from all sources, in this way acting as a clearing-house for manufacturers who need advice on such matters”. Other aims include encouraging designers to experiment with new materials, and to create a school of design that is “contemporary in spirit and progressive in outlook”.

Designed by the design research unit
Misha Black’s suggestion for the 1951 Festival of Britain

The exhibition reveals how the DRU put these ideals for post-war design progression into practice, and includes Black’s ambitious proposal from 1946 for the 1951 Festival of Britain, which included ‘helicopter rides’ and a ‘controlled parachute’ to bring people down to earth. In 1947, Black was appointed as Coordinating Architect for the upstream section of the Festival, and while some of his more outlandish suggestions remained on paper, he was responsible for the architecture and design of the Regatta Restaurant and the decoration of the Bailey Bridge. Associates from the group also produced ten thematic displays for The Dome of Discovery, designed by Ralph Tubbs. Other projects by Black from later years are also on display, including examples of his work as a consultant to London Transport from 1963-75 (which included co-ordinating all aspects of the design for the Victoria Line’s opening in 1969), and architectural designs for the Charles Clore Pavilion for Mammals at London Zoo.

Corporate identity programme for Watney Mann Ltd, Cock & Lion, London, W1, 1961

Much of the rest of the exhibition is given over to the DRU’s branding and graphic design work, led by Milner Gray, which is a delight to see. Included is the scheme for British Rail (from 1955-66), which encompassed all aspects of the network’s operation, from station signage to company uniforms, as well as the iconic British Rail two-arrow symbol (the DRU also recommended a name change to the company at this time, from ‘British Railways’).

The DRU’s identity design for Ilford photographic company is on display, as well as the group’s work for Watneys brewery. A complex identity was created for the beer brand, with five different examples of lettering and decoration to be used, depending on the architectural style of each public house. Photographs of various pubs are shown in the exhibition, as well as Watneys labels, cans and beermats.

Design by the research design unit
Watneys public house interior

The show finishes with work from the 1970s, including a selection of corporate identity manuals, and early designs from an architect who would later become an individual star in the industry: Richard Rogers. An associate (alongside his then wife Su) at RDU, he was commissioned to design the architecture and furnishings for the rooftop extension at the DRU offices on Aybrook Street in 1972.

Gray’s identity designs for Watneys, photograph: Council of Industrial Design

Despite its modest size, this exhibition is a thoughtful and thorough introduction to the Design Research Unit’s work, revealing the huge impact that the group had on the look of post-war Britain, as well as the far-reaching influence its ideas had on the creative industry, which included the merging of creative disciplines and the development of uniform corporate identities for brands. The exhibition will be at the Cubitt Gallery in London until October 23, before visiting Norwich, Bournville, St Ives, Liverpool and Nottingham over the next several months (details of the tour can be found on the Cubitt site, here). A book of the work, with design from A Practice For Everyday Life, will be published by Koenig Books later this year.

The British Rail logo is on our list of Top 20 logos of all time.

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