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Utility Design


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(1942–52)

The Utility Design programme was established under the Board of Trade during the early years of the Second World War both as a means of concentrating centres of production and as a means of restricting wastage of materials through the imposition of strict guidelines for the production of furniture and other goods. Although the first formal steps to limit the supply of such goods were initiated in 1941, the Utility Scheme itself was not launched until the following year following the establishment of the Advisory Committee on Utility Furniture in 1942 that aimed to establish products ‘of good, sound construction in simple but agreeable designs for sale at reasonable prices’. In many ways their rather stark, undecorated aesthetic was a legacy of the British Arts and Crafts Movement and offered British design reform campaigners an opportunity to put their beliefs into practice. Similar qualities were also to be found in ceramic design, clothing, and textile design. In fact, the Utility Advisory Committee consisted of many key voices in design debates in Britain in the interwar years, including Charles Tennyson, vice‐chair of the Council for Art and Industry (CAI), Elizabeth Denby, a leading figure in the CAI's Working Class Home Report of 1937, and a later director of the Board of Trade‐funded Council of Industrial Design, Gordon Russell. In the autumn of 1942 the first furniture range was exhibited to the public in a series of room settings that also included Utility influenced ceramics and examples of Utility utensils. The Utility Furniture Catalogue was launched in January 1943 and a Design Panel established under Gordon Russell six months later. Membership included the textile designer Enid Marx, who produced a wide range of furnishing fabrics under the scheme, typified by small‐scale patterns and repeats that were in line with minimal wastage. Clothing was also subjected to restriction during the war years and leading designers belonging to the Incorporated Society of London Fashion designers (including Hardy Amies, Norman Hartnell, and Worth) submitted designs that were economical with materials and a number put into mass production. One of the key aspects of the Utility programme had been that goods within its ambit had been exempt from purchase tax from 1942 onwards. After the end of the war there was increasing pressure from consumers and manufacturers to persuade the Board of Trade to widen the range of design options available to consumers. The 1946 Britain Can Make It exhibition, organized by the Council of Industrial Design, stimulated public debate on fresh design possibilities in the post‐war period and consumer desires were also spurred on in the fashion world by the extravagance of Christian Dior's ‘New Look’ in 1947. From 1948 the Board of Trade eased its directive that Utility furniture be manufactured to standard designs, allowing a much broader range of specifications. As a result, the Utility Mark could no longer be seen to be a means of indicating guaranteed standards and ‘value for money’ or safeguard for the consumer, a fact acknowledged in the 1952 Douglas Report reviewing Utility and Purchase Tax where a need was identified ‘for effective advice to enable [consumers] to distinguish between cheapness that is good value and cheapness that is bad economy’. The Utility Scheme formally came to an end in the same year

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Subjects: Industrial and Commercial Art.


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