Interview

A Life of Drawing

London

8 May 2020

Last week, Disegno launched Draw for Victory, a competition in partnership with Modus and Anglepoise to give away two works by the celebrated designer Sir Kenneth Grange: a March chair and a Type 80 desk lamp.

The competition marks the launch of Grange's new March Lite chair for Modus, a rationalisation of his 2015 March chair with designer Jack Smith of SmithMatthias. The March Lite is the result of Grange's study of the production methodology behind March, and an attempt to refine the manufacturing process behind the piece. "If I’ve got anything still rolling along in production," says Grange, "I feel I have a responsibility for it."

To celebrate March Lite, Disegno is giving away one of the original March chairs (retail price: £529), as well as a Type 80 desk lamp (retail price: £199). Grange designed the Type 80 in 2019 as a 21st-century reimagining of engineer George Carwardine's original 1227 lamp from 1935, and introduced a graphic "halo" light-escape feature in the shade.

Disegno is looking for two winners, each of whom will receive a chair and lamp. Entering the competition is simple: all you have to do is submit a drawing of your favourite Kenneth Grange design to competition@disegnomagazine.com under the subject line Kenneth Grange competition. All entries will be judged by Disegno's editorial team.

To mark the competition, Disegno spoke to Grange about the role that drawing has played in his design career, as well as delving into the development process of the March Lite. An edited version of the conversation follows below.


Disegno How do you use drawing in your practice?

Sir Kenneth Grange I use it in different ways, but I would urge anybody, even the very youngest prospect of joining our trade, to get into the habit of keeping a diary. It doesn’t have to be the old fashioned kind of diary where you’re obligated to fill in a prescribed patch, but rather a notebook of your days that can become an important friend that is always in your bag or pocket. You’re likely to scribble all sorts of things in it – a drawing of somebody wearing a funny hat on a bus; somebody using a particular shopping bag; something that was on that shopping bag. I’ve got a lifetime’s collection of those sketchbooks, stretching back to my late teens, and that idea of keeping an active notebook is essential to a designer, because it means developing hand skills.

Disegno Do you archive your old sketchbooks ?

Sir Kenneth I’ve got the lot and they’re absolutely riveting because although the content is scruffy, they’re a chronicle of the days through drawing and scribbles. It starts to train you to think what the best medium to describe something you’ve seen is. They’re all over the shop in terms of content – very often it’s just details from a product that are otherwise unrecognisable – so they’re not presentation drawings, but rather enquiring drawings in which you’re looking into some aspect of construction or a detail. Elsewhere I might have more formal, technical drawings, but these are my memory of what still had to be resolved. What was up for grabs, so to speak.

Disegno In design, especially online, we’re typically only presented with a very polished final image. We see something glossy and impressive, but what goes missing are the failures and aborted attempts at a design. The messy history that lies behind any work is invisible.

Sir Kenneth That puts it very neatly. It’s a confused history of all the little bits and pieces, and not in any order of importance either. Ultimately those books are only seen by me, but almost any design has a number of layers. There are the end features, shapes, colours and purposes that go to make up a product and which make it saleable, but beneath that are all the umpteen little decisions that were made, some of which are entirely personal. Nobody else will ever notice those, let alone think them important, but those things are nonetheless what keeps us going. Our trade is essentially about looking for trouble and problems to solve.

Disegno What role does drawing play in your more formal design process? Do you draw to map out your ideas?

Sir Kenneth For a time I earned a living doing presentation drawings for architects, so I could turn a smart architectural perspective complete with birds, flowers and trees – all the junk you use to try and make a building look good. So when I started into product design I sometimes felt it necessary to illustrate what a product was going to look like, but I just couldn’t resist making models of everything. One of my early works was the Kenwood Chef, which became quite a successful product, and I only had a few days in which to put together [my proposal]. They probably simultaneously employed other designers to work on the same brief, because none of us were paid a lot of money, but chances are I was the only one who spent four days and three nights making a model. Even so, I could see that I was going to run out of time, so I cut the model right down the middle and took a mirror.That was a huge bit of good fortune because Ken Wood – a great salesman – really liked that trick and we became good friends ever after. So modelling took a very important place in my makeup, but I used drawing when I was with the client to make points and illustrate some tricky little connivance or detail that wasn’t so well worked out in the model. It’s so much easier when you have a mutual problem on the table in front of you to use drawing as a device.

Disegno Where do you stand on digital drawings and modelling software? Because on the one hand they lose some of the intimacy of traditional drawings, but they’re also intensely shareable through email and so on, as well as capable of being edited by multiple people. There’s something interesting in terms of exchange.

Sir Kenneth I’m elderly, so I don’t have any of those skills at all. I’m at a great disadvantage because I'm quite likely to receive a beautifully drawn image on the screen, print it, take a piece of tracing paper and then draw over it. Therein the problem. I’ve got something in front of me that is absolutely perfect, but how do I get it back to the client? There's a whole performance of scanning it and so on, and you can’t imagine the song and dance I get into trying to deal with this knife and fork method of dealing with electronics. There’s no escaping the fact that [digital technologies] give a good practitioner such a formidable weapon in terms of digging deeper and deeper into the intricacies of design. I love seeing them tear apart [a digital model] to see how the various bits interface and all of the tolerances. It’s a formidable tool and I envy it. I have nothing but admiration for it.

Disegno That capacity to delve into detail is interesting in relation to March and your new work on March Lite. When you spoke to Disegno about the original chair in 2015, you pointed out the slight futility of designing another wooden chair but said that it felt worthwhile in terms of the opportunity to work on detailing. What prompted you to revisit that with March Lite?

Sir Kenneth It's about the ongoing obligation and intimacy that anybody has with something they design. You design a thing – go through that whole long, complicated process – and then it goes out into the shops, but you still carry a degree of responsibility, even donkey’s years later. Over those succeeding years I look harshly at things and see that something could have been better done, or more economically done. As time goes on, the constructional and economic factors of a design intrigue me more and more, and one of the things I enjoy very much is to whittle away at a product as time goes on. Whether you wait for the original tooling to wear out, or you accelerate the change, it's a process that all products ought to go through. It happens inevitably in complex products like an aeroplane engine, which is constantly subject to ongoing refinements, but it seems a very honourable part of design in general to look harshly at what you've done with the ambition of seeing whether it could be done more economically.

Disegno Many writers, for instance, would not enjoy rereading their own work, just as many actors can’t think of anything worse than watching one of their own performances.

Sir Kenneth It’s enriching for a designer and that ongoing intimacy with manufacture is part of my obligation in life. If I’ve got anything still rolling along in production, I feel I have a responsibility for it. This is really where March Lite came from. It’s quite a telling aspect of product development that it’s usually a very long time before every little part of the manufacturing of something comes out of the woodwork, and it’s only after they’ve been running some decent numbers that makers start to look more harshly at how they could improve it. That side of a product – the emerging truths of its manufacture – only come out after a while.

Disegno So how did that process factor into March Lite?

Sir Kenneth From a design point of view, March is a perfectly good design and I’m very happy with it. But it was quite late in the day when we realised the full magnitude of the cost of one element – the back panel, which requires an expensive laminating veneer. So I got a chair at home, went into the workshop and chopped it about a bit to see how far I could remove that cost element, knowing that if I were to be successful it might have quite a profound effect. Out of that came March Lite, in which that back panel has been modified. It’s the only part that is significantly changed, but it makes a hell of a difference. Having seen that we could be more economic, we then took a lot of care to see whether modest changes to the design's shaping could reintroduce the good comfort factor we’d built into the March chair. If you sat them side by side, you would see the degree of comfort difference between the two, but March Lite is still very comfortable. They both have a place in the market.

Disegno How do you decide which projects to work on. You’ve worked across so many different typologies, so what lures you in?

Sir Kenneth There are almost no advantages to getting old. There are very bloody few, I can tell you. But one of them is to look more and more harshly at all sorts of commonplace things. As I’m sat talking to you now, for example, I’m looking at a laptop sat on a little platform that I’ve put together to bring the screen up to eye level. I’ve got a back problem and my physio says I must get into the habit of sitting up and looking straight ahead. Well that’s fine until you start to tinker with a laptop. Both the keyboard and the screen are pretty much on a lower level, and before you know it you’ve spent two or three hours in that mode and posture. At this point in my life I know it, because when I go to stand up it’s painful. So there’s a problem that I didn’t have 10 years ago. So I’ve made a little setup that puts the screen up at a certain height so I’m looking straight ahead, and if I turn my eyes down by about 15° I have a keyboard that is perpendicular to my view. The interesting thing is that because I’m not a touch typist, I’ve discovered that I make fewer mistakes with this rig because I’m looking straight at the marks atop the keys. So it’s possible to improve every damn thing you see around you and when you get older that improvement becomes a necessity. What I want to do is make everything more comfortable. So there’s no shortage of things to do.