Lesley Whitworth, 'Inscribing Design on the Nation: The Creators of the British Council of Industrial Design', Business and Economic History Online (3), 2005
As an aspect of Whitworth’s ESRC-AHRC funding for the project ‘Towards a Participatory Consumer Democracy: Britain, 1937-1987’ within the Cultures of Consumption research programme, she became a Visiting Research Fellow of the Business History Unit, London School of Economics and Political Science (the Unit’s Director, Dr Terry Gourvish was co-applicant), and attendance at a major US academic meeting was pre-figured in the bid. It was therefore a source of satisfaction when a paper was accepted by the Business History Conference, (North America’s foremost body promoting the study of business history and of the milieu in which business operates). Its 2005 theme was ‘Reinvention and Renewal’ and this provided a context in which Whitworth could address a key aim of her research: to account for the Council of Industrial Design’s formation at the precise moment of December 1944, in a more thorough-going way than had been reflected in earlier commentaries. Furthermore, it offered the opportunity to share with American scholars an initiative for which there was no equivalent in the very different political and cultural climate of that country.
The Conference is the publisher of Business and Economic History On-Line, and Whitworth was invited to submit her revised paper to the electronic journal’s usual editorial process for inclusion in BEH-online (3) 2005, where it is readily accessible. In this way it became the second of the project’s outcomes, and its findings constitute an important foundation for the monograph that will be its end result.
The article argues that notwithstanding more than a century of campaigning by Britain’s design reform community, and a degree of governmental recognition of the arguments for improved manufacturing standards, it nevertheless took the combined efforts of a group including temporary (wartime) businessmen civil servants to bring the Council into being. In a curious way, this reinsertion of the social and personal into the economic and political laid the ground for a project-related contribution to the exhibition ‘You never know when you might need them …’, held in the University’s Gallery between December 2004 and January 2005 (Curator, Terry Meade). The group of photographic portraits shown in this display were of the ‘heroes’ populating this research: whilst eschewing a hagiographic approach, the accompanying text insisted on the importance of oral testimony, visual evidence, and biographical detail, to contextualise, interrogate, and complement paper and text-based documentary sources such as those that dominate the archival collections informing this work.
Within the broad field of consumption studies, historians’ work on forms of state protection has emerged as an important sub-theme with Hilton’s Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement (2003) to the fore. The leading wartime role played by a key Council member in the UK government’s Consumer Needs Section, ensures that this research will continue to yield fruitful and provocative insights in the continuing debate.