Michael T. Saler’s The Avant-Garde in Interwar England is an account of the English version of modernism that carried forward the social ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement, focussing on Frank Pick (above), the boss of London Underground, who commissioned the modernist stations of the Piccadilly, Northern and Metropolitan Lines and a raft of avant garde posters for the Underground.

Osterley Station, 1935

Pick played a leading role in the Design and Industries Association (DIA) and the Council for Art and Industry (CAI) putting him at the centre of design reform.

E. McKnight Kauffer, 1924

The CAI , which stood in a line that linked the Chamber of Horrors in the South Kensington Museum to the Design Council, was central to the art and industry debate of the 1930s, which sought to raise the standard of consumer products, ostensibly because better design would improve sales and exports. It saw the need to raise the sights of industrialists and to improve the taste of consumers. But why, if poor design was a brake on sales, was it necessary to improve consumer taste? If the consumer had poor taste, he or she would not discriminate between well-designed goods and badly-designed goods and badly-designed goods would sell just as well as good.

Saler solves this conundrum. The idea of fitness for purpose that drove the modernism of the DIA, the CAI and Pick’s Underground was, he says, more than the physical usefulness of objects: it entailed moral and spiritual fitness as well. As Pick put it, “Fitness for purpose must transcend the merely practical and serve a moral and spiritual order as well. There is moral and spiritual fitness to be satisfied. We know it sure enough when we see it.” Good design was not merely a matter of taste, understood as consumer preference, but was an objective standard with moral and spiritual significance. The ideas of good design that ran from the 1830s to the 1960s are difficult to understand from a modern prespective in which there are no aesthetic absolutes or general agreement and in which one design is thought to be as good as another. Standards of good design were ascertainable by a cultural elite who posessed taste and discrimination, which they were obliged to impart to manufacturers and the public. Good design was associated with planning and state direction and was not to be left to the vagaries of the market.

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