FRANK PICK

frank_pick,_1939

I’m reading Michael T. Saler’s The Avant-Garde in Interwar England, about the English version of modernism that carried forward the social ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The book focuses on Frank Pick (above), the boss of London Underground, who commissioned the modernist stations of the Piccadilly, Northern and Metropolitan Lines and the posters that advertised the underground.

osterley
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.

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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. What I’ve never been able to understand about this movement is that 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?

Saler makes it clear that the idea of fitness for purpose that drove the modernism of the DIA, the CAI and Pick’s underground was more than the physical usefulness of objects and entailed moral ans 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 a matter of taste, understood as consumer preference, but objective standards with moral and spiritual significance. The ideas of good design that ran from the 1850s to the 1960s are hard to understand from our viewpoint, in which we see no aesthetic absolutes and see one design is as good as another. Design was associated with planning and and state direction and was not to be left to the vagaries of the market and personal preference.

MY LIFE AS A MOD

My sociology professor, Stan Cohen, wrote a book Folk Devils and Moral Panics about the Mod on Rocker battles at Margate, Brighton and Bournemouth in the early 1960s and introduced the term “moral panic” into the language. Stan hung out with the Mods and Rockers for his PhD research.

Ringo Starr, asked if he was a Mod or a Rocker, said, “I’m a Mocker”. I never had a parka or a Lambretta, but I was a Mod, a proper Mod, a Mod before Mod. I was into Hard Bop, Italian fashion and the International Style. Hard Bop was the style of modern jazz that succeeded Bebop, exemplied by Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley and Thelonious Monk. I despised the Trad Jazz Revival, with those repulsive phonies from the home counties, Chris Barber and Acker Bilk – the first rivalry, before Mods and Rockers, was Modernists vs. Trads.

Around 1960, as my parents’ finances improved, we left behind the holiday resorts of Margate and Bournemouth and went to Riccione and Viareggio. Riccione, “The Green Pearl of the Adriatic”, had been made popular by Mussolini in the 1930s and was expanding rapidly post-war, with cool modernist hotels and a spacious promenade. Italy led the world in fashion and interior design. Sharp, neat Italian clothing was pushing aside the baggy demob suits and short-back-and-sides of British men. We north London boys wore narrow trousers, narrow ties, short jackets and hair cut the same length all over.

1960 was the high tide of modernism. Town planners and architects swept away everything old, cramped and impractical. Building was functional, streamlined and airy. Ornament was crime and Victorian a four-letter word.

My taste in music was influenced by my friend Russell, whose father was the jazz drummer Tony Crombie. We followed Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk, who came over to play at the Gaumont State Cinema in Kilburn. I was wearing trousers and ties I’d bought in Italy and carrying books about Le Corbusier and Mies van de Rohe. We liked the way black jazz musicians dressed, but the most stylish dresser of all was Nat King Cole.  The Mods of Brighton and Margate, with razor blades sewn into their parkas, had some style, but they were johnny-come-latelies.

Dizzy Gillespie
Modern Jazz Quartet
Thelonious Monk
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
Nat King Cole, the sharpest dresser of all
Me in Viareggio, 1959