The Design Research Unit (DRU) was one of the first British design consultancies to combine graphics, architecture and industrial design. Now a touring exhibition showcases their biggest achievements, including the Festival of Britain, British Rail and Watneys Brewery. And it had guest reviewer Johnny Cullen feeling all “Get Carter”…
Put simply, the DRU thought better design could improve Britain culturally, socially and economically. They certainly got off to a good start. The 1951 Festival of Britain was wildly successful, and Micha Black’s South Bank proposals are well worth seeing. Other work on display includes eye-catching commissions for Ilford Cameras, ICI and the Victoria Line.
The DRU’s 1965 rebranding of British Railways was another smash hit. Initially slated by the press, their Swiss-inspired logo is still going places 46 years later.
"A pint of bitter. In a thin glass."
The Watneys Brewery rebrand is the show’s centrepiece. DRU hotshot Milner Gray took the lead, and he aced it. Even now, the plastic lettering and slab serif font jumps out at you. Copied by countless UK pubs and shopping centres, it took me straight back to the Birmingham I knew in the 80s. And that's where the trouble starts. Some DRU work can seem like the font of failure; brutalist shorthand for dodgy boozers, dark subways and rough estates. Even its name - the Design Research Unit - now sounds impersonal, more suited to Soviet-style social engineering than considerate urban planning. So it’s interesting to see how hopeful and positive their members actually were.
"You're a big man, but you're in bad shape…"
Are you a fan of post-war British architecture, design and typography? Then you should definitely check this exhibition out. Rightly or wrongly, for me it captures the Britain of Mike Hodges' 1971 classic "Get Carter". It’s First Class smoking carriages, flashy new gadgets and strange concrete landscapes.
We see a Britain that's trying to design a brighter future; to re-imagine city living on a grander, futuristic scale. Misplaced or not, the DRU's creativity, vision and optimism really shine through.
“The Design Research Unit: 1942-1972” is a touring Cubitt Gallery exhibition.