Last week’s fire at the Glasgow School of Art brought to mind a lesser known Charles Rennie Mackintosh building, far from the Mackintosh theme park of Glasgow. 78 Derngate in Northampton was completed in 1917 and comprehensively restored with a museum added in 2003.
Rennie Mackintosh, on the shallow, downward curve of his career, remodelled the original Georgian town house for his client and patron Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke, the owner of a local business manufacturing model trains. The house was for Bassett-Lowke and his new bride, Florence Jane Jones, and features top-to-bottom, inside-and-out, furniture-and-all, familiar Rennie Mackintosh tropes; super-sized chair backs, vertical extension in composition, repetitive patterning effects, and sharp symmetry throughout. A minor masterpiece well worth a visit in other words.
That model train connection turns out to be interesting. Bassett-Lowke’s business was essentially a manufacturing engineering business, turning out train sets and accessories for a growing market in the early 1900’s.
The train paraphernalia needed ‘designing’, for sure, but it was Bassett-Lowke’s commitment to a larger idea of design that is striking. His investment in, and collaboration with, a world-leading designer and architect is unusual for a manufactuing engineer, to say the least, and reveals a mind open to the value that good design could bring, both to business and to life.
The battles between engineers and designers are well known to anyone who has worked or taught in one or other of the subjects. Engineers think design is some fluffy (and probably unnecessary) addition to the technical, manly, business of producing important things, while designers generally think of engineers as small minded, unnecessarily obstructive, and overly conservative. Though the cliché wears thin in places, the structure of it remains sound.
Why did Bassett-Lowke see a value in design? We might think that the model products of his business – railways, stations, figures, houses, hedges, and, of course, the trains themselves – led to thinking of the subsequent construction of the model as a creation of a small world (every consumer an omniscient narrator of infrastructural development!). Bassett-Lowke, a successful businessman, probably viewed the actual world a bit like that; a manipulable, work-in-progress for a better future. And this view of the world helped him to realise that good design could help achieve and communicate concrete, ‘real-world’ progress. He also clearly saw it as something that could have a qualitative effect on his life.
The collaboration with Rennie Mackintosh – and it does seem a genuine collaboration with Bassett-Lowke asking pointed questions of Rennie-Mackintosh’s evolving design – would have provided great insight into the process of design. Subsequently, perhaps through ideas of design that he was introduced to by Rennie-Mackintosh, the output of Bassett-Lowke’s factory was more consciously designed. Not the trains themselves, which remained simulacra of the real thing, but the packaging, which was more graphic and composed, as was the lettering and graphics for the company.
Each year, starting with Rennie Mackintosh, Bassett-Lowke would commission a designer to design a Christmas card for him, something that would have seemed something of an indulgence to most engineers (and probably most in his own company), but something that illustrates a growing aesthetic sensibility and its importance in achieving longevity. Over time the collection of Christmas cards has formed a significant legacy of Bassett-Lowke’s company.
When it came time to move house from the Derngate, Bassett-Lowke turned to another discipline-spanning designer, Peter Behrens, who worked at many scales, from products to graphics, to architecture, famously with AEG in Germany. In another whole-hearted collaboration, though this time led by an increasingly confident and design-literate Bassett-Lowke, an entirely new Northampton house was designed and realised in 1926, appropriately called ‘New Ways’; one of the first houses of the modern movement to exist in the UK.
As demand for train sets began to dwindle, during the Second World War, Bassett-Lowke turned his model-making skills to help in rebuilding a battered and occasionally ruined country. He worked with local council architects and planners to produce scale-models of new urban environments, helping to envision a new designed and ordered world. This way of visualising the urban future through physically modeling would have been relatively scarce in 1943, though model-makers are often part of large architectural and urban-design practices now.
Bassett-Lowke’s is a story both of appreciating the value of design – and importantly acting on that appreciation through investment – as well as one of collaborating across traditionally antagonistic disciplines. It is a little-known story we would do well to learn from.