Go back to article: Rather unspectacular: design choices in National Health Service glasses

The government and design

Economic and design historians have observed that the wartime context increased government powers and that the main outcome of these circumstances was to replace the trade and market forces with a ‘centrally managed economy in which the state allocated the most important resources, decided what should be produced, and determined how much should be paid for it’ (Howlett, 1994).

Cheryl Buckley and Judith Attfield both argue that this had enormous repercussions for design because central government took control; for example, with the introduction of rationing in 1941 and in 1942 the British Utility Design schemes; and they managed consumer demand on the basis of need rather than desire in an essential strategy to allow fair distribution of goods in times of hardship (Buckley, 2007). In the post-war period of austerity a fairly rapid recovery was achieved by continuing the state-managed economy, and this was paralleled by increasing state intervention in design. From 1930 to 1951 several government initiatives brought a focus on improving design, raised the question of what was good taste, and sought to educate the public about quality standards with a view to supporting the domestic economy in the context of anxiety about foreign competition. A board of trade committee, chaired by Lord Gorell, had examined how best to promote design for industry; this 1932 report resulted in the establishment of the Council for Art and Industry in 1933 and its successor the Council of Industrial Design in 1944. The government agenda here was to educate and inform in order to stimulate trade in both the domestic and export markets; exhibitions, fairs and publications were produced such as Britain Can Make It (1946), regional exhibitions such as Enterprise Scotland (1947) and ultimately the Festival of Britain (1951). Whilst these exhibitions have been the subject of much discussion and debate among historians about their aims and efficacy, their existence demonstrates that the government recognised the value of design awareness to the production of goods and trade in the economic regeneration of Britain.[12]

The circumstances for the government’s role in the optical trade were somewhat different; there was no need to generate demand for products through promotion of good design choices because the new universal National Health Service, with its provision for optical care, created the market and huge demand. There is no direct evidence of a link between the advisors of the Council of Industrial Design, or an active design-led agenda, with the initial production of the NHS range of spectacles; the government’s concern was that the frames could be manufactured, lenses ground, and spectacles distributed to meet the huge demand that was created at the inception of the service. As we shall see, this was a unique set of circumstances for society, the scientific and medical professions, and the optical trade.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170703/003