Obituary: Richard Stevens

Article excerpt

Richard Stevens, Royal Designer in Industry, was concerned with the function of everyday things, and for 14 years was head of all industrial design for Post Office Telecommunications (which later became British Telecom). He recognised, as indeed had the Royal Commission that preceded the 1851 Great Exhibition, that what was lacking in British manufactured goods was not technique but art.

His greatest professional achievement and opportunity was to be at the helm of the most advanced and extensive, graphic and product design exercise of post-war Europe. He was himself a designer of innovative lighting, and had pioneered the development both of injection-moulded streetlighting lanterns and (in 1959) the application of low-voltage lamps and associated equipment in display lighting.

A new future was opening for telecommunications in the 1970s but it was difficult to share the vision of a then remote digital world with politicians. Design was to help translate this vision into something tangible. Possibly the first report of the lack of commercial synergy between mail delivery and telephone services came in a graphic identity proposal for the various Post Office businesses in 1980, but the political and executive directive to the designers then was to hold them all together, however superficial their relationship. When change came, it was the responsibility of Richard Stevens to put an appropriate face on these technological and structural mysteries. Shortly after the 1980 introduction of British Telecom with its own visual identity as a separate entity from the Post Office, an aggressive question was asked in Parliament: "Would the phone box in the high street follow the new vehicle livery and be painted yellow?" A junior minister caught wrong-footed blurted out, "Of course not." By 7.30am the next morning Stevens was being doorstepped at his home in Surrey by an early bird from an evening newspaper. Always courteous, Stevens asked him in for breakfast and gave him the agreed formula, "British Telecom would paint kiosks with due sensitivity for the environment in which they were placed." The idea of the design manager giving any answer without passing it through the press office of British Telecom upset protocol, but what really did the damage was being shown in a large photograph in his dressing gown at the table with a cornflakes packet and milk in a milk bottle: cheap sneers all round. Stevens was sensitive to both public opinion and public environment and by that time, with the encouragement of the Director of the Design Council, Paul (later Lord) Reilly, his designers already had half a dozen Gilbert Scott kiosks painted in rich and sober liveries with special Roman lettering, ready for trials at "heritage sites". The parliamentary incident killed those off. There was always a gentle naivety about Stevens that left him defenceless in a large and political organisation. He was sometimes not well served by his staff and it was not unknown for a career opportunist to carefully set out a banana skin for him to step on. On occasion it took the combined vigilance of the three wiliest birds in the business to keep him out of hot water: Whitney Straight, the deputy chairman of the Post Office, Sir Hugh Casson and Lord Reilly. His designer's integrity was reinforced by his opposite number at the Royal Mail, Stuart Rose, who had reinforcements to spare of determination and commitment to the notion of "design as an expression of goodness". …