What Is It That Makes British Design So British?

What is it that makes british design so british image

From the beautiful sweeping lines of the Spitfire to seductive curves of the Jaguar E-Type, the practical clarity of the Routemaster’s functional design, to the craft sensibility of a William Morris textile, in the end British design masterfully embodies a purposeful beauty that sets it apart and reflects the perfect balance between form and functions.

What Is British Design?

A seafaring island nation, Britain has always looked beyond it shores and assimilated foreign influences into its own cultural canon. At the same time, her people have looked inwards and developed a resource full inventiveness and a powerful sense of self-reliance. 

Both characteristics are reflected in how British designers and engineers have approached problem-solving, which is essentially what design is all about.

Every design starts with an idea, a belief that there is a better solution to be found, whether through evolutionary honing or revolutionary thinking. British designers and engineers seem to have a special gift for taking pragmatic approach in pursuit of this goal of “the better thing”, and for the skilful balance of form with function. 

Philosophy Of British Design

The distinctive qualities od British design were born out of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, and the Arts & Crafts Movement of the nineteenth century. 

This balance between engineering and craft has probably shaped British design more than anything else. Even before the engines of industrial change began to roll in the early 1700s, there was a definably English way of making things. 

Dutch Design | The Humorous Aspect Of Design image
Dutch Design | The Humorous Aspect Of Design

In the words of eminent design historian John Gloag, “Form the time when the crude chests of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were decorated with roundels of chip carving… an unmistakable affinity of purpose is apparent, disclosing that deep affectionate sympathy for materials, that sense of apt selection and gay orderliness in the forms of embellishment, which are inseparable ingredients of the English traditional of design.”

History Of British Design

In the sixteenth century, the English Reformation brought in its wake what became known as a “protestant ethic” that would inform the development of a more thoughtful approach to design and manufacture over the coming centuries. 

Although different foreign influences - Dutch and French, Cinese and Indian - became fashionable within the decorative arts during this era, they were only ever permitted a fleeting modishness and were never really allowed to disrupt the graceful proportions or purposeful function of a design.

According to William Hogarth’s book The analysis of beauty 1753 principles for the attainment of timeless beauty in relation to design are:

  • the notion of “fitness”
  • “Simplicity” that “serves to prevent perplexity in forms of elegance”
  • “Proportion”, which he defined as “a just symmetry and harmony of parts with respect to the whole.”

It could be argued that Josiah Wedgwood was the first to put Hogarth’s theory into practice, in his pursuit of the classical idea and his implementation of a systemized method of mass-production. His Queen’s Ware range of cream- coloured ceramics, with its simple classical forms, certainly accorded entirely with Hogarth’s notion of good taste.

Similarly, the Coalbrookdale foundry- established by Abraham Darby, one of the founding fathers of the Industrial Revolution - soon progressed from manufacturing purely functional cooking pots and cauldrons to producing cast-iron seat furniture, fire surrounds, doorstops and more, which had a classically- inspired elegance as well as a functional purpose.

Recent Most Influential British Designers

British design has always been at the forefront of global trends, with products that combined function with creativity. Technological advancement pushed British design towards new heights in the recent decades, and Britain’s trendiest contemporary product designers are now creating clean-cut, inspired, beautiful pieces that serve as much more than objects of aesthetic value. From hoovers to Olympic torches, some of the most important British product designers can be listed as
  • Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby
  • Bethan Gray
  • Thomas Heatherwick
  • Sebastian Begne
Thomas Heatherwick is perhaps the UK’s most famous designer, who designs across multiple industries with apparent ease. Nothing seems out of his reach – the past five years have seen him designing furniture, buses, the Olympic Cauldron for the London 2012 opening ceremony, and a new pedestrian bridge for London with actress Joanna Lumley. He specialises in objects which twist the viewer’s expectations – stools built like spinning tops, with no solid base; benches formed by squeezing aluminium through a shaped hole, or a plank that can be folded into a chair in seconds.


1- Fiell Charlotte, 2013, Masterpieces of British Design,  London: Goodman Fiell - pp. 7-10

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