David Carter CBE RDI 1927-2020

Published on: 18th November 2020

DCA is very sorry to announce that our founder, Professor David Carter CBE RDI passed away on 16th November 2020 after a short illness. David was a true pioneer of the industrial design industry, both educating some of the world’s leading designers, as well as designing some of the twentieth century’s most iconic products, from the Stanley Knife to London’s Central Line Train, over a thirty-year career.

David started practising as a consulting industrial designer in 1960, describing the service he was offering as ‘a multidisciplinary consultancy involved in designing products for mass production’. David retired in 1992, but his multidisciplinary philosophy remains a cornerstone of our approach.

Rob Woolston, DCA Managing Director said, ‘We are very sorry to hear of the passing of David. He was a most charming and engaging chap. He was a true pioneer in the design world, establishing a multidisciplinary approach to design that has endured so well that, if anything, it is even more relevant today than ever.’

Below is a tribute to the life of his father by Jonathan Carter.

A Pioneering Industrial Designer

David Carter’s professional breakthrough came in 1961 with his design for the re-imagining of the now ubiquitous Stanley knife. Functional and elegant it captured the mood of the time and set the course for a life creating and championing the cause of good design.

Although he will probably be best remembered for his crisp, thoughtful design solutions, it was actually the process by which those designs were developed and delivered that really excited him. As a point of principle during the course of his career he actively promoted this by assigning any intellectual property rights to his clients, rather than protect them by filing for patents himself. He always insisted that this was not an act of altruism on his part, but rather the only practicable way in which he felt it would be possible to ensure the efficient execution and dispatch of a design contract against the cut and thrust of commercial life. The only alternative, he believed, would have been to protect every 'good idea' which may have emerged in the course design development by applying for a patent. This would have been a time-consuming process and one which he felt would hamper his ability to deliver the best professional service to as many different clients as possible.

It was this attitude that most clearly typified his attitude to his professional work and he would freely admit that he was more interested in designing and teaching rather than pursuing immediate more commercial interests.

For a schoolboy growing up in Leicester during World War 2 David’s pathway into design was anything but straightforward. Just after D Day in 1944 his father suggested to him that, now he was 16, perhaps he should stop messing about at school and begin to think about the more immediate business of earning a living. What his father really meant was that he had heard that there was a job going at a local engineering firm and the family could do with the money. This was harsh blow for the Wyggeston Grammar School boy who already had his heart set on taking his Higher School Certificate and hopefully earning a place at university.

As it turned out his father probably unwittingly created not only the desire but also the fierce drive in him which helped him carve out an extraordinary career. In later life David recalled his fear of losing mental sharpness after leaving full time education so he made himself work through quadratic equations in his head whilst working at his lathe. Somewhat surprisingly he survived with all his fingers intact and this example of unwavering determination served him well.

The job was an apprenticeship in the tool room of a factory which made small parts for aircraft – such as, in Shed No.1, long-range fuel drop-tanks for Spitfires (the tanks being laminated, literally, from brown paper and fish glue). In Shed No.2, flexible machine-gun muzzle-plugs were being low-pressure moulded at high speed twenty four hours a day, and in Shed No.9, gaudy articulated dolls were being turned out with 'unbreakable' slosh-moulded faces and go-to-sleep eyes.

His boss, who looked after this bizarre mix of production technology, turned out in fact to be a sculptor who had graduated three years previously from the Slade. He was then directed by the Ministry of Labour into the aircraft industry and was very enthusiastic about the emerging processes of mass production. David found himself taken under his wing and as a result was able to attend the local art school for a few hours a week as well as undergo a rigorous course in tool room and pattern shop practice. At the same time he was also encouraged to spend time in the works production laboratory and to take an interest in the new plastic materials which was just beginning to arrive from America. So although he would have been extremely reluctant to admit it at the time, this somewhat haphazard apprentice experience yielded tremendously valuable training and completely connected with his innate fascination with the practical application of art.

Called up for National Service in the Navy in 1946, he was accepted for training as a radar mechanic. This began with a year-long course·in radio theory and practice at Walthamstow Technical College which involved being bussed daily to and from a Naval boarding house in Thurloe Square, almost next door to the 'Britain Can Make It ' exhibition. It was the exhibition rather than the radar course that proved life changing for David, the major theme of which was ‘What Industrial Design Means’ featuring Misha Black’s ‘The Birth of an Egg Cup’. This had an electrifying effect on him and he later recalled visiting on five separate occasions not least to make sure whether the plastic egg cups really could be injection-moulded’.

Like many of his generation, National Service afforded an unexpected, but very welcome, opportunity to re-engage with full time education and on being de-mobbed he was accepted to study Industrial Design within a newly formed department at the Central School of Art and Design. This proved an intensely fulfilling period spent grappling with the mysteries of design during which he met the beautiful young artist Theo Towers, who would later become his wife.

After his final year David was awarded a travel bursary by the Royal Society of Arts which he spent in Scandinavia studying the work of designers such as Kai Bojesen and Arne Jacobsen, whose influence could so clearly be seen later in his own work. When time and money ran out he returned to set about the serious task of finding a job. Post war Britain was still struggling to find its feet and opportunities generally were thin on the ground. The idea of finding employment as a design consultant felt impossible so David targeted roles as an ‘in house’ designer for manufacturers. After many rejections he finally found a job with a large company making gas appliances and moved up to Birmingham’s Black Country with Theo who was working as a freelance fashion illustrator for Vogue magazine.

During these years David learnt the nuts and bolts of his craft and began to appreciate the complexity of the design process, particularly the vast number of disciplines which were required to coordinate to achieve the production of even the simplest product. He also became aware of how often poor communication between processes had a detrimental effect on the quality of the finished product. He became more convinced than ever that the answer was to develop an over-arching design consultancy available to all, rather than to continue to work from within a single organisation.

It was therefore with considerable trepidation that in 1960 he gave up the security of full time employment to take up a part time lectureship in industrial design at Birmingham School of Art under the leadership of his old tutor Naum Slutzky. His hope was that he might find time between one student and the next to develop his own particular vision of an industrial design consultancy service – one with a wider understanding of all the disciplines involved.

It was a gamble that paid off and his consultancy work grew quickly to the point where in 1963 he felt confident enough to set up his own studio. The question of location was easily resolved by the fact that at that time David was relying on a very select group of clients – Stanley Tools in Sheffield was one, the majority of the others being in London. So a map, pin and ruler were employed to find a suitable spot equidistant between the two locations and an office was duly created in the attic of the new family home in Leamington Spa.

Although he later described this period of his professional life as financially highly precarious, David Carter Associates quickly established itself as a significant force and key projects at the time included the award winning design for orbital casters developed for Joseph Gillot as well as the beautifully refined version of the Stanley knife which quickly became a design icon. These early successes meant that the business outgrew the home office from which it had been nurtured and relocated to new premises in nearby Warwick under the name DCA. A tribute to both David and his successors is that DCA is still thriving in Warwick today.

Winning Design Council Awards in 1961, 1969 and 1974 and being awarded the Duke of Edinburgh’s prize for elegant design in 1967, David became more interested in raising the profile of design generally and began to develop a strong connection with The Society of Industrial Artists and Designers (SIAD) and the Design Council. With the help and support of Lord Paul Reilly he was active as Deputy Chairman of the Design Council for 12 years from '72 -'84 and president of the Society of Industrial Designers in 1974. In 1974 he was also awarded the title of Royal Designer for Industry and subsequently invited to contribute to a working group chaired by the Duke of Edinburgh with the specific aim of improving standards in design education within the UK. During this time he also served as an external examiner for design at the Central School of Art.

Appointed a CBE in 1980 he also worked closely with The Royal Society of Arts becoming chairman of their Arts Design Board in 1983 and being invited to serve as a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission between 1985 and 1995.

Another important strand to David’s professional life was his involvement with the Conran Foundation Boilerhouse Project and Design Museum. The Boilerhouse Project was developed by Sir Terence Conran as a showcase for design and, as its name suggests, was housed in the old boiler house of the V&A Museum. By the very nature of the lofty ambitions it aspired to, the key personalities involved were both passionate and vocal about direction, David was perhaps seen as a modifying influence and was appointed chairman of the trustees to oversee its move to a new purpose built museum at Shad Thames where it was opened in 1989 as The Design Museum.

By the early 1990’s his primary focus was beginning to shift away from private practice towards education and he was appointed Professor of Industrial Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art in 1991 a post which he held until his retirement in 1995.

It would be easy to define David’s life by his professional work alone, but there were other passions and enthusiasms which needed to be sated. The most prominent of these was his love of Ireland, or more precisely his unconditional love of a small corner of West Cork.

Born to an Irish mother he was always drawn west and in the 1970’s bought a derelict coastal cottage a few miles from Glandore which he and Theo restored to become the focus for family summers over the next 40 years. Lasting friendships were made with locals and blow-ins alike and a simple life spent messing around in boats, perfecting the art of creating coarse soup and building beautiful dry stone walls. All in all, the perfect antidote to the cut and thrust of the design world which explains why the house in Tralong remained such a constant source of comfort and enjoyment for David and his whole family.

Theo died in 2013 and David continued to live on alone in their house in the Cotswolds until his failing health required greater support at which point he moved into a care home in Stow-on-the-Wold. He struggled with dementia over recent years but has been supported with wonderful care and kindness by the staff and other residents which enabled him to lead as full a life as was possible.

Born on 30th December 1927, David died on 16th November 2020 and is survived by his four children and nine grandchildren.