Whenever business leaders talk about bringing good design to their companies, I think of an old British Home Stores executive of long ago. The executive had been blamelessly buying frocks and knickers for Bhs for many years when along came Sir Terence Conran with plans to shake things up and introduce some aesthetics to Middle England.
At one meeting, she proudly displayed a particularly loud floral frock to Sir Terence, and was devastated when the arbiter of good design mocked it as "a charlady print" and ordered that it should not be given house room in his stores. You could see the anguish as the buyer later described how the frock had, until then, flown off the racks by the thousands of dozen.
Sir Terence might sniff at it. The public had loved it. And Sir Terence failed at Bhs, which limped along for another 15 years. It took a rag trader by the name of Philip Green - a deal-maker who didn't much care about highfalutin notions of good design so long as he could clear the stuff at a profit - to turn Bhs around, and make himself a billionaire.
Now, Vittorio Radice at Marks & Spencer will attempt to chivvy the public into buying in to a design revolution. Radice was a huge hit at Selfridges, where he transformed a rather dowdy Oxford Street department store into all that is most chic and exciting. He was poached by M&S with a £1.2m golden hello and potential of rewards many times that. Last month, he launched Lifestore, the first of a chain of M&S home furnishings sheds, in Gateshead. Days later, he was promoted to run the entire clothing operation of M&S as well.
Radice, a passionate advocate of good design, makes great copy. He berates the old guard at M&S for being obsessed with trying to please the middle-class, middle-aged women of Britain's market towns. "I hold a mirror up to every product and think, could I sell that in Milan, could I sell that in Paris?" he gushed to the Financial Times. "If the answer is no, then I don't want it."
His shareholders are more doubtful. The bills are big - the Gateshead store cost £14m - and they wonder whether the mass market is ready for his peculiar brand of evangelising. How many Tynesiders want to, or indeed can afford to, spend £749 on a scallop armoire or £450 on a cherry-wood coffee table?
The design industry desperately wants Radice to succeed. A lot of design gurus have spent a lot of time trying to persuade the suits that good design pays. The Design Council is the latest on this bandwagon, the other day launching a study which purports to show that good design leads to better share price performance. In conjunction with FTSE Group, the number crunchers that compile stock-market indices, it has created an index of companies reckoned to be effective users of design. This index has outpaced the FTSE 100 by 200 per cent in the past decade.
Ergo, claims David Kester, chief executive of the Design Council, good design delivers to shareholders. "The research establishes, for the first time, that a commitment to design . . . delivers benefits to a company and its shareholders in terms of long-term financial performance." There is so much questionable about this claim that I don't know where to begin. Who decides what good design is in the first place? The sole criterion for inclusion in the index was that a company had won design awards - for logo design, packaging, whatever. Any award-winners that flopped commercially by definition couldn't be included in the index. And the study, while claiming to find a causal link between good design and share price performance, doesn't worry when one comes years after the other. Winning an award any time in the past ten years is good enough for the Design Council.
One could equally argue from the evidence that financial success gives companies the time and resources to enter for design awards. Or - just as likely - that financial success influences judges in who they award prizes to.
Though the Design Council, which footed the bill for the study, is financed by taxpayers, I am surprised that the normally robust FTSE was prepared to sanction such self-serving rubbish. It's easy to come up with an explanation of why a particular horse won after it passes the finishing post.
If David Kester cares to pick a portfolio of companies he reckons are good on design today and will therefore prove successful in future, I will be truly impressed. Indeed, I will happily apologise if it outpaces the FTSE 100 by more than a couple of percentage points a year over any reasonable time frame he wants to specify. If it outperforms by 200 per cent, then I will personally dance around the Design Council in nothing but my (non-designer M&S) underpants and eat any hat that Kester cares to hand me.
Patrick Hosking is deputy City editor of the London Evening Standard