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8 June 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:41am

The end of the White Heat era: the story of the British steel logo

Financiers Greybull Capital have promised to resurrect the name “British Steel” in their takeover of parts of Tata Steel UK. What does this mean for the golden age of British industrial design?

By Scott Anthony

“I was very pleased to do the steel symbol,” remembers David Gentleman, “because nationalised is what it should be.” The 86-year-old artist and designer is reflecting on one of the fascinating if less predictable fallouts from the current crisis in the steel industry – a debate about the health, importance and viability of British industrial design.

Here’s the immediate context. From the late 1960s onwards the image of British Steel became intertwined with David Gentleman’s iconic “S” shaped branding: an attractively virile reminder of the ambitions of the “White Heat” era. Now, in a twist of fate, financiers Greybull Capital have promised to resurrect the name “British Steel” in their takeover of parts of Tata Steel UK. Presumably in part because the use of a name associated with nationalised industry reassures in a way the term “specialists in turnaround investments” does not. Indian ownership is out and British Steel is (sort of) back.

The longer trajectory of Gentleman’s logo, as well as his career, could stand as something of a cautionary tale for the path of politics, industry and industrial design over the past fifty years or so. The logo was created in 1969 to give momentum to the newly formed British Steel Corporation, which had been created to bring strategic investment, as well as rationalisation, to an industry that had fragmented and stagnated in private hands. Gentleman’s “S” developed out of a visualisation of the manufacturing process; it resembled sheets of steel undergoing a strength test.
This branding work was part of an accomplished and at times heart-wrenchingly utopian programme of cultural activity. One of the many films sponsored by the industry, Design in Steel (1973), features a succession of artists and designers explaining how advances in production will underpin everything from the future of aesthetics to satellites. The strange richness of the cultural legacy reflects the fact that when the British Steel Corporation was formed, it was the largest steel manufacturer in the non-Communist world.

“Running through that Labour government, that White Heat moment, was the philosophy and projection of technology as the way forward,” says Jonathan Woodham, Professor of Design History at Brighton University. “It was a way of getting away from a reliance on old markets, a kind of response to the shock of the end of empire.”

Nevertheless, the Labour government’s multi-faceted attempt to build “steel appeal” depended on an appealingly no-nonsense lack of fuss as well as a circle of north London friendships. “Letrafilm with a knife stuck to a pair of compasses,” is Gentleman’s matter-of-fact description of the methods that gave birth to his enduringly fresh logo. He had won the commission after an intervention from his neighbour – the public relations expert, Will Camp – who had been unhappy with the officially sourced work. “They’d been looking for ideas and had not gotten anywhere so they asked me to submit some ideas. And I did.” The hi-tech future turns out to have also been a garden shed enterprise – with the best ideas produced in a hurry when layers of management had no time to opt for something less radical.

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“That Labour government were not just trying to transform aspects of manufacturing but also a wider social outlook,” says Woodham. “That was symbolised when Tony Benn was Postmaster General, and British stamps were renowned for the way in which they reflected great British engineering achievements and innovations of the past.” The aim was to lay a trail from Brunel to Dounreay: Britain was to be a positioned as a nation constantly at the vanguard of industrial revolution with science at the service of the labour movement. Nicely, this was also something that Gentleman was involved in – he both petitioned Benn to have the Queen’s head removed from stamps and produced some of the first stamps to feature “commoners”. There’s a fine GPO Unit film – Picture to Post (1969) – which shows Gentleman discussing the challenges of fitting Concorde on a stamp. Bringing things full circle, Benn was also the broker of arguably Gentleman’s most influential work of the 21st Century; the blood splattered posters and placards of the Stop the War coalition.

The wreckage of the great financial crisis has given new impetus to the mid century effort to create a thread linking great modern design with the practical problem-solving industrial innovations of the past. While the British design industry continues to be held in high regard the big existential question has always been about its future viability: the extent to which a design industry can float free of a diminished productive base. Here it’s perhaps telling that Gentleman’s later commissions – the National Trust, the Bodleian Library – have been servicing the heritage industry. It’s not just that industrial commissions have dried up, personal choice has also played a part, although Gentleman maintains “making things seems infinitely more interesting and worthwhile than marketing, although I have done very little of that.”

It’s certainly instructive comparing Gentleman’s iconic work with the image of Greybull Capital, the new custodians of British Steel. The public face of the investment company is one of those holding page only websites; visitors are directed to contact the Bell-Pottinger PR agency. That’s the agency set up by Timothy Bell, Margaret Thatcher’s communications advisor. Almost nothing is known about the family that runs Greybull, the Meyohas brothers, other than which public school they attended (Clifton) and that one of them is married to the socialite and art collector Michaela Nahmad. The web of White Heat era friendships formed in Camden Town has been replaced by the old money ties of Knightsbridge, except that while British Steel as was attempted to go out and spread the message today’s experts in so-called turnaround financing are keeping their calculations close to their chest.

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There’s a further ironic twist. While Greybull Capital are resurrecting the name of British Steel in the belief that with enough financial chopping pre-existing contracts with National Rail can still be made profitable, India is pressing ahead with the consolidation of its own design industry. In 2007 India adopted a national design policy and has begun aggressively investing in higher education by setting up a number of institutes modelled on the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad set up in the 1960s. Icons of British design such as Jaguar and Landrover have long been in Indian ownership now, while the UK government is divesting its commitment to design, the Indian government is creating a 21st equivalent of the Design Council set up in Britain during the aftermath of the Second World War.

From the industrial revolution to Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games’ steel has been central to the national imagination, but for how much longer?

You can see David Gentleman’s artwork at his website