Born in Enfield in 1911 Jack Howe attended the local grammar school and then enrolled to study architecture at the Regent Street Polytechnic. During the final two years he studied in the evening while working full-time for the architect Joseph Emberton during the day. In 1934 Howe was elected an associate to the Royal Institute of British Architects. He joined E. Maxwell Fry, where he oversaw the construction of Impington Village College, a revolutionary experiment in providing education for all in a single building. Due to a very tight budget Howe had to redesign almost every detail but succeeded in ensuring it was built in the spirit of the original conception of Walter Grophius (Hon.RDI), founder of the Bauhaus, who had become Fry’s partner and Henry Morris, Director of Education for Cambridgeshire, who had pioneered the idea of the village college. Morris commissioned Howe to prepare an architectural brief for another proposed college, which was subsequently used as a model for the Ministry of Education’s publication, New Colleges of Further Education. At the end of the war Howe set up his own practice and was made consultant to the schools division of the London County Council (LCC) buildings.
Other projects for which Howe had responsibility while he worked for Fry included the Central London Electricity Board’s Regent Street showroom, the Sun House in Hampstead and Miramonte in Kingston. Howe left the practice in 1940 to work with Holland, Hannan & Cubitts Ltd on the Royal Ordnance factories at Wrexham and Ranskill. Four years later he became an associate partner at Arcon where he researched and developed experimental building methods in light alloys, steelwork and plastics, which led to the design for the Mark 4 prefabricated house, of which 41,000 were subsequently produced. He also designed the Mark II and V prefabs.
Influenced by Walter Gropius, who designed things for the interiors of houses when he was working with Fry, and couldn’t find designs he liked, Howe always worked to commissions and would turn down work rather than compromise on the design, whether it was architecture, product or industrial design. The wall clock he designed for Gent appeared in nearly every classroom in Britain. He also designed products for Morphy Richards, Thermos, Heals (including a sideboard for the Britain Can Make It exhibition). Much of his industrial design work was connected with electronics or transport. As a consultant to the British Transport Commission he designed diesel locomotives, trains for East Kent electrification, railway stations and their equipment. He is best remembered for the Blue Pullman train, now long gone. He won the 1969 Duke of Edinburgh’s Prize for Elegant Design for the Chubb cash dispenser MD2.
Although he resisted the invitation from Leslie Martin to take responsibility for the interior of the Royal Festival Hall Howe did design the litterbins and lighting for the Festival of Britain (1951). Howe designed the Kodak pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World Fair and his former assistant, and future RDI, Kenneth Grange was brought in to design the interior displays. He won the top design award twice for his exhibition stand for Chubb (1966, 1969) and was the official architect for the British Trade Fair, Moscow (1961).
Brian O’Rorke, Master of the Faculty told his fellow designers in 1962 that Howe was the first designer to receive the distinction of Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) for his work with engineering products and industrial equipment. Howe also served as Master of the Faculty of RDIs, a Vice-President of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), from 1975 to 1977 and sat on the RSA’s Industrial Design Bursaries Board. His 1963 Presidential Address to the Society of Industrial Artists & Designers (SIAD) was on the subject of ‘The Responsibility of the Designer’. Howe was active on the Design Council’s Design Index and Street Furniture committees (1956) and served on their design awards judging panel (1972); he was a competition assessor of designs for the Scottish Gas Board (1960); a member of the committee for traffic signs at the Ministry of Transport (1962-63); a judge for the British Museum Design Award and an external assessor for art schools up and down the country, including the Royal College of Art and Central School of Art and Design.
Jack Howe said ‘I believe in intuition. I think that’s the difference between a designer and an engineer – I make a distinction between engineers and engineering designers. An engineering design is just as creative as any sort of design’ and when he took the chair for a talk on design by Professor L. Bruce Archer, Head of Department of Design Research, Royal College of Art, at the Royal Society of Arts Howe told the audience that he thought it was significant that Professor Archer started his career as an engineering designer…it has given him exactly the right background for his subsequent research into design methods and management’.
Howe paid tribute to a former RDI Master, Sir Misha Black, in the November 1977 issue of the RSA Journal (vol.125). Black’s influence, he said, ‘did much to establish better understanding between industry and the design profession, and he gave design education a realism which could be appreciated by the business world’. Howe also wrote the obituaries in the RSA Journal for the industrial designer Douglas Scott RDI (1913-1990) and for the English architect and town planner Gordon Cullen CBE RDI (1914-1994), who had studied with Howe at Regent Street Polytechnic.
Howe gradually retired in stages during his seventies and he died on 3rd December 2003 at the age of 92.
Britain Can Make It Exhibition Catalogue 1946
- Group P: Furniture – item 16
- Group RR: Furnished Rooms – item 333
Jack Howe: A Designed Life. DVD (London: Susan Wright & Martin Mortimore, 2015)
Original image reference: GB-1837-DES-DCA-30-1-POR-H-80-1. Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.