John Waterer was born in Peckham, London, on 9th August 1892.
Although a talented musician, Waterer took an apprenticeship in the luggage department of a leather goods company in 1909, to which he returned after his service in the Royal Navy during the First World War. He then became Managing Director of the progressive travel goods manufacturers, S. Clarke & Company in 1936, a post he held until the firm was taken over in the 1960s, when Waterer was 71 years of age. As early as 1927 Waterer had shown his inventiveness with the creation of the Pakawa handle, which lies flat to the case when not in use. Simple, pieces and quality materials are the hallmarks of a Waterer design. He was concerned with every detail, from a lock that hugged the surface so that no sharp edges protruded to commissioning designs for linings from Enid Marx RDI and he introduced the zipper on luggage for personal use.
Waterer was tireless in striving for higher standards of design for leather goods. He published his first book Leather in Life, Art and Industry in 1946. Written during the war on trains, during intervals of fire duty, and under enemy air bombardment, this book confirmed Waterer as ‘the’ authority on leather. In this same year he founded, with Dr C.H. Spiers, the Museum of Leathercraft in Northampton. Concerned that there was little, or no, knowledge on how to conserve beautiful historic leather artefacts he wrote a Guide to the Conservation and Restoration of Objects (1972), which became the standard text on the subject. Waterer was elected a Fellow of the International Institute for Conservation in this same year. His vision also led to the creation of the Leather Conservation Centre.
A regular contributor to The Times letter pages and an occasional broadcaster, Waterer made his television debut in 1947. He was appointed to the Export Trade Consultative Committee, and helped set up the education committee of the National Leathergoods and Saddlery Manufacturers Association. Waterer was a member of the Council of Industrial Design (COID), a Vice-President of the Design and Industries Association, a member of the Industrial Art Committee of the Federation of British Industries, the Arts Club, and he was admitted to the Livery of the Worshipful Company of Saddlers.
Waterer sat on the advisory committee for the Solid Leather and Fancy Goods section for the Britain Can Make It exhibition and he wrote the luggage section for Design 46. When plans were being discussed for the clearance of the Festival of Britain site on the South Bank, he wrote to The Times in reply to Robin Darwin’s letter about relocating the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion. Waterer felt that the Dome of Discovery, ‘perhaps the most striking building of the Festival’, should also be preserved as the home of a permanent but constantly varying selection exhibition of industrial design in all its phases.
In the audience at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) when Nikolaus Pevsner gave a talk on ‘Post War Tendencies in German Art Schools’ in 1936, Waterer told the audience that he had been trying to interest colleagues in a scheme for educating artist-craftsmen and, he added, there existed considerable ignorance as ‘the proper means of developing good design’.
In his 1942 lecture on ‘The Industrial Designer and Leather’ Waterer argued that ‘when attractive merchandise is properly presented to the public, it is far quicker to appreciate it, than the average trade buyer’. The RSA awarded him their Silver medal for his paper. Six years later, in his contribution to their special series of lectures on craftsmanship, Waterer observed that ‘a prerequisite for a successful solution to the social and economic problems…is a resuscitation and wide diffusion of the spirit of craftsmanship…and that the leather industry provides living proof…that craftsmanship and contemporary methods of production are not incompatible’. He also used the correspondence pages of the RSA Journal to set out his five principles for ‘good design’.
Appointed a Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) in 1953, Sir Francis Meynell, Master of the Faculty, introduced Waterer to the RSA as ‘not merely the historian of his industrial craft’…‘his designs are sensitive to the past, obey the compulsions, the needs and the methods of the present and, as I believe, bequeath to the future’.
In response to a suggestion from Enid Marx RDI the RSA held a small display in the vaults of their building in John Adam Street to mark the 100th anniversary of Waterer’s birth. In his review for the RSA Journal of the Museum of Leathercraft’s centenary exhibition, Ron Carter RDI said that he was proud to own a scroll case made from morocco goatskin with gold tooling that had been designed by Waterer to hold his RDI diploma. ‘Waterer put leather on the map, and gained increased respect throughout a long life’. Milner Gray RDI thought it ‘unusual that a designer of John Waterer’s calibre should willingly submit to the compass of a single trade’. Over a long and tireless lifetime striving for high standards Waterer left a strong base in education and conservation, as well as design, on which others can build.
John Waterer died at the age of 85 in Tonbridge, Kent.
Britain Can Make It Exhibition Catalogue 1946
- Industrial Advisory Committees – page 235
To view and search the catalogue online, please visit our digital document library.
Neil MacGregor, Leather in Life, Art and Industry (Northampton: Museum of Leathercraft, 1992)
Image courtesy of Museum of Leathercraft.