Milner Connerton Gray was born in London on 8th October 1899. He attended Goldsmiths’ College but his studies were interrupted when he was called up to the 19th London regiment in 1917. Gray’s record of poor health meant that instead of a posting to France he was, instead, sent to the Royal Engineers’ School of Camouflage. He returned to Goldsmiths’ for two years after the war ended and then went on to establish the Bassett-Gray Group of Artists and Writers, reorganized in 1935 as the Industrial Design Partnership.
A man of vision Gray saw the need to raise the designer’s status to that of a recognized profession. Instrumental in the establishment of the Society of Industrial Artists (SIA) in 1930 Gray served as their Honorary Secretary from 1932 to 1940. He was the only member to be twice elected President (1943-49 and 1966-67), after which he was appointed President of Honour. Gray was a leading member, chairman or president of almost every national and international body for graphic design and industrial design, including the Alliance Graphique International (AGI), the Art Workers Guild, and the National Advisory Council on Art Education.
Always interested in education he taught, between the wars, at Goldsmiths’ College, the Chelsea College of Art and the Reimann School of Art, acted as principal of the Sir John Cass School of Art and Design from 1937 to 1940, and was on the visiting staff of the Royal College of Arts (RCA) from 1939 to 1940. The RCA awarded Gray an Honorary Doctorate in 1979. He also sat on the government review body on art education and acted as governor to the Central School of Art.
During the Second World War he was appointed Head of Exhibitions for the Ministry of Information and worked with several RDIs, including Misha Black. Gray, with Black and Kenneth Bayes, established the Design Research Unit (DRU) – the first multi-disciplinary design office in Britain – which provided a co-ordinated visual style for companies. Their clients included the Rolex Watch Company, ICI, Unilever and British Rail and he was responsible for co-ordinating the design of the public areas in the P&O liner Oriana.
DRU also attracted commissions for exhibitions such as Britain Can Make It, 1946, for which Gray was DRU’s chief designer. He had previous experience as his work had featured in the 1935 British Art in Industry exhibition organized by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and the Royal Academy (RA), as well as the 1938 Modern Architectural Research (MARS) Group show of modern architecture and he had been involved in the design of the British Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Gray was the chief inspirer of the RSA’s 1948 Design at Work exhibition showcasing the work of the Royal Designers for Industry. As well as exhibiting Gray contributed a paper on ‘The Industrial Designer and Consumer Goods’ to the series published by the RSA Journal, as a result of the exhibition. At the conference organised by the RSA in 1947 to discuss the proposal for an exhibition to be held in 1951 Gray, representing the Society of Industrial Artists, urged the organisers to concentrate on the quality of exhibits that should be imaginatively displayed. He thought that the site was well chosen for the purpose. ‘It is well timed’, he added, ‘two years hence British industry is likely to stand in some need of advertisement’. For the Festival of Britain itself Gray, with Robin Day RDI, was jointly responsible for the South Bank signposting and, with RDIs Reco Capey, Enid Marx and Keith Murray, he selected the furniture, furnishing and equipment for the Festival’s Royal Pavilion.
Gray’s designs included murals and decorative features for Kardomah Cafes (1936-40) and his design for Pyrex oven to tableware received one of the first Design Centre Awards in 1957. For the Queen’s coronation Gray designed the Royal arms, crown and ciphers for the decorations and souvenirs. He was also responsible for the armorial bearings for the Post Office (1970), a badge for the Balmoral Estate Ranger Service (1972) and the official emblem for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.
Appointed a Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) in 1937 and Master of the Faculty 1955-57, Gray took an active interest in the work of the RSA. He served on their Council and their Industrial Design Bursaries Board. As well as giving talks on ‘The history and development of packaging’ (1939), ‘The Industrial Designer and Consumer Goods’ (1949) and ‘Packaging Progress’ (1959), Gray chaired several meetings, including a presentation by Hulme Chadwick RDI on ‘Colour in the Community’ (1963) – he wrote the RSA Journal obituary for Chadwick in 1977. He judged the RSA’s ‘Youth Looks at Britain’ poster competition (1947) and acted as the RSA representative on the Central Organising Committee for the United Nations Poster Competition. With Barnett Freedman RDI he judged the entries for the 1950 Percy Smith Memorial competition for lettering and calligraphy. Gray joined other RDIs on visits to Scotland (1947) and Sweden (1948). He designed a tea service and silver sweet dishes for the Faculty’s first evening reception, attended by HRH Princess Elizabeth, in 1950 and attended the dinner held in honour of Alvar Aalto HonRDI during his visit to London in 1957. Gray, with Hugh Casson RDI, was on the organizing committee for the RSA’s 1956 and 1958 conferences on ‘Perils and Prospects in Town and Country’ and, in 1963, the RSA adopted Gray’s design for a new cover and layout for their Journal.
Gray published numerous articles on various aspects of designs and his books include Package Design (1955) and Lettering for Architects and Designers (1962). In public recognition of his achievements Gray was appointed a CBE in 1963.
A modest man with an infectious and endearing sense of humour, Milner Gray died on 29th September 1997 at the age of 97.
Britain Can Make It Exhibition Catalogue 1946
- Group WW: Packaging – items 27, 31, 41, 73, 89, 90, 91, 92
Original image reference: GB-1837-DES-DCA-30-1-POR-G-44-1. Milner Gray on the right, photographed with Brian O’Rorke. Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.