Architect and Industrial Designer (1910- 1977)
Born in Baku, Russia on 16th October 1910 his family moved to London when Misha Black was eighteen months old. Educated at the Dame Alice Owen School in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, he then took evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and studied briefly in Paris in 1928. In spite of his lack of formal training Black began his career designing posters, book jackets and exhibition stands.
Black worked with Charles and Henry Bassett and Milner Gray RDI as part of what was, effectively, the first British multi-disciplinary design consultancy, later reorganized as the Industrial Design Partnership from 1933. Recognized as a leader in the field of exhibition design, his early projects included the Modern Architectural Research (MARS) Group New architecture show, in 1938 and the following year the interior for the British Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair.
When the Second World War broke out Black was appointed Principal Exhibitions Designer for the Ministry of Information. In 1943, with Gray, and other like-minded men, Black became a partner and co-founder of the Design Research Unit (DRU), an important consultancy with which he retained ties until his death. Although the DRU practice ranged across the whole spectrum of design Black leant towards blending art with technics as well as bridging the gap between industrial and engineering design, particularly in the field of public transport. Jack Howe RDI said that the DRU owed its success not only to Black’s talent as a designer, but also ‘to his remarkable ability as a business organizer and administrator’.
Black exhibited designs for beauty preparations and shaving brushes at the Royal Society of Arts /Royal Academy British Art in Industry exhibition (1935), before producing a section on ‘What Industrial Design Means’ for Britain Can Make It. As one of the coordinating architects for the upstream section of the Festival of Britain (1951) Black was involved in the design of the Dome of Discovery, the Regatta Restaurant and the Bailey Bridge.
An educator, Black was active in many societies and public bodies. With Gray he founded the British Society of Industrial Artists in 1933 and served as its President (1954-56). He served on the policy-making body of the Council of Industrial Design, and was a member of the Design and Industries Association, the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, the Advisory Council to the Science Museum and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1959 Black was appointed the first Professor of Industrial Design (Engineering) at the Royal College of Art (RCA). With Sir Hugh Casson, Professor R.Y. Goodden and Jack Howe, Black represented the Faculty of RDIs on the RSA’s ad hoc committee set up in 1968 to consider art and design education. Their findings were sent as a memorandum to the National Advisory Council on Art Education, of which Black was also a member.
Although he had been elected a Fellow of the RSA in 1936 Black was not appointed a Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) until 1957. When introducing new RDIs to the RSA the Master, Dick Russell, said Black was ‘the complete designer for industry; his varied work is always efficient, sensitive, inventive and impeccable’. As Black had created a research project at the RCA regarding the function and design of non-surgical hospital equipment it is not surprising to find that, as Master of the Faculty, Black awarded the Master’s medal to Anthony Burke for his design submitted under the Hospital Equipment Section of the 1975 RSA Industrial Design Bursaries competition. When Roy Strong opened the exhibition of student designs submitted for the competition, he questioned the relevance of awarding travel bursaries that didn’t appear to relate to the design sections. In a letter, published in the July 1975 issue of the RSA Journal, Black responded to Strong’s stance as ‘devil’s advocate’. He wrote that although they may appear unrelated to specific bursary projects, ‘it was at least part of the Society’s objective to give young people an opportunity to widen their outlook’. Black concluded by agreeing with ‘Strong’s pertinent mention of budgets’, and hoped that he would be forgiven for his ‘angelic retort’.
As well as contributing to the RSA Fellows’ Discussion Group in 1971 on ‘The Uses of Leisure’, where he spoke about the social problems associated with leisure; he also spoke to Fellows at the RSA North East Centre in 1967 on ‘A Foot into the Future’, and summed up the 1977 Design and Industries Association conference on ‘Design – the missing sales factor’, which the RSA had co-sponsored. He gave two lectures at the RSA in 1965 on ‘The Education of Industrial Designers’ in which he looked at the past, the present and into the future. In response to a question about how to implant in the minds of industrialists and manufacturers the importance of design, Black replied that ‘an enormous amount has been and is being done…we must now find a way to produce the students to justify the propaganda’. He added that it was ‘absolutely essential to produce, really tough, almost self-sufficient, characters’ in these young designers as they entered the job market.
Awarded an OBE in 1946, reissued four years later when he became naturalized, Black was then knighted in 1972. He gave lectures and wrote about design throughout his career. His best-known works are Exhibition Design (1950) and Public Interiors (1960). Black also wrote The Times obituary for the industrial designer and RDI Hulme Chadwick (1977).
A number of RDIs attended the memorial service for Black held at St James’s Piccadilly. In a tribute to Black, for the RSA Journal, former RDI Master Jack Howe described Black as ‘thoughtful, kindly and compassionate, ready to help worthy causes and those in trouble…but undoubtedly his great quality was the ability to simplify complicated issues and present the outcome in a persuasive and convincing manner’.
Misha Black died in London on 11th August, 1977.
Britain Can Make It Exhibition Catalogue 1946
- Group GG: Domestic Equipment – item 93
- Group XX: Designers Look Ahead – item 10
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To learn more about the work of Misha Black, his relationships with other designers, and further resources, visit the Exploring British Design prototype web portal.
Sir Misha Black Awards
Avril Blake, Misha Black, (London: Design Council, 1984)
Original image reference: GB-1837-DES-DCA-30-1-POR-B-59-1. Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.