Design Research Unit

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The British Rail double arrow designed by Gerald Barney of the DRU

The Design Research Unit (DRU) was one of the first generation of British design consultancies combining expertise in architecture, graphics and industrial design. It was founded by the managing director of Stuart Advertising Agency, Marcus Brumwell with Misha Black and Milner Gray in 1943.[1] It became well known for its work in relation to the Festival of Britain in 1951 and its influential corporate identity project for British Rail in 1965.[2] In 2004, DRU merged with Scott Brownrigg architects.[3]


British Rail class 40 locomotive, featuring the 1965 corporate branding by DRU

The group officially formed in 1943 following discussions begun by Marcus Brumwell, and the poet and writer Herbert Read the previous year. An early set of notes proposed a "service equipped to advise on all problems of design", addressing the needs of "the State, Municipal Authorities, Industry or Commerce." They anticipated a post-war demand for technical expertise and a need for "the reconditioning and re-designing public utility services" recommending "contact... with the railway companies, motor coach lines and so on."[4]

Herbert Read became their first member of staff, sharing offices in Kingsway with Mass-Observation, another initiative that Brumwell supported under the umbrella of the Advertising Services Guild. Read was joined by Bernard Hollowood in 1944 and after an unsuccessful tour of factories in the Midlands they engaged the sculptor Naum Gabo to design a new car for Jowett. The contract was terminated by the company in 1945.[5]

Black and Gray were initially committed to wartime roles within the Exhibitions Department for the Ministry of Information. Under their leadership, DRU made important postwar contributions to the Britain Can Make It exhibition (1946) and Festival of Britain (1951). At the invitation of the Council of Industrial Design (afterward Design Council), DRU designed the Quiz Machines that sought to gauge public taste at BCMI, as well as the highly didactic ‘What Industrial Design Means’ display (by Black, Bronek Katz, and R. Vaughan). This marked the beginning of a long association between the two bodies. For the Festival of Britain they were the architects for the Regatta Restaurant and designed a series of displays for the Dome of Discovery.

City of Westminster street name signs by Misha Black

Key DRU commissions included the 1954 Electricity Board Showrooms, by Black, Gibson, and H. Diamond, the BOAC engineering hall at London Airport (Heathrow) by Black, Kenneth Bayes, and BOAC staff from 1951 to 1955, and a number of interiors for the P&O Orient Line's new liner Oriana by Black and Bayes in 1959. Other companies for whom DRU worked included Ilford, Courage, Watney Combe & Reid[6] Dunlop, London Transport, and British Railways. The 1968 City of Westminster street name signs by Misha Black (typography and implementation by Christopher Timings and Roger Bridgman) have become an integral part of London's streetscape.

Since this time, DRU has worked for many high-profile companies, in interior design, graphic design and architecture. Projects of note include:

Their work is the subject of a Cubitt Artists touring exhibition and publication by Michelle Cotton.

Notable partners and associates[edit]


  1. ^ Guardian 12 October 2010
  2. ^ Creative Review December 201
  3. ^ "Official website". Archived from the original on 2011-03-01. Retrieved 2011-02-19.
  4. ^ Milner Gray "Notes on the Formation and Operation of a Design Group" 20 October 1942 (unpublished) p.1
  5. ^ James King, "The Last Modern: A Life of Herbert Read" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London, 1990) p. 214–216
  6. ^ "DRU touring exhibition". Archived from the original on 2010-09-13. Retrieved 2010-09-10.

External links[edit]

  • Official website
  • Design Research Unit 1942–72 by Michelle Cotton Archived 2013-08-17 at the Wayback Machine
  • Design Research Unit 1942–72 exhibition
  • Classics of design
    One of the best early examples of intuitive global signs for public lavatories was that created for British Rail in the mid-1960s. As part of a major modernisation programme, the state railway was given a new and all-embracing corporate identity by DRU [Design Research Unit], a design studio founded by Marcus Brumwell and Misha Black in 1943. Working with Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir, who designed a distinctive Rail Alphabet typeface based on Helvetica, DRU devised a clean-cut and convincingly modern aesthetic that was applied to all locomotives, trains, stations, published material and, yes, signs for lavatories.

    — Glancey, Jonathan (11 September 2014). "The genius behind stick figure toilet signs". BBC.