Obituary of David Carter Design

Along with Sellotape, Biro pens and the Anglepoise lamp, the Stanley work knife is one of the well-known products whose names have been generically assigned to any number of competitors over the decades.

In 1960, David Carter, who died at the age of 92, designed the final Stanley knife. This, along with other work tools for Stanley Works, was one of the main reasons why this skilled industrial designer was able to found his own company, David Carter Associates (DCA), in 1963. More than simply a useful, easily accessible and indestructible knife acts as a natural extension of the hand when cutting material. Like a multi-purpose Swiss Army knife, it also looks good while resting on a desk or desk. There have been several repetitions of Stanley’s knife since Carter’s, but his has never been better.

For the next three decades, under Carter’s leadership, DCA designed thoroughly designed and durable products, from tools and telephones to stainless steel pipelines and Le Shuttle trains that have driven cars and buses through the Channel Tunnel since 1994. His legacy is all around you. and very likely in your garden shed as well.

Stanley knife designed by David Carter in 1960
Stanley knife designed by David Carter in 1960

The youngest of four brothers, David was born in Leicester, to Harry Carter, a commercial traveler, and Helen (nee Smith), his Irish wife. Although he was focused on university, his father had other plans. Weeks after D-Day, David left Wyggeston High School at the age of 16 and learned at a local engineering firm making an unusual war mix of long-range fuel tanks laminated in brown paper and fish glue for Spitfires, flexible machine gun caps and articulated puppets with eyes to sleep.

Coincidentally, Carter’s boss was a sculptor, educated at the Slade School of Fine Arts and directed by the Department of Labor for war labor in aircraft manufacturing. Carter attended Leicester College of Art for a few hours a week while teaching machine tools and manufacturing processes. He also spent time in a factory lab learning about new plastic materials coming from the US.

Called to national service in 1946, Carter served in the Fleet Air Arm as an intern radar mechanic. His naval boarding house happened to be in Thurloe Square, in south Kensington, across from the V&A, where the Britain Can Make It exhibition was on display. The didactic presentation of how and what Britain could have designed and made in the postwar period attracted 1.5 million audiences.

A sketch by David Carter for the interior of the London Underground trains on the center line
A sketch by David Carter for the interior of the London Underground trains on the center line

Carter was fascinated by the attitude of Misha Black, The Birth of a Eggcup. Behind a 13-foot plaster egg, a non-stop plastic press made 3,000 cups of eggs every day during the fall exhibition. The press and the public called the exhibition Britain Can’t, because most of the 3,000 exhibited products were for export only.

Betrayed, Carter enrolled at Holborn High School of Arts and Crafts to study industrial design, a new course established under Douglas Scott, who was to design the long-running Routemaster bus with London transport engineers. Scott believed that design refers to strictly practical needs, the job of a designer to re-examine imperfectly realized everyday objects. Another of Carter’s lecturers was Naum Slutzsky, an industrial designer who began his working life as a goldsmith at Wiener Werkstätte before joining the Bauhaus in 1919. He left Germany for Great Britain when Hitler was appointed Chancellor.

Carter was already in his element. He also fell in love with Theo Towers, a fellow student, artist and his future wife. Awarded a travelogue by the Royal Art Society, Carter spent a year in Scandinavia, where he was especially taken by the works of Danish designers Arne Jacobsen and Kay Bojesen.

Working prototypes of David Carter 's 1986 London Underground train design
Working prototypes of David Carter ‘s 1986 London Underground train design

After college, he joined the radiation design department in Birmingham, working on home appliances for gas and solid fuels, before moving to Revo Electric from Wolverhampton, where he designed street furniture and lighting. In 1960, he went on his own with the orbital wheel design commissions for Joseph Gillot & Sons – the basic furniture trade tools won the 1961 Design Council award – and the Stanley knife for Stanley Works in Sheffield. At the same time Carter began teaching at Birmingham College of Art and Design. His department head was Slutzsky.

His own design company, founded in Warwick with a team of manufacturers and model engineers, rooted Carter in a design school where process and practicality were important. Formal elegance was a by-product of design shaped through the perspective of purpose, materials, engineering, and manufacturing processes. The design was not styling.

In 1967, Carter won the Duke of Edinburgh Award for elegant design, presided over by Prince Philip, an ardent proponent of engineering design, for a discreet and refined domestic gas control system. This, however, was the year of the summer of love, when design blossomed again in the horn of plenty of colorful styles, materials and programs, and a culture in which form was teased and even triumphed over function.

Full-carved plywood model by David Carter for Eurotunnel Le Shuttle built at DCA workshops in Warwick
Full-carved plywood model designed by David Carter for Eurotunnel Le Shuttle built at DCA workshops in Warwick

As DCA continued with rigorous industrial design, the world of design was changing. Carter remained influential. From 1972 to 1984 he was vice president of the Design Council, and in 1974 president of the Society of Industrial Designers. That year he was appointed royal designer for the industry.

Appointed chairman of the Conran Foundation Boiler Project in 1989 to oversee the relocation of this vibrant design exhibition to a new home in Shad Thames and a new title, the Museum of Design, Carter found himself at the center of a design revolution that became a force to be reckoned with. 1980s.

In his role as chairman, he asked Stephen Bayley, the museum’s elite director, to downplay the very qualities that made the boiler room project a popular and critical success, including the director’s ability to play media and the belief that the museum can engage audiences by performing fast and unexpected design shows. Bayley’s “three-dimensional journalism” was lively, informative and provocative and seemingly contrary to the world of design advocated by Carter and other influential British designers who set foot from Britain’s Can Make It onwards, in an era of successful and widespread British production.

David Carter's Eurotunnel Le Shuttle train in operation
David Carter’s Eurotunnel Le Shuttle train in operation

Carter retired from DCA in 1992. He continued to teach, setting up and leading the Department of Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art.

His family lived between a house in the Cotswolds and a seaside cottage in Tralong, Cork County. They love to tell the story of how a father and sons on a small boat with an outboard motor went fishing from Tralong. Unable to move forward at one point, despite the engine running happily, Carter discovered that the propeller had fallen off. “It’s okay, guys,” he announced cheerfully, “I’ll make another one.”

Taking Stanley’s knife, which he always carried in his jacket pocket, Carter ran toward the rolled-up stick with which he rolled up the fishing ropes. Within an hour he had made a beautifully crafted propeller. When they restarted the engine and selected the drive, they set off, only to find that Carter, despite all his skills, had misdirected the propeller. The father and sons were slowly making their way back to shore. But without that Stanley knife they would be stranded.

Theo died in 2013. Carter is survived by their two sons and two daughters and nine grandchildren.

• Ronald David Carter, designer, born December 30, 1927; died November 16, 2020