Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Maxi dress (style 444), Frank Usher, 1975

Having just watched a documentary about the 1970s sitcom ‘The Good Life’ last night, I was inspired to write this blog about MoDiP’s lovely Frank Usher maxi dress (refer image below). I am sure it would have been the kind of thing that Margo would have worn, perhaps accessorised with a sparkling turban and a pair of sunglasses?

Frank Usher maxi dress, AIBDC : 002765
Image credit: MoDiP

Always popular amongst our students, this 1970s dress has a striped shirt style bodice with stand-up collar, kimono sleeves and a full, pleated skirt in a floral print. Finished with a wide belt, there is certainly a lot going on with this design!

Close up detail of the label.
Image credit: MoDiP

It is made of Courtaulds Tricelon, a mix of 65% triacetate and 35% nylon. Blending these materials accomplishes different functional requirements. For example, the nylon enables the dress to be washed at home (instead of needing to be dry cleaned), provides durability, crease and shrink resistance. The triacetate has a silk-like glossy sheen with a good drape that lends the dress a high-quality appearance. MoDiP’s Curator recently discovered an advert for the material that just happened to feature this very dress in Harper’s & Queen magazine (refer image below). Style 444, it was available in sizes 10-16 and sold for £39.50 in 1975, equivalent today to just over £300.

A Courtaulds Tricelon contemporary advert. AIBDC : 0_1921.
Image credit: Katherine Pell.

The Frank Usher brand began business in post-war London, offering catwalk inspired design and detail at more moderate prices. Anne and Max Bruh were the names behind the label; both had fled from Germany during the war where Max had been working for the prestigious Berlin fashion house, Friedlander & Zaduk. They met in England, got married and then made the decision to start up their own company. Austerity regulations at that time meant that fashion manufacturers needed textile trading coupons to operate, and these were notoriously difficult for new businesses to acquire. To get round this problem, the Bruh’s purchased an existing firm and chose to keep its name, which Anne felt offered them ‘glorious anonymity’.

They sought out patterns to emulate that they considered to be both wearable and classic, creating designs for women that would last more than one season by recognising that their customers wanted Paris couture quality but value-for-money at the same time. Anne became the label’s Design Director and in an interview for ‘Woman and Beauty’ magazine in 1961 (refer image below), advised readers to:
“Have one set of good accessories in black patent or neutral leather - and wear them with everything.
Buy more expensive items (ball and cocktail dresses) in classic shapes and keep them for years.”
“The really canny shopper”, she said, “never buys gimmicky clothes. After two or three outings they are ready for the rag-bag, and that’s poor fashion sense whichever way you look at it.”

An article in ‘Woman and Beauty’, July 1961.
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Anne became renowned for her constant desire to acquire the latest, modern fabrics to set the brand apart from its rivals, and Max’s contacts, knowledge and experience ensured they acquired them at the best prices. Their partnership saw Frank Usher go on to achieve huge commercial success, being stocked in large department stores across the world, regularly featuring in fashion magazines such as Vogue, dressing the rich and famous (including Princess Anne), and even designing the wardrobe for the 1962 film ‘Go to Blazes’.
MoDiP’s Frank Usher dress can be viewed in the museum on request and features in A Curator’s Guide to Synthetic Garments.

Katherine Pell
Collections Officer

Wednesday, 24 August 2022

GPO 312L telephone, Johan Christian Bjerknes and Jean Heiberg, 1954

This beautiful GPO 312L telephone (refer image below) is currently on display in the museum for just a few weeks more, as part of our exhibition Why Plastics? I love it because it reminds me of my own 312, although mine is black in colour and made of bakelite (phenol formaldehyde).

AIBDC : 008939
Image credit: Katherine Pell

The 300 series was first introduced by the General Post Office in 1937, providing their first telephone with an integral bell in a one-piece moulded case. It offered two main advantages over its predecessors: it was more cost effective to make (one case compared to a variety of mouldings) and easier to fit (reducing the possibility for errors).

’ and Heiberg’s table telephone design.
Image credit:

The design was based on an earlier model released by Ericsson in 1932, designed by technician Johan Christian Bjerknes and artist Jean Heiberg (refer image above), but the arrangement of the internal componentry was all new. Available in black (phenol formaldehyde), Chinese lacquer red, ivory and jade green (all urea formaldehyde), there were seven main versions of the phone produced, the 312 being made available from 1949.

The pull-out drawer.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

MoDiP’s example has a one key plunger, a pull-out drawer with an envelope in cellulose nitrate (providing convenient storage for a list of dialling codes) and a No.164 handset. Underneath it is stamped 312L S54/3A on the base, denoting that this model was the Mark 3A, made by Siemens Brothers in 1954, the L suffix referring to the chrome dial having both letters and figures.

The markings on the base.
Image credit: Katherine Pell

A design classic, the popular 300 series telephones were in production for the BPO for about twenty years before being superseded by the 700 series in the 1960s. This new style was considered more modern, it was available in a larger variety of colours and was made from a different plastics material with greater impact strength properties (ABS - acrylonitrile butadiene styrene).  MoDiP has several examples of these phones too (plus lots of other designs) which can all be viewed in the museum on request.  

Why Plastics? is on display in the museum until 2nd September, 2022.

Katherine Pell
Collections Officer


Cook, P. and Slessor, C. (1998). An Illustrated Guide to Bakelite Collectables. Quantum Books: London.

Emmerson, A. (1986). Old Telephones. Shire Publications Ltd: Bucks.

Pearce, C.A.R. (1938). The New Combined Hand Microtelephone and Bellset. The Post Office Electrical Engineer’s Journal. Vol 31. April 1938. pp 1-4 (online). Accessed 31 December 2021.

Wednesday, 17 August 2022

View-master, Model F, Charles Harrison, 1958

I recently catalogued a View-master, Model F, stereo viewer (refer image below). It was designed by Charles ‘Chuck’ Harrison in 1958 whilst he was working for the US design company, Robert Podall Associates. It was manufactured by Sawyer’s and was their last model to be made in bakelite (phenol formaldehyde) from a range that had first been introduced twenty years earlier. On sale from 1959-1966, it cost $3.95 with separate reels available to buy for 35c.

The Model F View-master
Image credit: Katherine Pell

MoDiP has a couple of other View-master examples, including a Model C, E and J. They are all very similar in form, quite unlike the first models introduced from 1938. Model A had a round body that hinged open to insert the reel, large viewing lenses and was made from black coloured cellulose acetate. Apparently, there were some versions that also included coloured speckles within the plastics material that were made from asbestos (refer image below, left)!

The asbestos-speckled Model A (left) and Model B (right)
Image credit:

As this View-master was prone to warping problems, the next model (B) was compression moulded in bakelite between 1944-1947, available in black, brown, blue or black/blue (refer image above, on the right). We would definitely love to add one of these to the collection if anyone has an example they would like to kindly donate!

The Model C followed from 1946 and this is the beginning of the style we most commonly recognise, with a slot at the top to insert the reel and the advance lever positioned at the side.

AIBDC : 0_6372
Image ref: MoDiP

The next major change in form was seen in the Model G, which was injection moulded in polystyrene and again designed by Charles Harrison. Compared to compression moulding, this new method of manufacture would not only speed up the process of making the View-master but reduce overall costs as well, so Sawyer’s felt they could justify the initial investments needed for the re-design and tooling. Harrison also changed the colour to beige, matching the View-master to the rest of Sawyer’s product line at that time (refer model on the right, below), with the model G being first released in the early 1960s. When the company was acquired by GAF (General Aniline & Film) in 1966, the colour was changed again, this time to red (refer below, left).

The Model G View-master.
Image credit: Harrison, 2005, p.66.

Although there were a number of other View-masters introduced afterwards, it is with the model G that this blog ends, since that was the version my family owned when I was a child. I recall looking at slides showing a snowy topped mountain in Switzerland and cows wearing bells around their necks. I have no idea why we had that particular reel, but my parents had been on holiday there (pre-children) so maybe they were just reminiscing. I never questioned it, I just enjoyed putting in the circular card reel, pushing down on the lever with my finger and listening to the strange noise the rotation mechanism would make as it advanced the next picture round.


If you would like to look at any of MoDiP’s View-masters, reels, or Charles Harrison’s biography, contact us to make an appointment.


Katherine Pell
Collections Officer



Harrison, C., (2005) A Life’s Design: the life and work of industrial designer Charles Harrison. Chicago: Ibis Design Inc. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Assistive tableware, Russell Manoy, 1969

Currently on display in the museum as part of the Why Plastics? exhibition, is a range of tableware created by industrial designer and ergonomist, Russell Manoy, in 1969. It was intended for disabled users, with particular reference to those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, but was also considered suitable for children and the elderly. All of the pieces were designed to minimise difficulties in handling and manipulating, whilst retaining aesthetic appeal. 

The tableware on display in the museum.

Image credit: MoDiP

Melamine formaldehyde (MF) was the material selected by Manoy due to its better than normal break-strength, design flexibility, lightness in weight, hygienic, easily cleaned finish and low cost of production. It was felt that this combination of requirements could not be met by anything other than plastics.  
Compression moulded, the simple ergonomic design helped to reduce tooling costs, which was then reflected in the sale price, deliberately kept low for the benefit of pensioners to purchase at an affordable price. This consideration also led to the removal of complex insulation within the beaker from the original design; the heat transmission properties of the melamine being deemed sufficient. 

The small plate,
AIBDC : 008784
Image credit: MoDiP

Both the large and small plates were given directional flow, provided by a gentle slope which allows the food to gather towards the bottom for easy scooping. They also both have a large flange on the opposite side to aid grip (refer image above).

Several examples of the beaker,
AIBDC : 007774.1-2 (left),
AIBDC : 006616SA (top, right), AIBDC : 008785 (bottom, right).
Image credit: MoDiP

The beaker has no handle, the cantilevered weight being balanced by the base which can be held between the thumb and the palm of the hand. The design is similar to the Joe Colombo 'Smoke' glass, 1963.

The spoon/fork, AIBDC : 008786.2-3 (left and centre)
and knife,
AIBDC : 008786.1 (right).
Image credit: MoDiP

The spoon/fork double purpose cutlery (refer image above, left and centre) has a triangular shaped handle design with radiused edges to provide improved grip and the blade is angled to reduce wrist flexing in use. The same handle was utilised on the knife (on the right), to reduce tooling costs and for production economy. The blade is designed to cut in either a slicing or rocking action, the latter more suited to one-handed use. 

Entrance to the 'Plastics at The Design Centre' exhibition.

Image credit:

5000 sets were produced initially, sold at a cost of 49s 6d, equivalent to roughly £45 today. The range was displayed as part of the ‘Plastics at The Design Centre’ exhibition in 1970 and features within many museum collections all over the world. It is a good demonstration of considered design using appropriate materials and can be seen in MoDiP until 2 September 2022.  

Katherine Pell
Collections Officer 

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Tilley paraffin iron, 1953

I do not iron very often. Easy-care synthetics, especially in school uniforms, mean that in our house there is rarely a need (well, that is what I tell myself anyway!). So, when I recently catalogued a Tilley iron, I was intrigued by the fact that it was powered by paraffin, something I had never come across before and which I thought seemed both bizarre and a little bit dangerous! However, my initial research quickly made me realise just how popular these must have been in their day; practically every museum has one in their collections so obviously an object that was valued and loved by many.

AIBDC : 009270
Image credit: Katherine Pell

Irons are a good demonstration of plastics’ ability to insulate due to their resistance to the transfer of heat and electrical current. Bakelite (phenol formaldehyde) was the first plastics material to appear in the handles of irons, providing an alternative to an all-metal handle (that needed to be gripped with a cloth), wood, ceramic or even asbestos – yikes!

Asbestos sad iron laundry set, 1906
Image credit:

At first, irons could be heated directly by fire or, if they contained a box in the base, by filling them with a material that was heated such as coal, charcoal, metal slugs or bricks. The late nineteenth century saw the introduction of irons powered by gas, electricity and a variety of other fuels, including paraffin from the 1890s.

The Tilley iron, model DN 250, was first introduced in 1953 by the Tilley Lamp Co Ltd with a cream-coloured enamelled body, chrome sole plate and a large black coloured bakelite handle. It burnt paraffin, which was stored in a tank at the end of the handle, and worked by pressurising the fuel via a pump so that it would be released as a vapour. The lit flame would then heat the sole plate, performing for four hours on 1/3rd pint.

The paraffin being lit.
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Advertised as a self-contained unit, unconstrained by wires or flexes it could be used both indoors and out, so useful to take away on holiday. The irons were also particularly popular in areas of the UK that did not yet have a reliable source of electricity. Anecdotal evidence suggests they were much easier to use than the sad/flat iron but still difficult to control the temperature, which ranged from hot to very hot! Interestingly for MoDiP, they ran too hot for the synthetic fabrics available at that time.

London Transport bus ticket with advert for Tilley iron on reverse, 1956.
Image credit:

The Tilley iron is available to view in the museum on request.
Katherine Pell
Collections Officer