Natasha Kroll

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Natasha Kroll

Birthdate: (89)
Birthplace: Moscow, Moscow, Russia
Death: April 02, 2004 (89)
London, Greater London, England, United Kingdom
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Hermann Kroll and Sophie Kroll
Sister of Private and Alexander Kroll

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Natasha Kroll

Natasha Kroll

Brilliant designer who brought about a style revolution at BBC Television

The designer Natasha Kroll, who has died aged 89, was best known for her pioneering production design at the BBC in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and subsequently for her design of several feature films. Yet she had earlier established a reputation as an innovative designer of shop-window display.

To both strands of her career, she brought a creative sensibility that was rooted in the progressive design philosophy of prewar Europe, and, like many fellow Europeans who settled in Britain in the 1930s, she enriched the visual language of her adopted country.

Kroll was born in Moscow, but in 1922, when she was eight, her family moved to Germany, where she received her formal art education at the Reimann School, in Berlin, studying design and, in particular, shop-window display. When the school moved to England in 1936, she was given a post as assistant teacher, and got her first opportunity to test her skills professionally in the Rowntrees department stores in Scarborough and York.

But it was in 1942, when she became display manager for Simpson Piccadilly, that her characteristic talent flowered. It was Kroll's good fortune that this relatively new West End store was uncluttered by inherited tradition, and that its deputy chairman Dr Samuel Simpson was, like its founder Alec Simpson, an admirer of modern design.

The latter had commisioned work from the Bauhaus designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and the English graphic designer Ashley Havinden. The facade of Joseph Emberton's controversially modern building had a sweep of concave, non-reflecting display windows, and these became the setting for Natasha Kroll's inventive installations.

In Britain at that time, shop-window display seldom showed the influence of progressive design. At best, a form of arch surrealism was attempted; at worst, there was a predictable dowdiness, a condition not alleviated by wartime austerity. For all their innovation, Kroll's designs were tempered by a practical attitude. In her definitive book Shop Window Display (1954), she stressed that "the windows were essentially settings for the merchandise". The lighting and objects were there only to enhance the clothes.

At that time, it may have been considered perverse to surround or support the smart Simpson clothes with wooden crates, bricks and ladders, but Kroll cleverly deployed such basic objects to enhance, by contrast, the clothes' elegance. The rough-with-smooth gambit was only one aspect of her stylistic range.

Many of the trends developing in the fields of exhibition and graphic design - such as the use of dramatic photo blow-ups - were echoed in the Simpson windows. Frequently, the displays were minimalist: simple panels, strategic lighting, with the actual lighting units featured as display elements.

There were topical displays - an exuberant window celebrating the liberation of Paris, and wastebaskets stuffed with clothing coupons to mark the end of rationing. There was a seasonal display with a Christmas-tree silhouette of lights stretching the full height of the Piccadilly frontage, which, for many years, became an annual feature. At this time, Kroll also encouraged young designers, such as the French artist André François and the textile designer Terence Conran, just out of art school.

In 1956, Kroll was invited to join Richard Levin's design department at BBC Television. Levin had recruited his production designers mainly from cinema and the theatre, their expertise being ideal for drama or situation comedy, but for the talks and factual programmes, which made up just under half the broadcast output, there was scant design support. Producers frequently ordered the drapery or rostra they required from the scenery store.

This chaotic situation impelled Levin to create a studio design unit, headed by Kroll, to originate a style specifically for the new medium. Abhorring the kind of visual dishonesty that made a studio interview appear to be taking place in a book-lined study, she and her team started from the premise that the viewer should be aware that such an event was occurring in a television studio, albeit one modified by design.

The unit thus gave regular programmes their own house style, ranging from the elaborately decorative to the minimalist extreme - often incorporating no more than a couple of well chosen chairs. In that pre-Habitat era, many a viewer's first sighting of a Corbusier or Bertoia chair might have been as part of Kroll's set for a talks programme.

Huw Wheldon's pioneering arts magazine, Monitor, was one of the programmes that Kroll designed personally. Her simple, translucent panels, or selectively cropped photo blow-ups, modulated by lighting, established a recognisable tone for the programme, and gave unity to its multiple-feature format.

Those who knew Kroll only as a champion of modern design would, however, have been surprised by the rich informality of her home in Putney, south-west London, a haven of bourgeois comfort furnished with items of Biedermeyer and Victorian furniture, a profusion of folk art and few, if any, items of modern design.

This happy ecleticism, and an eye for rich detail, fed back into her work, more obviously in the design of period dramas, on which she worked more frequently after leaving the BBC in 1966 to freelance. Designing for the corporation, as well as for LWT and Yorkshire Television, she built an impressive list of credits, including The Lower Depths, The Death Of Danton, Ring Around The Moon, The Seagull, Eugene Onegin, The Soldier's Tale and The Cherry Orchard. In 1967, she was elected a Royal Designer for Industry.

Kroll went on to design for the cinema, and won a Bafta award for her work on Alan Bridges' The Hireling (1973). But it was an old Monitor colleague, Ken Russell, who gave her perhaps her greatest opportunity - the production design of his Tchaikovsky biopic, The Music Lovers (1971). Such settings as her vivid evocation of the St Petersburg Easter fair must have been coloured by nostalgia for the country she left as a child, and to which she had never returned.

Kroll never married, but like a Russian doll in reverse, she had inside her a fond, motherly nature. This became apparent on occasions such as her annual Boat-Race party, when her riverside home overflowed with the children of her friends, colleagues, and the extended family of her brother Alex, who survives her.

· Natasha Kroll, designer, born May 20 1914 ; died April 2 2004

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Natasha Kroll's Timeline

1914
May 20, 1914
Moscow, Moscow, Russia
2004
April 2, 2004
Age 89
London, Greater London, England, United Kingdom