‘Business needs to take beauty seriously,’ says Dame Fiona Reynolds

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A portrait of Dame Fiona Reynolds

Beauty might seem a strange topic for the boardroom. But as Dame Fiona Reynolds argues, embracing it could be a panacea for companies everywhere

Plato believed it was the idea that transcended all others. Nietzsche equated it with the force driving all humans. Kafka postulated we’ll stop getting old if we admire it. But beauty, that ethereal quality much coveted by past generations, has seemingly vanished from the political lexicon. However, one woman is on a mission to revive it. In her new book The Fight for Beauty: Our path to a better future, former National Trust director general Dame Fiona Reynolds (the first female master of Cambridge University’s Emmanuel College) argues that the relentless drive for economic growth is suffocating the money-can’t-buy things that our future depends upon.

“Beauty is the framework about how you can do things really well,” she says. “We can’t survive as humans by material benefits alone. We are using resources as if we have three planets, not one… And at some point, we’re going to hit some crunch issues about our fundamental survival. Any business needs to have spiritual wellbeing as well as the material practicalities… there are jobs to be done, things to be produced, but beauty creates this unique value which makes something succeed.”

Reynolds knows a lot about business success. Having taken over the National Trust in 2001, under her auspices, the membership of the charity swelled from 2.7m to nearly 4m. During her 11-year tenure, she restructured the previously male-led organisation by trimming its trustee board and moving the headquarters from London to Swindon. Meanwhile, initiatives such as encouraging screen-addicted children to play outdoors and treating Birmingham terraced houses with the same reverence as stately homes, saw the Trust discard its once-stuffy reputation.

Having left in 2012, she now sits on the boards of the BBC and Wessex Water. How does she raise the need for ‘beauty’ there with so many other issues on the agenda? “Both organisations are passionate about beauty,” she says. “Wessex Water looks after the countryside while [beauty’s] part of the BBC’s creative duty.”

She cites the Met Office, which relocated to Exeter in 2004, as a company with the right beauty/business balance: “One of the big drivers was the countryside being on the doorstep. You get more out of life and business by taking these things seriously.” So how can more prosaic industries – say, precision engineering – inject beauty into their enterprises, especially when it has no immediately tangible economic benefit? “It’s not about investment or adding/saving costs,” she says. “It’s about sitting down and thinking about what really matters. ‘I’m running a business – what’s the best way of framing my life to give me what I need, but also joy/happiness?’ Businesses will succeed better if they take beauty seriously.”

Reynolds’ proselytisations on beauty chime with the wellbeing at work movement (Natural England estimates that £2.1bn in healthcare costs could be saved if everybody had access to green space). But it also arrives at a time when the British workplace has never been more despised. A recent Ipsos poll of 17 countries found UK offices were among the ugliest in the world, with a third of workers saying they disliked their work environment. Half of all British workplaces are open-plan (double the global average), with a 2014 survey finding they could be detrimental to employees’ health and productivity.

In The Fight for Beauty, Reynolds talks about the then Council for the Preservation of Rural England’s 1926 treatise, War on Ugly Building. Should there be a war on ugly offices too? “Evidence shows employees work better when happy in their environment,” she says. “As human beings, we need access to nature, places to walk, they all matter.”

Arguably, aesthetics in business are more important than ever before. Steve Jobs’s quest to make machinery beautiful via the soft, rounded contours of the Mac or iPad has influenced tech firms everywhere, while modern businesses can’t survive without a decently designed website. Meanwhile, millennials are possibly the most beauty-conscious generation ever, their Instagram feeds awash with artfully snapped caffè lattes and Snowdonia sunsets.

“I’m surrounded by these young people at Cambridge – they’re fascinating,” says Reynolds, herself an ardent tweeter. “[It’s proof] digital culture and nature need not be antithetical.”

Dame Fiona Reynolds in a garden

“Beauty is the framework about how you can do things really well,” says Dame Fiona Reynolds

Beauty can be monetised too. In The Fight for Beauty, Reynolds writes about the “walking economy”, citing the Wales Coast Path. Built at a cost of £14.6m, in 2013 it paid for its start-up costs in one year, bringing in £32m for the economy with 5,400 tourism-related businesses found within two kilometres of the route. The opening of the England Coast Path in 2020 should bring similar benefits, says Reynolds: “The 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis was the turning-point with this attitude towards public enjoyment of rural areas. When the countryside reopened, people understood how vital this ‘walking pound’ really was… Along country footpaths, you’ll now find people stopping for tea in local cafés, having a real impact on the rural economy.”

She spies other supply chain opportunities with HS2, a project which, along with UK road networks, could be beautified: “Whether it’s landscaping, natural planting or design – these projects need expertise. Railway lines and motorways aren’t beautiful things, but you can build them more beautiful. HS2 is costing a phenomenal amount and if the builders started with the objective of “building the most beautiful railway in Europe”, it wouldn’t be any more expensive. Plus, they might even carry public support along with them.”

Semantics is a barrier to beauty being placed on the corporate agenda: “Beauty has so little traction in official discourse, it has become invisible,” she writes in her book, noting bland words such as ‘bio-diversity’ and ‘sustainable development’ often dissuade people from getting involved in green issues.

But as she points out, there’s always room for optimism. In the 1990s, while working on urban planning at the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), “the idea of street cafés raised eyebrows because of the chilly climate”. Today, alfresco cafes are ubiquitous on UK streets. “It proves things are possible,” she says. “My arguments about beauty resonate with the way people want to live… we all want a more beautiful life.”

Dame Fiona Reynolds CV

1958 Born in Cumbria

1979 Graduates from University of Cambridge with a first-class degree in geography and land economy

1980 Joins the Council for National Parks

1987 Appointed assistant director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), later spending six years as its director

1998 Joins the Labour government’s Cabinet office as director of the Women’s Unit

2001 Appointed director general of the National Trust, looking after 612,00 acres of land across the UK

2008 Awarded the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for “services to heritage and conservation”

2012 Becomes the first female master of Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge. Also becomes senior independent director of the BBC and joins the board of Wessex Water.

The Fight for Beauty: Our path to a better future is out now (Oneworld Publications, £16.99). For more information visit oneworld-publications.com

@fionacreynolds

About author

Christian Koch

Christian Koch

Alongside his work for Director, Christian has written features for the Evening Standard, The Guardian, Sunday Times Style, The Independent, Q, Cosmopolitan, Stylist, ShortList and Glamour in an eclectic career which has seen him interview everybody from Mariah Carey to Michael Douglas through to Richard Branson with newspaper assignments including reporting on the Japanese tsunami and living with an Italian cult.

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