In fact, there was a branch of the UK Patent Office based in Salford (a city in walking distance from my office) purely for the receipt of textile designs. This area of the country was nicknamed 'Cottonopolis'.
During the 20th Century, I think it is fair to say that designs fell behind trademarks (and patents) in terms of prestige and perceived value. However, these reflections are being evaluated if not already revised.
Quotes from two branding professionals:
"Design is intelligence made visible", Alina Wheeler
"Design is an opportunity to continue telling the story, not just to sum everything up", Tate Linden
These quotes are, of course, not restricted to the intellectual property right definition of "design". However, design rights are now often seen as an increasingly critical piece of a brand owner's IP arsenal. They can provide an invaluable right given a registered design is not restricted to certain products in the same way as a trademark registration must be. The Locarno classification exists but not to pigeon hole in the same way as the Nice Classification for trade marks. There is "no principle of speciality".
However, the addition of Class 32 covering "graphic symbols and logos, surface patterns, ornamentation" to the Locarno classification in 2009 has made it easier for brand owners to protect the likes of logos through design registration.
Obtaining design protection is largely seen as a supplement to trade mark registration rather than an alternative.
SMEs are often more pressured on costs to rely on designs only - and new products are created and protected through registered designs whereas a verbal brand is not developed or a descriptive name is adopted. From an IP professional's perspective this may not be ideal but at least they are recognising that a form of intellectual property protection is useful.
With steps being taken by the UK and the International community to simplify and harmonise design legislation, the status of registered designs in IP's 'hierarchy' should continue to rise.