The Story of British Design

The first comprehensive exhibition to examine the ways in which artists and designers born, trained or practicing in the UK have produced innovative and internationally acclaimed works from post-war to the present day, opens this spring at the V&A.

2012 will be the year that all eyes are on Britain. Hosting the Olympic Games and celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the year will see a host of blockbuster exhibitions celebrating Britain’s greatest creative minds and cultural icons, including David Hockney at the Royal Academy, Damien Hirst at Tate Modern and Lucian Freud and The Queen: Art and Image at the National Portrait Gallery. Leading the way, the V&A looks back over 60 years of post-war design, and tells the story of Britain’s unparalleled influence in the worlds of design and innovation. British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age takes for itself an apt starting point – the 1948 “Austerity Olympics” and the country’s realisation that it was centre-stage for a global event during unprecedented rationing and austerity measures. There has been much speculation over the parallels of the 1940s and today’s economic climate, as we witness austerity measures across Europe and significant public sector cutbacks in the UK, but it’s important to remember the bounty of choice still offered for today’s consumer. In contrast to 1948 we are positively drowning in stuff, a predicament that makes the work of the designer all the more challenging in order to stand apart and to maintain the momentum of consumerism.

The exhibition is curated by Ghislaine Wood, the V&A’s specialist in 20th century art and design, and Dr Christopher Breward, Principal of Edinburgh College of Art and Professor of Cultural History, and takes as its aim the examination of the ways in which artists and designers who were born, trained or work in the UK have produced innovative and internationally acclaimed works. Although the “Austerity Olympics” are taken as a starting point, Wood cautions against becoming preoccupied with comparisons because “it is hard for younger generations to imagine the level of reconstruction required after the Second World War,” and sees 1948 instead as a new dawn for British design. A result of the post-war reconstruction was “the built environment in which we now live” and the exhibition reminds us that “by exploring the last 60 years of design culture in Britain we can see how we have faced economic difficulties and recession in the past, often with great creativity and ingenuity.” This combination of difficulty and ingenuity has proven vital to the burgeoning face of British design: as Robin Day tackled the need for cheap, easily reproduced furniture for the mass market he alighted on using low-cost but durable polypropylene to create the now-iconic Mark II chair; Alex Moulton resolved to cater for ever-growing numbers of city workers by creating the lightweight Moulton Stowaway bicycle without the unsteady suspension of its competitors’ models, and Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert addressed the issue of visibility on Britain’s wind and rain-swept highways by creating a graphic language of road signs that has become ubiquitous with the British road trip.

With exhibits taken from the V&A’s unparalleled collections of art and design, as well as loans from museums and galleries across the country, British Design 1948–2012 encompasses fashion, furniture, fine art, graphic design, photography, ceramics, architecture and industrial products, and showcases the gamut of talent within Britain’s creative industries. Dresses from Alexander McQueen sit alongside a Bodymap dress and stockings and 1947 fabric designs cultivated in Britain for the West African market; watercolours of industrial decline by Olive Cook share space with Damien Hirst’s commercial assault on the art world through Pharmacy, and Enid Seeney’s pastiche of domestic ceramics celebrates chintz in contrast to the sculptural forms of furniture from Jim Partridge and Liz Walmsley, which themselves echo the Modern British Sculpture of Henry Moore’s public pieces. It’s a rare opportunity to see so much disparate work collected together in a coherent manner, and Wood and Breward have created a vague narrative around the works to elaborate further on the story of British design. “The exhibition takes a thematic structure exploring how the design culture of Britain has changed,” through the trilogy of Tradition and Modernity, Subversion, and Innovation and Creation. A recognition of these juxtapositions and relationships within the design world lies at the core of these themes. Wood explains: “We try to explore the big shifts in British Design, but also the personal relationships and the outstanding objects. There are many surprising collaborations and a number of the designers we interviewed acknowledged the influence of others on their work.” Through her research it’s fascinating to learn that “Terence Conran talked about how important his collaboration with Eduardo Paolozzi was in the early 1950s […and] Ken Grange highlighted how brilliant Robert Heritage was, particularly for his design of spot lights. Exploring these personal histories helped the selection process greatly, especially for designers whose work is much less well known.”

In Tradition and Modernity, events such as the Festival of Britain portray the country as a modern pioneer while Elizabeth II’s coronation allowed a nation of royalists to revel in tradition and hereditary privilege. This combination lays bare the tensions that characterised post-war design: “On the one hand, the Festival, championed by a Labour Government, provided a vision of modern Britain buoyed by a commitment to socialist welfare and Modernism; while on the other, the coronation presented a spectacle redolent with tradition which reaffirmed, for an awe-inspired audience, conservative structures of power and taste.” But Wood argues: “These two occasions also revealed the interdependencies existing in post war Britain. Both presented scenarios where old and new cohered.” Although it is seen in other nations this combination of tradition and modernity creates idiosyncrasies in British design and, aptly for her Diamond Jubilee year, the Queen takes a central role in this representation through the manner in which her coronation hailed a new Elizabethan age of modernity. It was the first major world event to be televised and inadvertently ushered in the television age. Watched by millions across the globe, and dripping in archaic traditions while reinforcing the lineage of the monarchy that was nearly 1000 years old, the coronation contrasted markedly with the Festival of Britain’s Modernist, but relatively local, visions of the future. And while the Festival of Britain presented Le Corbusien visions of a Modernist utopia, it also highlighted that there was a dearth of Modernist pioneers in Britain, and the few examples of the style displayed were more often than not prototypes never to be created in reality.

The importance of the continent on Modernist development is illustrated by the reality of the Festival of Britain remaining a festival of ideas, and Wood argues that it’s impossible to overstate the “huge” influence of Europe and America on a ration-hit Britain: “To take just one example, Scandinavian Modernism in the 1940s and 1950s had a huge impact on British design with many manufacturers emulating their Scandinavian counterparts,” as illustrated by the success of Habitat and the designs of David Hicks, Max Clendinning and David Mellor. Wood further gives the example of “the [1960s] influence of American consumerism [which] can particularly be felt in the Pop artists’ interest in the ephemera of popular culture. This in turn influenced everything from fashion to graphic design,” as evidenced by the work of David Hockney and Richard Hamilton, and even The Sex Pistols’ infamous God Save the Queen branding, which became an iconic pastiche of tradition and modernity.

While the pioneers of Modernist shapes and forms, particularly in design and architecture, came from across the Channel, the country’s government was leading the way in an unprecedented level of intervention in population relocation with the passing of The New Towns Act in 1946 (which saw the relocation of swathes of populations from the crowded, slum housing of urban centres to newly created and specifically designed “New Towns” including Basildon, Runcorn and Milton Keynes). The models and architectural drawings of these New Towns illustrate the level of planning and governmental intervention involved that precedes today’s sustainability movement. It’s an intriguing insight into the collaboration of government and design which is frequently ignored in favour of emphasising the designer as artist while overlooking their political agenda.

The subversive, almost anarchist nature of British work is unpacked in the exhibition’s Subversion element, recognising the role of Britain’s art schools in cultivating radical talent. Studios around a central “street” explore the mainstream impact of countercultures from the “Swinging Sixties” to the 1970s punk scene and the 1990s “Cool Britannia” and illustrate the manner in which Britain’s fervent, almost aggressive creativity has extended beyond its borders to become the cultural leader with British houses such as Alexander McQueen and John Galliano even taking the reins of French couture to lead the names of Givenchy and Dior. In turn Innovation and Creativity celebrates feats of engineering, architecture and technology – the manner in which Jonathan Ives and his designs for Apple have become ubiquitous in design studios across the globe being just one example in Britain’s form-leading role. Interestingly this section also features an immersive video-gaming station, providing cultural capital for an industry that is booming but often overlooked by museums and galleries, and an industry which Wood acknowledges “is an important part of the British Design story.” It’s this holistic approach that characterises an exhibition which isn’t afraid of including the overlooked and is set to be the most omnipotent of its kind.

In recognising the all-encompassing role of design British Design 1948–2012 also interrogates the changing face of the nation’s attitudes. The rise of consumerism and introduction of shopping as a leisure activity is evidenced in the exhibition through the development of Barbara Hulanicki’s Biba, Conran’s Habitat and Mary Quant’s Bazaar; the importance of the Welfare State and Government is illustrated through the New Towns, Frederick Gibberd’s The Lawn and Kinneir and Calvert’s road signs. Furthermore Britain’s movement from manufacturing into financial services and intellectual property is highlighted in the celebration of the key looks of street culture and design pioneered in i-D and The Face, and in Richard Rogers’ Lloyds Building. In spite of general unease about this evolution however, Wood remains positive about the future of the economy, because “we are seeing an increasing commitment to making things in Britain and this seems to be growing as environmental issues and sustainable design come into focus.” While on the one hand we’re revelling in heightened consumerism and in-built obsolescence, on the other hand works such as those in Tom Dixon’s Creative Salvage exhibition highlight an awareness of waste that has become increasingly dominant over the last 30 years.

In choosing to focus doggedly on British design as part of a nationwide programme of British works throughout the Olympic year, the V&A risks falling foul of the self-congratulatory attitude that Jonathan Jones recently accused Britain of revelling in, claiming it has “never been more cocksure or xenophobic” (Guardian, 17 December 2011), but Wood argues that the very nature of British creativity is that the nation is so receptive to new people: “Many of the key designers and architects of the Festival of Britain and after, Misha Black, Ernö Goldfinger, Jacqueline Groag to name a few were emigres; they were not born in Britain but chose to live and work here. This continues to be the story of British design, leading figures such as Ron Arad and Zaha Hadid, and younger designers such as Troika have chosen to locate their practices in Britain because they see it as a dynamic creative environment.” Wood also argues on a wider scale that “while in a moment of economic anxiety there may be greater sense of Nationalism, many British cities are now fundamentally multi-cultural and this is the stimulating environment needed and valued by the creative industries.” It is also the environment celebrated across the Olympic year.

British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age is showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 31 March to 12 August 2012.

Ruby Beesley