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British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age

The Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection of the best of British design

With the London Olympics linking 1948 and 2012, the years bookending the Victoria & Albert’s ambitious celebration of British Design, comparisons are inevitable. But while optimism heralded the post-war games, staged in the era of ‘reconciliation and reconstruction’, we arguably now live in more uncertain times. With economic constraints and social unrest touching everyone’s lives, life is challenging.

Antelope bench, Ernest Race

Antelope bench, Ernest Race

Design has famously rallied when times are tough and this is a strong theme of the V&A show, particularly in the opening displays. Austerity aside, the 1940s were rife with creative ideas pushing the boundaries of technology, changing public perceptions and boosting the nation’s coffers. Had Prime Minister David Cameron taken up the invitation issued by Terence Conran in The Times in March to visit the V&A show, the Government might be better minded to embrace design as a generator for social and economic change and write the show’s next chapter in the positive spirit of the first.

There are some nice moments at the start of the show as the old gives way in part to the new. If the 1951 Festival of Britain foretold a brave new world of technological shifts and new materials through projects such as Powell & Moya’s iconic Skylon and Ralph Tubbs’ Dome of Discovery, then the Queen’s coronation of 1953 reinforced British traditions. Interestingly, many designers were involved in both events – Hugh Casson, for example, masterminded the one and designed street decorations for the other.

The post-war era fostered new architectural thinking, particularly in housing. High-rise blocks by architects like Hungarian-born Ernö Goldfinger, who built the Balfron Tower in Poplar in 1965, melded European and American ideas as wartime emigrés settled here. A booming post-war population meanwhile fuelled the New Town movement, exemplified in the exhibition by Harlow’s seminal 1951 Lawn block by Frederick Gibberd and Milton Keynes, conceived in 1969 by a team led by architect Derek Walker.

Children crossing sign, Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir

Children crossing sign, Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir

Tower blocks entered commerce, with Richard Seifert as a controversial champion. From the 1960s, he gave London prominent landmarks in Centrepoint and the NatWest Tower and tall buildings prevail, demonstrated at the V&A by stunning models of Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s Building of 1986 and Norman Foster’s Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe) of 2003.

Of course, some experiments failed. High-rise housing was called into question when a gas explosion brought down Newham’s Ronan Point in 1968. Poor building standards and bad management exacerbated public concern and few new towns lived the dream.

Such a broad-ranging show offers only a snapshot and can come across as a roll call of icons. The ‘names’ are all there, from Mary Quant to Tom Dixon and Ron Arad. The Morris Mini Minor features, as does the first E-type Jaguar, while a massive model of Concorde sits near Ian Proctor’s Topper dinghy.

Cultural ‘movements’ are represented: the Swinging Sixties, attributed here to the subversive art-school movement of that decade; the disaffected Punk era; and 1990s Cool Britannia when New Labour espoused British design as a competition-beater.

Anti-Art Fair poster, John Maybury

Anti-Art Fair poster, John Maybury

But curators Ghislaine Wood and Christopher Breward explore some potent themes. Creativity is portrayed as the British response to social and economic pressure and architecture, design and art intermesh to meet the challenge. The overlap is patent in projects like the Festival of Britain, with Abram Games’ posters and Ernest Race’s furniture. The post-war rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral brought together Basil Spence, glass artist John Piper and sculptor Graham Sutherland.

A similar mix created Manchester’s Haçienda club, which opened in 1982, combining interiors – by Ben Kelly, who designed the British Design show – fashion and graphics by Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett, whose work isn’t here, having featured in the V&A’s Post-Modernism blockbuster.

A curious collaboration is Pharmacy, the late 1990s restaurant/bar in London’s Notting Hill which saw artist Damien Hirst partnering marketer Matthew Freud. Pharmacy, which merits a ‘room’ in the show, supposedly encapsulated the age of PR ‘spin’, but it hardly marks design’s finest hour, despite Jasper Morrison’s furniture. More interesting are sketches – too few sadly – of Nigel Coates’ Tokyo interiors.

Evening gown, Alexander McQueen

Evening gown, Alexander McQueen

Enlightened design patrons unwittingly come across as champions. Whether it was Heal & Son promoting the British lifestyle equivalent of the American Dream, Conran’s Habitat, Tony Wilson’s Factory Records or now Sony Entertainment Europe commissioning games ‘artists’ like Tomb Raider co-creator Toby Gard, the relationship with design has proved mutually beneficial.

Public sector clients were omnipresent in the post-war period. Housing and education – represented by Denys Lasdun’s snaking University of East Anglia ‘ziggurats’ – were key to national reconstruction, as was transport. Government spending cuts mean we now look for patronage more to ad hoc bodies like the Olympic Delivery Authority, commissioner of Zaha Hadid’s London Aquatics Centre featured in the show.

What is missing? That depends on your standpoint. Douglas Scott’s Routemaster figures, but what of Thomas Heatherwick’s new London bus? And because of his solo V&A show in May, Heatherwick’s Shanghai Pavilion, an architectural masterpiece, appears only in a video clip. Priestmangoode’s trains for China would have been a good addition, building on the legacy of Kenneth Grange’s InterCity 125 trains and Jones Garrard’s Eurostar engine (also missing).

Torsion chair, Brian Long

Torsion chair, Brian Long

So what is the essence of British design? Innovation for sure – how else can you describe the Moulton Stowaway bike, the work of Apple’s Jonathan Ive or Will Alsop’s Sharp Centre for Design at Toronto’s OCAD? There’s engineering, typified by James Dyson’s G-Force vacuum cleaner and superbly blended with aesthetic style in Wilkinson Eyre’s Poole Harbour Second Crossing. And there is a response to the street, exemplified in the Laura Ashley-led ‘country house’ movement of the 1970s or later Punk. But where is it going?

The show gives few clues. There is a clutch of designs integrating technology – Hussein Chalayan’s 2007 video dress, for example – and recycled materials – Paul Cocksedge’s 2003 Styrene light comprising polystyrene cups. The curators acknowledge that Britain is now a service culture, its designers working extensively abroad, and offer a glimpse of interaction design – very much the future – largely through digital games. But then the future is another show.

British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age

Where: Victoria & Albert Museum, London

When: Until 12 August 2012

 

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