A traffic light, a reproduction of a Cathedral baptistery window, a Sixties home set, Elizabeth II’s Coronation’s gown, a Concorde model, a recreation of Manchester’s iconic Hacienda nightclub… It may sound like an incoherent list, but they are examples of what can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s British Design 1948-2012 Exhibition in London.
Many people wander around the three galleries in which the display takes place, exploring over 300 design objects that highlight significant moments in the last 60 years of British design history. The audience is just as varied as the display’s offer. Elderly people reminiscing about the post-war reconstruction, underground culture lovers, groups interested in architecture or simply nostalgic individuals looking to undertake an entertaining journey of the best of British post-war art and design from the 1948 ‘Austerity Games’ to the present day.
The first gallery starts off with Britain immersed in the impact of the Second World War. The task of recovery was the motor which propelled Britain and changed the nation forever. The reconstruction presented the dilemma between the drive for modernity against the preoccupation with traditions. The exhibition exemplifies these tensions with the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. The deliberately informal Festival of Britain was clearly allied with modernist aesthetics, the extraordinary metal-dominated structures of its Dome of Discovery, Skylon and Sea and Ships pavilion introduced ideas of modern architecture and design. Meanwhile, the carefully orchestrated coronation reaffirmed traditional values and renewed the sense of stability and continuity. Even so, many artists contributed to both events. Graphic designer Abram Games, the acknowledged and iconic propagandist, created both the Festival of Britain Emblem and the invitation to The Savoy Coronation Ball. Architect Basil Spence, author of the Sea and Ships Pavilion, orchestrated the post-war reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral. This project typifies the decorative modernism of the 1950s and was carried out by a team of artists and craftspeople that included both young innovators and well-established figures. The reproduction of the Cathedral’s baptistery wood and stained glass window is probably the best way the history of antagonism, and partnership between modernity and tradition is represented in this gallery.
From the 1950s, a new generation challenged the values of the generation before. The focus of design moved from reconstruction to revolution. While middle class embraced a youth focused lifestyle and futuristic design, houses became more flexible and informal. These spaces required innovative disposable furnishing. British companies had to respond and looked to Scandinavian design for inspiration. Light and easy to stack, the Omkstak chair created by the British designer Rodney Kinsman became one of the most popular chairs of the time. A judicious design, which was invented distinctively for efficient, low-cost volume production, and which still is an lasting symbol of the high-tech style of interior design.
With Britain having recovered and on the crest of yet another social shift, we enter the second gallery. Here, Omstak chair can be opposed to Allen Jones 1969’s furniture, an unpractical set which features a fetish life-size woman sculpture chair. The subversive spirit defined the cultural landscape and the new Diploma in Art and Design was key for it. The pioneering and irreverent approach of art students blurred the boundaries between the gritty cool street culture attitude and professional art. Fashion, magazines, photography, record covers and films from the 1960s to the 1990s, everything mixes in this space following the subversive style of British designers. In fashion we can find iconic pieces that defined an era, like Mary Quant ‘s pop mini dress, Terry de Havilland´s disco platform sandals, Vivienne Westwood’s punk bondage t-shirt and an impressive Alexander McQueen gown. But everything collides, blends and overlaps. Fashion and music combine in stage costumes such as David Bowie’s asymmetric suit by Kansai Yamamoto. Music and photography go hand in hand with Peter Saville’s record sleeve designs for Factory Records, and photography and cinema merge in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1967 film Blow-Up. British musicians, photographers, and designers flirted with many disciplines given that most of them had trained and met at art school, and therefore benefited from avant-garde collaborations.
After this flood of underground design, we come into the last part of the exhibition, ostensibly presided by a 25 foot scale Concorde model. This is the Innovation and Creativity gallery, a space which offers an exploration into the decline of British manufacturing and the rise of creative industries: design consultancy, advertising and new technology. Britain is presented as pioneer in industrial design, technology and architecture, and the creator of some of the most important objects, technologies and buildings of the last half of the century. A Moulton stowaway 1964 bicycle and a Marshall 1961 transistor radio show how British pragmatism opposed the more glamorous designs from America, Germany and Italy. But the most celebrated and fiercely debated field of British design is architecture. A reflection of this is the bold Norman Foster and partners building situated in 30st Mary Axe, informally known as the Gherkin, which is a centrepiece of the London skyline.
In 1948 London hosted the first Olympic Games after the Second World War. This year Britain welcomes them once more, but while the spirit remains, the context in which they are taking place has completely changed. The aim of this V&A exhibition is to reveal how British designers have responded to economic, political and cultural forces that have fundamentally shaped the situation the Country lives in today. This display is a wide showcase of British design heritage, with ranges that vary from the seemingly ordinary to the frankly admirable pieces. Even though in terms of design the last gallery is the most impressive, the other two are necessary and possibly more enjoyable. Design areas, scenes and chronologies overlap throughout the exhibition, making it hard to follow a timeline, but if one thing has been clear it is that non-conformity and eclecticism are foundations of the British design presence.
By Marta F. Diaz-Alejo