British Design 1948-2012

Posted on May 10, 2012


God Save the Queen – as per the Sex Pistols

If you love exhibitions that leave your neck stiff as an albatross and your feet sorer than Paris Hilton’s size 11s after an LA shopping spree, this is the one for you.

The Victoria & Albert’s latest offering – British Design 1948-2012 – presents a smorgasbord of buildings, objects, images and ideas plucked from the 60-year period between the last time London hosted the Olympic Games, and now.

With three huge rooms to browse – Tradition and Modernity, Subversion, and Innovation and Creativity – the plethora of stuff to immerse yourself in seems endless. Yes, ‘stuff’. There’s just too much going on in this exhibition for one word to adequately house its contents.

I can, however, outline some of my favourite parts.

The first room – Tradition and Modernity – takes on post-war Britain and its drive for modernity and change, juxtaposed against more traditional roots. I loved learning about the design process for new British coins, and how the 1951 Festival of Britain’s progressive view of the future foreshadowed British cities and homes undergoing radical transformation. Against this backdrop of renovation and growth we were reminded of the tension between new and old with a look at the Queen’s coronation in 1953. This romanticised and static aspect of British traditions and values remained unchanged in the face of rampant modernisation.

One highlight had to be all the incredibly optimistic Milton Keynes posters. The gorgeous, leafy MK utopia projected perfectly encapsulates that 1960s wanton hope and idealistic confidence for the future. I say idealistic because if you’ve ever visited Milton Keynes you’ll know that something went wrong. Very wrong.

The infamous Ziggy Stardust knitted jumpsuit – designed by Kansai Yamamoto

Subversion – the second room – introduces 60s ‘swinging London’, the 70s punk era and the emergence of ‘Cool Britannia’ in the 90s. Fashion, music, interiors, shopping and film gleefully subverted the ideals of their traditionally rooted predecessors – and it doesn’t get less traditional than David Bowie’s knitted jumpsuit, or scantily-clad Jean Shrimpton pouting into the camera.

One end of the room is devoted to recreating the Hacienda experience. Parts of Manchester’s iconic nightclub have been reconstructed from scratch by its designer Ben Kelly, using elements of the original venue such as the black and white bollards, and striped columns. Factory Records posters, as well as New Order and Joy Division album covers, adorn the walls and we were invited to take a much needed seat to watch symbolic music videos of the time, such as Britpop band Blur’s Damien Hirst-directed ‘Country House’.

One of my favourite displays in this room has to be Hussein Chalayan’s Tulle dress (2011) – part of a section devoted to British fashion where you can also see an incredible Alexander McQueen evening gown as well as designs from Vivienne Westwood.

Hussein Chalayan’s Tulle dress

Room three didn’t boast as many British design treasures for me, the reconstructive and revolutionary themes of the previous two rooms provided a more overwhelming magnetic pull. Innovation and Creativity focuses on Britain’s role as a pioneer of new ideas at the forefront of industrial design and technology – I definitely wasn’t as excited by computer codes, hoover development and ship engineering, but a Concorde model stirred up some nostalgia. Models of the Falkirk Wheel, Norman Foster’s ‘Gherkin’ and the freshly constructed Olympic stadium offered a snapshot of modern British architecture – not the most ambitious of closing displays, but nonetheless a fitting way to end an exhibition about innovation in the modern age.

Hailing back to the supersonic jet era – a concorde scale model

Back in the post-war rationing era of 1948 Britain put on an Olympic ‘austerity games’. Ironically this summer’s festivities, which fall in the midst of a wilting economy, will be anything but austere. With the Olympics and Queen’s Jubilee coming up, there’s no doubt that ‘Britishness’ is under the global microscope like never before. Over the last few decades it seems designers have been key in driving forward how fair Britannia has challenged and expressed radically changing attitudes towards economics, politics and culture. It also seems that this is something we’re determined to continue no matter the cost.

This exhibition is perfectly placed to show off diversifying British innovation, taste and creativity spawned between Olympics old and new, as we stand at the vanguard of change. The real question is whether in another half century we will be able to look back at the economic cost of maintaining our spot on the worldwide design stage, and know that it was worth it.

Image Credits:

God Save the Queen – Pip Barnard
Ziggy Stardust knitted jumpsuit –
Hussein Chalayan’s Tulle dress:

Posted in: Art and Culture