Parallel pasts

The space race and fears of nuclear Armageddon may have defined the pessimism of the Cold War era, but the designs of this period display optimism and yearning for modernity. A new exhibition takes apart this contradiction, says Pamela Buxton

ENTER ‘COLD WAR’ into any search engine and it’s a fair bet it will come up with nuclear weapons, bunkers, the space race and grey, joyless, Eastern European living. Yet the story of modern design in this era is quite different – full of verve, colour and technological innovation, as well as escapism and anxiety for the future.

The exhibition Cold War Modern: Design 1945-70, which opens this month at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, tackles the creative expressions of the time on both sides of the Iron Curtain from this very particular angle as a way of viewing the next phase of Modernism after its first blooming in the 1920s and 1930s. Exhibits range from an Apollo mission space suit to films by Stanley Kubrick and futuristic fashion by Paco Rabanne.

‘We’ve tried to find a new lens to look at some familiar subjects, like Charles and Ray Eames, through a wider geography, including Eastern Europe,’ says Royal College of Art lecturer David Crowley, who is the show’s consultant curator and co-author of the exhibition book. ‘The Cold War and modern design were two pulses that were in synch.’

As well as the race to be modern, a persistent theme of design from this time, says Crowley, was the preoccupation with Utopia and catastrophe. On the one hand, designers such as Alison and Peter Smithson were coming up with the iconic House of the Future, while on the other there was a world of potential nuclear disaster. Buckminster Fuller’s Dome over Manhattan covered both visions in one – a Utopian environment that could double as a shield against nuclear attack.

The impulse to create brave new worlds crossed political boundaries, as demonstrated by Eastern European equivalents of 1960s maverick architect Archigram – Czech group Val, for example, designed Heliopolis, a mountain-top mega-structure conceived to leave the rest of the world to nature. A drawing of this is among the many little-seen exhibits from the Eastern Bloc, including an early version of the Trabant and propaganda posters.

Another key theme was innovative materials and technologies. Some were initiated for military purposes; the Eameses designed their famous plywood chairs after creating splints for war casualties, and lightweight building systems and fabrics were developed by the military. Radios and early computers all got the modern aesthetic treatment.

Sometimes the concerns of the times had a subliminal effect – Crowley suggests that the preoccupation with shelter unconsciously influenced the womb-like, blobby design aesthetic of the 1960s.

The Cold War angle is just one way of viewing the period. Whatever the international political situation, the overwhelming post-war design trend was exuberance and optimism after so many years of stifled creativity, comments Lesley Jackson, design writer and curator of the recent show From Atoms to Patterns at the Wellcome Collection.

‘Designers were just so relieved to be able to practise,’ she says. ‘It was a period of incredibly bold use of bright colours – a very different palette to pre-war, when it had been pastel. Afterwards, colours like lipstick red and very bright acid colours were used.

‘I’m not saying design was escapist,’ she adds. ‘It was very positive and not primarily determined by international tensions.’

Architectural historian Alan Powers admires the neat, undemonstrative nature of design and architecture of the time, and is struck by how designers submerged their identity in groups such as the Design Research Unit, in contrast to the celebrity-driven design of today. ‘You know now that you won’t make it unless your name is known,’ he says.

Full of seductive objects, the V&A show has no heavy message, despite its title. But Crowley hopes it might encourage young designers to believe, as many modern designers used to do, that they do have the potential to shape the future for the better. ‘It can be done,’ he says. ‘Here is a whole generation who’ve done it.’ •

Cold War Modern: Design 1945-70, from 28 September to 11 January 2009 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7

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