Pioneering Spirits

Curating and designing an exhibition on Britain’s pre-war Modern Movement of 1929-39 sounds like a dream job. It was a creativity-laden decade when a small group of architects, designers and artists formed a collective vision of a utopian ideal, with the belief that art could improve quality of life. Their search for a new vocabulary and social agenda led to the century’s greatest intellectual and artistic movement, according to the Design Museum, which is hosting Modern Britain 1929-39.

The show is inspirational more than nostalgic, as so many of the covetous exhibits look current. It covers buildings, interiors, graphics, textiles, furniture, products, paintings, sculpture and illustration. This was the period when stars such as Henry Moore, Enid Marx, Paul Nash, Serge Chermayeff, Eric Gill and Barbara Hepworth cut their teeth as pioneers revolutionising the nation’s cultural life.

And the influence of émigrés from mainland Europe such as Berthold Lubetkin, who designed the Penguin Pool at London Zoo, is also felt.

Projects on show include the BBC’s Broadcasting House at Portland Place, Frank Pick’s total design policy for London Underground, Owen Williams’ Health Centre at Peckham in South London, the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-sea, and Shell and GPO posters by the likes of Paul Nash and Jon Stewart Anderson.

The exhibition highlights the most influential concepts of the time and puts them in their historical and political context. Designed by Foster and Partners (the architect’s first exhibition for something other than its own work), the exhibition follows a “time line” which weaves its way around the curved walls in a continuous ribbon. The chronological arrangement was deemed very important by Foster and Partners partner Spencer de Grey. Exhibition graphics are by Danish graphic designer Per Arnoldi. Despite all the great examples of design on show, as far as de Grey is concerned, “The hero of the exhibition is the Gill typeface [used for the graphics] – so immaculate and legible.” Gill or no Gill, this show is a must.

Modern Britain 1929-39 is on until 6 June at the Design Museum, 28 Shad Thames, London SE1

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