British Design from 1948: Innovation in the Modern Age at the V&A

Yesterday saw the opening on the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition British Design from 1948: Innovation in the Modern Age – a cornucopia of the best of British design from the ‘austerity games’ of 1948 to the present day.

British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age exhibition

Source: V and A Images

British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age exhibition

Recapitulating over 60 years of British design across all disciplines from graphics to editorial to automotive to furniture, with an added layer of historical context, is never going to be easy.

As such, it’s unhelpful to judge on inclusions and exclusions- where the show succeeds is in providing a narrative and a demonstration of the breadth of creativity and talent Britain has produced in the period, and its impact on design globally.

On entering section one, Tradition and Modernity 1945-79, we’re greeted by a row of four empty chairs, including Ernest Races Antelope Bench and A.J Milne’s stacking outdoor chairs, like a ghostly picnic left behind from the 1950s celebrations the first space documents – the 1951 Festival of Britain and the Queen’s Coronation.

It’s an obvious point to make, but seeing David Mellor’s 1966 traffic lights illumining the gallery space realigns our perspective on street furniture: here, it looks post-modern and magnificent, rather than simply functional. Oft-ignored ephemera such as Design Research Unit’s British Rail designs and Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s Children Crossing sign underscore the clarity and cleverness behind things we see everyday without even registering their design intent.

Children crossing sign, Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir for the Ministry of Transport, 1964

Source: © Margaret Calvert

Children crossing sign, Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir for the Ministry of Transport, 1964

All the Hollywood glamour of the Queen’s 1957 Coronation Flowers of the Fields of France state gown by Norman Hartnell, embroidered with pearls, beads, brilliants and gold thread, is cleverly contrasted with the skeletal, unnerving form of Reg Butler’s 1951 welded steel sculpture; presided over by Henry Moore’s 1954 Family Group sculpture, uprooted from its Harlow home as a symbol of the wave of 20th Century New Towns.

From the aristocratic airs and graces of John Fowler’s  Country House Style, with mumsy Laura Ashley smock dresses and Anthony Little for Osborne and Little’s pot pourri wallpaper, we move to the bright, playful look of the 1960s pop interiors.

Calyx furnishing fabric by Lucienne Day, manufactured by Heal and Son Ltd , 1951

Source: Courtesy of the Estate of Lucienne Day / Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum

Calyx furnishing fabric by Lucienne Day, manufactured by Heal and Son Ltd , 1951

Lively, tongue-in-cheek design is at the fore, such as the sumptuous undulations of Brian Long’s Torsion Box chair from 1970  and Linda Harper’s 1966 psychedelic Mandarin furniture fabric, eye-popping in lysergic lava lamp shapes and kaleidoscopic swirls.

On entering room two we’re greeted by Eduardo Paolozzi’s brilliantly odd Diana As Arithme – a bright, bold pop at consumer culture, manifested as a firework-like totem, signalling the start of the subversion section.

While much has been made of the Ben Kelly-designed Hacienda recreation, it’s rather subtle – had you not been made aware of the concept beforehand, it may be fairly easy to miss it altogether.

Though we’re naturally thrilled to see Design Week’s first ever issue included in the show, the representation of graphic design is disappointedly small. The Hacineda section includes editorial design for The Face and iD magazines and naturally Peter Saville’s Factory Records sleeves and posters, with the iconic Joy dividion unknown Pleasures sleeve as haunting and brilliant as ever.

God Save the Queen poster promoting the Sex Pistols by Jamie Reid, 1977

Source: © Jamie Reid. Photograph by Victoria and Albert Museum

God Save the Queen poster promoting the Sex Pistols by Jamie Reid, 1977

Other notable areas are the space entirely devoted to video games such as Lemmings, Grand Theft Auto and Tomb Raider, which has nine screens devoted to its various incarnations from 1996 until 2012; and a dark-lit gothic corner furnished by pieces such as Tom Dixon’s 1986 Railings Chair and Ron Arad’s Little Heavy Chair.

The final room, by contrast, is light and airy – a reflection, perhaps, of the optimism embodied by the creations it houses: the Malcolm Sayer 1961 e-Type Jaguar; the Concorde; and equally innovative but perhaps rather less glamourous inventions such as Dyson’s 1986 G-Force vacuum cleaner.

Rounding off the show with architecture seems slightly anticlimactic – even the Gherkin model in all its ridiculous phallic splendour doesn’t make for a particularly engaging finale. Alongside architectural models of the Zaha Hadid Aquatic Centre and Richard Rogers Partnership’s 1978-86  Lloyds London building, we see Wollf Olin’s controversial 2012 Olympics logo, as well as Alan Fletcher of Pentagram’s logo for the V&A itself to bring the show up to the present.

There’s also a small screen of animations such as Lambie Nairns’ 1993 idents for BBC2 and Jamie Hewlett’s 2006 Gorillaz music video.  To devote such a small space to such a creative and important discipline for the present seems somewhat reductive, though perhaps that’ll be something for the retrospective in another 60 years.

A final highlight, however, is Troika’s mesmerising 2012  Falling Light installation projected onto a white floor space, bringing to mind the phrase about the ridiculousness of dancing about architecture, something the space seems to be actively inviting you to do.

There’s some truth in The Guardian’s dubbing of British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age as a ‘greatest hits’. Yes, many pieces are obvious – the Mini for the 1960s, Factory designs for  the 1980s; The Festival of Britain posters – but in a democratic celebration of the best of British Design, that’s really what this kind of show does best. To exclude them would be ludicrous; to include them underscores to visitors their value and impact on designers of the future, – which can be no bad thing.

Hare jewel from 'Masquerade' by Kit Williams, 1979

Source: Private collection. Sotheby’s Picture Library / Kind permission of Kit Williams

Hare jewel from ‘Masquerade’ by Kit Williams, 1979

British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age runs until  12 August at the V&A, Cromwell Road  London SW7

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