British Design 1948 – 2012 Exhibition at The V&A

The huge number and scope of free to enter museums in London is like no other city on earth.  To name just three, each beside the other, is enough to cause the envy of any other capital city – the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.  I haven’t been inside the Natural history Museum since I was a child – I would love to have another look, but haven’t had the opportunity because of the ridiculous length of the queues even in the rain (as it was last weekend).  As for the Science Museum, I had partially forgotten about it and hadn’t been inside for a proper look for many years (I did pop in a few years ago for a free exhibit but only had time to rush in and out unfortunately) – but more of that museum in another post.  The V&A is by far the museum I know the best and I have seen many exhibitions there over the years, yet I feel I know parts of it very well and still feel there is much more I’ve neglected simply due to the sheer size of the place.

British Design 1948 – 2012 Innovation In The Modern Age is the latest large-scale exhibition at the V&A.  The start date of the exhibition is a bit contrived – it is the year of the last London Olympics (and first post war one) yet there is very little in the exhibition which refers to it (one-third of one mural if I remember correctly).  There is quite a nice amount on the re-built Coventry Cathedral but the exhibition doesn’t really get going until the early 50’s with the Festival of Britain (which has become the trendy mid-century modern touchstone for the UK) and the Queen’s Coronation.  The Coronation would have been a much better starting point in this Diamond Jubilee year.  It would have missed out on the Festival of Britain section (resulting in many a raised eyebrow and scoffing derrision), but much of what was on display about the Festival was not particularly revelatory and there was certainly nothing which has not been seen before.

This dichotomy of Tradition and Modernity was the subject of the first section of the exhibition.  It included a look at the post war New Towns and how they evolved from the Victorian idea of the Garden City to become the playthings of Le Corbusier worshiping architects and town planners.  There was also a mention of Denys Lasdun’s campus at the University of East Anglia (on the far wall of the photograph) and the boom in new school buildings, the work of the Design Research Unit’s organisation and simplification of traffic signage, the country house style and Laura Ashley, and the modernisation of the home throughout the 50’s and 60’s, including the influence of Conran’s Habitat stores.

The next section was on Subversion.  This traced the rise of the anti-establishment from being essentially the post war rebellion of youth and the rise of the teenager, to the influence of art students on pop culture in terms of fashion, photography, magazines, record covers, films and journalism.  It did manage to point out that swinging London in the 60’s was a very small enclave and that the effects did not really reach the general population until well into the 70’s.  The subversion of gender stereotypes were well represented by the stage costumes of Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Brian Ferry and Brian Eno (pictured below from his Roxy Music days).

* As an aside – Brian Eno (who came up with the term Ambient Music) played an EMS VSC3 synthesiser when in Roxy Music and a VCS3 was on display at the Science Museum exhibition on early electronic music, as was some of the equipment from the BBC Radiophonic workshop.  The interlude music before and between acts at the Comus gig happened to be early electronic music composed by members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop!  How strange that the day should have such unintended musical connections.

The subversion section continued with Punk and fashion, graphic design and the rise of lifestyle magazines in the 80’s (The Face and i-D for instance), right up to Damian Hirst and Matthew Freud’s short-lived Pharmacy restaurant (1998-2003).  A section of which was reconstructed, including the glass cabinets full of medicinal packaging and the Asprin-like stools at the tables.

The last section of the exhibition was to do with Innovation and Creativity and covered anything from the Concord (a joint Anglo-French project) to Sinclair computers, architecture including Lloyd’s of London and the stunning Falkirk Boat Lift (pictured).  It also charted the decline of our manufacturing and heavy industries and the grwoth of technological and laboratory based companies.  It also suggested that new localised, small-scale, specialised and ecologically minded industries have started to become a possible future alternative to our redundant manufacturing base – which is a nice idea, but I doubt realistic.

Although there was a vast range of items on display, the fact that the exhibition covered such a wide scope of design and manufacturing made it feel a bit thin and lacking in substance.  It suffered the same fate as the Royal Academy exhibition ‘Building The Revolution’ which focused on Modernist architectural experiments in Russia between 1915 and 1935 (before Modernism in all it’s forms was sidelined and superseded by the hypocrisy of Socialist Realism).  The Royal Academy exhibition largely consisted of old and new photographs of Modernist buildings, with a few Rodchenko and Popova paintings recycled from previous exhibitions thrown in.  Unfortunately there was no depth of analysis or any attempt to make links with wider social or cultural issues.  It turned what could have been an interesting look at how designers tried to create a new Communist and communal Russia after the Revolution, into cold finger-pointing – look at these funny old buildings the Soviets built and how neglected they are now!  It would have been far more interesting if the exhibition investigated how the architecture promoted communist ideas. Were they designed with communal working and living in mind, and if so, how did they hope to turn ideology into bricks, mortar and concrete – did they achieve this and were they successful?

It was interesting to see the huge range of exhibits on display, but a number of times while wandering round the exhibition of British Design I heard myself saying “I had one of those!” or “I remember that!” – combining that with its huge scope and superficial look at design in general, I felt it gave the exhibition an ultimately unsatisfying sense of ‘been there, done that’.


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