’British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age’ at the V&A, London

’British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age’ at the V&A, London

With all eyes soon to be fixed on London for a certain sporting affair this summer, the V&A’s new exhibition - an homage to the creative spirit of Britain’s design story over the past 60 years - is shrewdly timed. Using the 1948 London ‘Austerity Olympics’ (the scaled-back post war games) as its starting hook, the show’s buoyant, can-do attitude echoes the spirit of current Olympic anticipation.

This is the first time the subject of British post-war design and art has been tackled on such a scale. The narrative, bolstered by over 350 objects (250 harvested from the V&A’s archive collection) looks at some of the country’s key design innovations, spanning everything from fashion, furniture, fine art, graphic design, photography and ceramics, to architecture and industrial products.

Curators Ghislaine Wood and Christopher Breward have given the exhibition a thematic rather than chronological structure, beginning with ‘Tradition and Modernity’, exploring the tension between the two facets: the preserving of British traditions and heritage, but also the need for progressive change.

Here, we see the utopian optimism that drove Britain, in a period of reconstruction and social economic repair, promoted by two very different post-war events - the very forward-thinking 1951 Festival of Britain and the ultimately traditional Queen’s Coronation in 1953.

Design Research Unit’s British Rail designs, Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinnear’s road signs for the Ministry of Transport, and the 1940s models and drawings from the proposed New Towns Act of areas like Harlow and Milton Keynes explore the subject of urban regeneration, while a cluster of home-design pieces by David Hicks, Max Clendinning, David Mellor and Terence Conran typify the flourishing home improvement scene that came with the growing middle-class of the 1950s. 

In part two of the exhibition, ’Subversion’ follows the rule-questioning young generation of Brits from the 1960s to the 1990s, particularly, the British art school system and the street and studio practices that have emerged from this. With the focus on how the British design sensibility comes out in fashion, fashion photography, graphics and style, there is a showcase of work from David Bailey, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood.

Two exhibition recreations - Damien Hirst’s clinical ’Pharmacy’ restaurant and Peter Saville and Ben Kelly’s Hacienda club - dominate as symbols of radical British artistic sensibility. Saville’s graphic design work for Factory Records, and a roll-call of star objects by Ron Arad, Nigel Coates, Matthew Hilton, Jasper Morrison, Michael Young and Tom Dixon, also make appearances.

’Innovation and Creativity’ surveys the rise then decline of British manufacturing, new technologies, and architecture. The story of manufacturing in Britain is seen in the likes of a stunning 1961 Jaguar E-Type and a six-metre model of the Concorde, while Troika’s dazzling ’Falling Light’ installation for Swarovski and objects by Robin Day, Kenneth Grange, James Dyson speak of technology and craft. Meanwhile, high-profile projects like Zaha Hadid’s London Aquatics Centre, Wilkinson Eyre Architects’ Thin Sails Bridge and Foster & Partner’s Gherkin building hammer home architectural accomplishments.

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