The design endeavour behind Margaret Howell’s latest London exhibition

The design endeavour behind Margaret Howell’s latest London exhibition

From bus stop signs to flight food trays, tennis rackets to milk bottles and Ercol chairs – the pages of the Design Folios produced by the Council of Industrial Design feel familiar and nostalgic, classic and contemporary; representing what was perhaps the pinnacle of midcentury British design.

As a way of introducing this halcyon era to new audience, British fashion designer Margaret Howell has opened an exhibition at her brand’s 34 Wigmore Street flagship in London, to accompany the launch of its 2019 calendar, both featuring images from the Design Folios, selected from The University of Brighton Design Archives, where they are now held.

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Design Folios supplied by the Design Council Archive held at the University of Brighton Design Archives. Photography: Matt Ford for Margaret Howell

Howell was struck when she came across a collection of vintage posters made by the Design Council to promote design, while on a research trip for vintage items. ‘These evocative images are from another era but their message is clear and modern in outlook. They recall a time when a devastated post-war Britain had to be rebuilt and it was thought important enough to promote the public awareness of design for its own sake,’ she says of her curation. 

During the Second World War, product development in Britain ground to a halt. The Council of Industrial Design was founded by Churchill’s government in 1944, as a way to support the nation’s economic recovery by promoting British design – primarily at schools and colleges across the country. ‘Most strikingly in the early decades – the idea of ‘quality of life’ improvements was inseparable from the economic arguments being deployed,’ explains Dr Lesley Whitworth, deputy curator and senior research fellow in the University of Brighton Design Archives, who is the author of several contributions to the history of the UK Design Council.  

Four years after the foundation of what is now known as the Design Council, the first Design Folios were disseminated to subscribers: a catalogue of courses and programmes aimed at designers, educators, manufacturers and retailers, with exemplary photographs of some of the most revered designs of the day. ‘So popular was the concept, and so frequent the requests for more content, that in 1965 the Council gave serious consideration to re-launching the series,’ Dr Whitworth notes.

‘The Design Council generated a photographic library recording "the best" of this country’s manufacturing output, that eventually ran to some 100,000 images. As a body, they represent the breadth, and vigour, and conviction of the national impulse to create, albeit abiding by historically-contingent views of what "the best" might mean,’ she continues. ‘The pictorial record of which the folios form a small part, represents a rich resource for the study of our evolving built environment and the material culture with which it is furnished.’

The Design Folios are a testament to a time when design was still strongly, intertwined with a sense of national identity and community, and when it was highly regarded by the government an important educational tool – not only for the future of the economy, but for the wellbeing of society at large. We recommend a visit to Howell’s Wigmore Street store, for a moment of inspirational respite.§

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