Post-war quirky innovation

Rosa Schiller-Crawhurst explores the latest exhibition at the V&A

In 1948 Britain hosted the Olympic Games in a world devastated and torn apart by war. These games became known as the “Austerity Games” and they began to provide the platform for British impetus for change and modernization. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s current exhibition British Design 1948-2012, Innovation in the Modern Age uses these Olympics as their starting point as they trace the development of Britain catapulting itself into the modern age through design and creativity. 

This is an exhibition that is quirky and fun, whilst at the same time conveying serious points about the nature of British design throughout the decades. The exhibition shows how British designers have reacted to the shifting economic and political climate from the post-war years of rejuvenation, through to the Blairite aspiration of the nineties. The display examines the shifting nature of Britain from tradition to modernization through art, photography, technological innovation, fashion, home design and architecture. It displays British leadership in creativity, and whilst there is no denying that it is a celebration of British culture and spirit, it is far from being jingoistic.  

The displays from the 1950s show a Britain eager to surround itself with luxury and celebration – a decade self-consciously carving out a feeling of patriotism and pride at a country desperate to forget the horrors of war. The exhibition starts with memorabilia from the Festival of Britain, May 1951 which kick started this period of optimism and aspiration. The exhibition takes you through the impetus for new design, including sketches and models from Basil Spence who redesigned Coventry Cathedral and designs for a modernised British transport system. There are still signs of the psychological trauma of the war however – in between the patriotic memorabilia from the coronation are disturbing sculptures – for example Lynn Chadwick’s Three Hollow Men, whose aggressive use of metals are startling traumatic. 

After the displays of the 1950s comes the decades of subversion and experimentation. The great clean white space of the museum is overtaken with colour and attitude. You are confronted first of all with models of the new ‘brutalist’ style of architecture, pioneered by architects such as Denys Lasdun, designer of the concrete monstrosities of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and the University of East Anglia. You are then moved on to the softer demonstrations of burgeoning commercial culture in the form of home-ware. Open plan living and fitted kitchen featured in the smaller flats and houses built after the war, as did new types of furniture such as room dividers and sideboards. At the more benign end of design you are presented with the dreamy designs of Laura Ashley who started printing fabrics in 1953. As we move into the late sixties a sense of daring in interior design comes apparent. Allen Jones’ Chair is one of the more confrontational pieces of the exhibition. A woman is turned into furniture as this design sees a woman on her back, legs in the air, strapped with thick black belts to the cushion of the chair in an exposed position.

The rise of ‘celebrity’ photography in the 1960s and 70s were undoubtedly one of the highlights of the exhibition. Designs from album covers and early music videos and the sultry images from the photography of David Bailey litter the stark white walls of the museum. Jean Shrimpton trips, smothered in black eyeliner, braless and barefoot, down a rainy street in London, ushering in a new age of sexual liberation. Designs from the 1970s onwards are colourful and politically idealistic. Poster campaigns from the radical art schools, innovative jewellery designs from Hornsey College and fashion pieces from Alexander McQueen all reflect the daring and outspoken freedom that characterised the creative environment. 

This is an exhibition that will make you smile. It is crammed full of attitude and spirit as well as being a very real representation of the changing world of British popular culture. Whether you are gazing at an early chic model of a Jaguar, a smooth silk Paul Smith suit, a sulky image of Mick Jagger or a political protest handbill with the slogan “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”, you can’t help but be amazed by the creativity of the generations who rose rapidly from the ashes of the Second World War to produce an eclectic range of spirited design.