The list of names whose work features in the Victoria & Albert’s new exhibition reads like a roll-call of British design icons: John Piper, Terence Conran, Kenneth Grange, Mary Quant, Zandra Rhodes, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Jonathan Ive - and more. And the displays in this exhibition focusing on British design from 1948 to the present are full of objects, textiles, models and graphics which have become instantly-recognisable icons of contemporary life.
In the year of ‘London 2012’, the V&A’s blockbuster exhibition showcases British design, creativity and innovation starting from the last London Olympics of 1948 (so-called the "Austerity Olympics") to the summer of 2012. Drawn from the V&A’s own extensive collections and works from around Britain, more than 350 objects are brought together to chart the development and nurturing of British design in all its forms, and featuring much-loved ‘classics’ such as a 1961 E-type Jaguar, Concorde, fine art and sculpture by David Hockney, Richard Hamilton and Henry Moore, textiles and furniture by Lucienne and Robin Day, and fashion by Mary Quant, Ossie Clarke and Alexander McQueen.
Alongside these well-known works are pieces on display for the first time, such as Kit Williams’ Golden Hare jewel from Masquerade (1979) and the original photograph by Brian Duffy for the cover of David Bowie’s album Aladdin Sane (1973).
Organised roughly chronologically, the exhibition is structured around three themes: Traditions and Modernity, Subversions, and Innovation and Creativity, and it opens in the immediate post-war era -- a time of austerity when the country was still reeling from the devastating effects of six long years of conflict. Here, the displays attempt to demonstrate the tensions between tradition and modernity. Perhaps the most striking examples of this are Basil Spence’s designs for the new Coventry Cathedral and John Piper’s stained glass, and designs for the Festival of Britain and the Coronation of 1953, all of which highlight the British preoccupation with the past and a desire to harness the forward pull of modernity.
Public schemes such as new school buildings and the uncompromisingly modern concrete edifice of the National Theatre also have their place, alongside schemes for urban regeneration and new towns, such as Milton Keynes. There are many familiar and instantly recognisable objects in this section: traffic lights and road signs, Routemaster buses and 125 trains. The early displays convey the sense of excitement and vision that accompanied regeneration and development projects after the war.
A display entitled ‘Home’ focuses on Terence Conran’s Habitat store, which offered aspirational and stylish furniture and accessories to a growing affluent middle class in the 1960s, while the ‘Land’ section shows the influence of the British landscape on designers in jewellery inspired by natural forms, floral motifs in fabrics by Laura Ashley and Osborne & Little wallpaper, and furniture roughly-hewn from blocks of wood.
The second section of the exhibition is devoted to the subversive nature of British design, and the impact of art schools on cultivating radical artistic and creative talent (for example, Zandra Rhodes and Damien Hirst). Unsurprisingly, fashion by Vivienne Westwood (torn and graffiti’d tee-shirts) holds an important place in this section, together with posters advertising punk band The Sex Pistols, and displays focusing on British music, film and photography. As you wander through this section, music by Roxy Music and the Pet Shop Boys provides a soundtrack to the exhibition. You step out of the punk scene straight into a mock-up of that paean to 1980s music and dance culture, Manchester’s ‘Hacienda’ Club.
The final section celebrates British creativity in relation to manufacturing, new technology and architecture. Here there are many objects which have been virtually subsumed into everyday culture now – the iMac, video games, an early Dyson cleaner, advertising posters by Saatchi & Saatchi, and graphics by Pentagram. It is fitting that in the architectural display is a model of Zaha Hadid’s design for the Aquatic Centre at the Olympic site.
As a Brit visiting the exhibition, there is much to provoke exclamations such as “I remember that!” or “My parents had that Habitat teapot!”. Many of the objects on display are familiar, yet by bringing so many icons of British design together, the exhibition succeeds in celebrating these talents, providing a stimulating overview of the excitement of British design in the last 65 years.
British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age will celebrate the best of British post-war art and design from the 1948 ‘austerity’ Games to the summer of 2012. The exhibition will highlight significant moments in the history of British design and how the country continues to nurture artistic talent and be a world leader in creativity and design.
Drawing on the V&A’s unrivalled collections and complemented by works drawn from across Britain, the exhibition will bring together over 300 objects including product design, fashion and textiles, furniture, ceramics and glass, graphics, photography, architecture, fine art and sculpture. It will tell the story of British design in all its forms featuring much-loved objects such as Robin Day’s Polyprop Chair, a mural by John Piper from The Festival of Britain, fine art by David Hockney and Henry Moore, fashion including an Alexander McQueen evening gown, plus the first E-type Jaguar car ever put on public display. Contemporary works including a model of Zaha Hadid’s London Aquatics Centre will also be shown, alongside designs rediscovered for the exhibition.
Tradition & Modernity
The first section of the exhibition explores how the drive for modernity in the reconstruction of Britain after World War II was often mediated by a preoccupation with the past and with British traditions. Whilst sometimes these two strands within British culture were mutually exclusive, often they came together to create an idiosyncratic and tempered modernity. A focus on three spaces will explore how different aspects of British life reflected this tension between tradition and modernity: the City, the Land and the Home.
The second section of the exhibition takes up the theme of Subversion as a determining characteristic of much British design from the 1960s to the 90s. Challenging the traditional hierarchies and tastes favoured by the generation who had fought in the War, it charts the explosion of counter cultural forms of creativity from the late 1950s onwards – from the advent of Pop, through swinging 60s London, to 70s punk and the creation of ‘Cool Britannia’ in the 1990s, which saw a new generation of artists and designers gain international acclaim. This section will set these themes within the contexts of the Studio and the Street.
Innovation & Creativity
British design has always been associated with great originality and innovation and the last section of the exhibition explores British creativity in relation to industry, new technologies and architecture. It will demonstrate how British companies have created some of the most iconic objects, technologies and buildings of the last 50 years. With the election of a Conservative government in 1979 and the development of Thatcherite ideas around enterprise, this section charts the decline of Britain as a manufacturing nation. It explores how new attitudes towards commodity culture and global connections developed during the 1980s and fundamentally shifted the ways in which design was produced and consumed. The last three sections of the exhibition will suggest the spaces of the Factory, the Laboratory and the Architect’s practice.
Victoria and Albert MuseumCromwell Gardens
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2RL
10.00 to 17.45 daily
10.00 to 22.00 Fridays