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, at V&A MuseumFrances Wilson reviews the Victoria & Albert Museum's major exhibition, British Design: 1948-2012.4