British Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Cone you believe it at the V&A

I’d been meaning to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s British Design 1948-2012 exhibition for some time, so having a free day I decided to have a look around before the Olympic Games cause all kinds of travel problems in the capital. The last time London hosted the games was in 1948, when as the exhibition points out they were called the Austerity Games since London was still recovering from the Second World War. I find this wryly amusing given that we are now living in ‘Austerity Britain’ but the government seems to have no problem throwing money at the 2012 Games.

Enough of that and on to the show. There really isn’t much about the 1948 Olympics, once you have paid your £12 to get in. The real start point for the Tradition and Modernity gallery is the 1951 Festival of Britain, an event that looked forward to the second half of the 20th Century counterpointed with the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth, an event steeped in tradition. So along side from some of the amazing futuristic Festival graphics by Abram Games there are Norman Hartnel state gowns and an absolutely sumptuous portrait of the Queen by Cecil Beaton.

Post-war reconstruction gets a look in with architect’s models and plans for new towns like Harlow and Milton Keynes, and there is a nice set of post-modern ecclesiastical material from Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral. New materials for furniture are showcased with Robin Day’s designs for chairs and such innovations as G-Plan furniture and Hygiena modular kitchens  There is also a look at the development of  national design guidelines for British Rail and the motorways and road network . So much of the familiar imagery that we take for granted today, like Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s motorway signs date from this time and it is good to see this stuff getting the recognition that it deserve.

As someone who spends a lot of time in the kitchen it was also interesting to note the evolution of domestic appliance and cookware design, from the merely practical to the decorative, as dining became ever more informal. Elizabeth David, whose cookbooks introduced Britons to French and Italian cuisine in the 1950s, gets a credit for bringing Mediterranean designs into the home. The gallery also looks at how some designers looked back to the traditions of the British countryside to create something new, leading to an interesting comparison of Laura Ashley’s floral fabrics with Vivienne Westwood’s designs for tweeds.

Moving on the Subversion Gallery took us through the late 60s and 70s. This is my sort of era, where the young, and not so young rebelled against the existing hegemony. Some great stuff in here; David Bailey’s photos of Jean Shrimpton, David Bowie’s Ziggy costume, Marc Bolan’s gold lame suit from Granny Takes a Trip, posters from the UFO Club, Beatles and Stones LP sleeves and Westwood’s and McLaren’s ‘Destroy’ T-Shirts and bondage gear.

The final gallery, Innovation and Creativity, showcases some iconic British design like the E-Type Jag (of which there is a stunning example), Concorde, the Baylis wind up radio and the Dyson bag-less vacuum cleaner. There is also a small gallery of computer design featuring Lara Croft and other such things.

Personally I would have liked to have seen a bit more graphic design, but on the whole it’s a pretty good show..

V&A memorial in Exhibition Road

Outside on Exhibition Road I could not resist taking a few snaps of the World War II bomb damaged wall that has been left as a memorial to the V & A’s traditions.

Nazi war damage.

So simple and poignant.

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6 thoughts on “British Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum

  1. The Victoria and Albert is a great museum . I love to have seen the kitchen appliances too. Great post , and thanks especially for the two last photos – simple and poignant. Well spotted- you have the eye for the unusual and interesting !

    • Having spent a good eight years working in the design industry the show was a bit of a busman’s holiday for me, but I think we do take good design for granted in the UK.

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