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Restless spirits: British Design from 1948 at the V&A

10 April 2012

A sense of expectation surrounds the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition British Design from 1948, an expectation that we will learn the identity of British Design and how it has grown over six decades, writes David Eldridge. But walking through the three halls, seeking out commonality, a unified identity eluded me.

The starting point is clear enough: post-war austerity, followed by the 1951 Festival of Britain’s celebration of achievement in design, engineering and manufacturing. A stroll past Alec Issigonis’ Mini and Robin Day’s Polyprop chair adds to the idea of progression.

But it is not long before the visitor is confronted by Vivienne Westwood’s punk fashions, Peter Saville’s opaque sleeves for Factory Records and Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy restaurant interior, halting any effort to find continuity.

The V&A deals with this discontinuity in the themes and overlapping chronologies it has designated for the three halls: Tradition and Modernity 1945-79; Subversion 1955-97; Innovation and Creativity 1963-2012.

In each hall, there is no trend that lasts more than a few years: modern is replaced by futurist, only to be rejected in favour of craft, which in turn is thrown aside by urban, and so on.

British designers, it seems, are restless spirits.

This may be explained by the adoption of non-conformity by Britain’s artists and designers, a current that runs from the late 1950s to the present day.

Little Heavy, designed by Ron Arad. Photo: V&A

In the post-punk period of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ron Arad, Tom Dixon, Jasper Morrison and others made it very clear that designers were not happy to be followers.

In the book published by the V&A in conjunction with the exhibition, Tom Dixon writes about the Creative Salvage collective, in which he, Mark Brazier-Jones and Nick Jones, created welded objects from scrap metal: “It was irreverent, but had lots of character – it wasn’t Postmodernism in crappy patterned Formica, or high-tech in super serious matt black and chrome, or Laura Ashley ruched curtains and swags and pelmets, which dominated interior design at the time.”

Individual thinking is apparent in a sequence of chairs designed at around the same time in the late 1960s.

Chair Thing, designed by Peter Murdoch in 1968, is a self-assembly chair in folded, polyurethane coated, laminated paper.

Rodney Kinsman’s T5 stacking chair of 1969 uses steel tubes and upholstered plywood.

Contour Chair designed by David Colwell. Photo: V&A

A square acrylic shell with a deeply recessed seat is the distinctive feature of Contour Chair, designed by David Colwell in 1967-68.

Brian Long’s Torsion Box Shell chair in 1970 is different again. It uses vacuum forming to make the ABS shell, which is given an all-over upholstered covering.

Torsion Box Shell prototype designed by Brian Long. Photo: V&A

Recent designs, which the V&A places at the end of the exhibition, also reveal something of this urge to upset convention.

Styrene designed by Paul Cocksedge

Paul Cocksedge challenges our assumptions in his 2003 Styrene shade made from reformed polystyrene cups.

Showing that the restless spirit can sometimes return to earlier interests is a craft-inspired wooden chair with patterns pencilled by hand, the result of a collaboration between Glass Hill and David David.

The restlessness of designers makes it very problematic to settle on a coherent identity for British design. During the past 60 years, artists and designers have resisted conformity and defied labelling.

In that time, Britain as a nation has tussled over attempts to establish a unified identity. The difficulty of identity in design is part of a bigger cultural struggle that continues to play out.
 

The exhibition runs until 12 August.


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