Until the 12 August 2012 the V&A plays host to a vast collection of innovative and inspiring post-war British design works including buildings, objects, images and ideas – all produced by designers and artists born, trained or based in Britain. Spanning 60 years, three galleries showcase tradition, modernity and innovation, revealing how British design forces responded to political, cultural and economic changes throughout the decades.
Starting from the reconstruction of Britain following the devastating impact of the second world war the exhibition covers the drive for modernisation juxtaposed with tradition and continuity – from the utopian vision of the 1951 ‘Festival of Britain’ to the ritualistic tradition of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953.
Highlights in the first gallery are many and promote the painstaking and dedicated work of architects, designers and artists integral to this re-birthing of Britain. From Graham Sutherland’s ‘Christ in Glory’, one of the largest tapestries ever made and the stunning semi-abstract stained glass window ‘The Baptistry’, designed by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens, to controversial high density tower blocks responding to housing shortages after the war and such iconic British designs as the AEC routemaster bus with its ground breaking power steering, automatic gearbox and power hydraulic brakes.
Every aspect of modern re-built Britain is covered including schools and educational institutes, public transport, interiors and furniture as well as the 1970′s ‘Green Movement’, in contrast with the disposable consumerism that grew in the 1950s and 1960s.
What is apparent in the first segment of exhibits on display is that during this time of mass regeneration there remained a constant fissure of tension between modernist enterprise and traditionalist values – modern architecture responding to the economic needs of the growing population contrasting with a romantic obsession with the land and the countryside – children’s book illustration, jewellery, film and Country House interiors as well as the crafts revival became one of the richest avenues of design in Post-war Britain.
The second room focuses on subversion – how design moved from reconstruction to revolution, covering fashion, music, shopping, interiors, photography and graphics, showcasing the strong expressions of identity and radical aims of the times.
Throughout the 1960s Britain’s boom in Art School graduate notoriety had a significant impact on consumer culture, as did fashion designers such as Mary Quant and Ossie Clark, the waif like supermodel was born in the guises of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton and fashion photography took a candid turn thanks to the rising stars of David Bailey, Terry O’Neill and Terence Donovan.
The dark ambiance of the second gallery perfectly exemplifies the simultaneous camp glamour of the 70′s rock scene and the anarchy of the Punk movement, with iconic stage outfits including David Bowie’s knitted lurex jumpsuit and a gold lame suit worn by Marc Bolan opposite deconstructed Punk t-shirts, posters and graphics. The exhibition details how the more experimental establishments of contemporary art, music, graphics, fashion and photography pushed to the forefront of British design during this period, with little regard for tradition, its ambassadors pioneered a highly personal vision marked as much with controversy as with creativity.
The third and final gallery celebrates innovation and creativity within British industrial design and technology, mentioning the engineering of ships and bridges as well as the British creator of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee. British designers have created some of the most iconic objects, technologies and buildings of the last 60 years – just some of the nostalgic treats on show here include Martyn Rowland’s Deltaphone, Robin Day’s Mark II stackable chairs, James Dyson’s 1986 G-force pink and lilac upright vacuum cleaner, Globoots and Alex Moulton’s instantly recognisable Stowaway bike.
The exhibition tells the story of how, during the last half century, British design culture has shifted away from traditional manufacturing and industrial methods, its new focus pointing firmly towards innovative financial, retail and creative services. British advertising and brand consultancies have been world leaders since the 1960′s, as well as software companies developing some of the most innovative and best selling computer games in the world – notably Rockstar North (previously DMA) who created the Lemmings and controversial but hugely successful Grand Theft Auto series.
A small section on contemporary British architecture displays an impressive model of 30 St Mary Axe, informally known as the ‘Gherkin’, complete with miniature plants, desks and office workers as well as the Olympics Aquatics Centre built for the 2012 games.
A thought provoking, inspiring and immersive exhibition, British Design at the V&A runs until 12 August 2012.