British Design at the V&A

1951 Festival of Britain Poster

As news breaks that the UK economy is now officially back in recession, and London continues to build towards the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee, the V&A’s new exhibition, ‘British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age’ seems all the more timely. The exhibition takes as its start the 1948 ‘Austerity Games’, an Olympics held in London under the shadow of the post-WWII reconstruction, closely followed by the 1951 Festival of Britain, and the 1953 Coronation. Indeed, designs from great events staged under difficult economic circumstances bookend the exhibition. An equally strong thread, though, is the ongoing tension between a relentless drive towards modernity, and a deeply embedded desire to celebrate British traditions.

The Font at Coventry Cathedral
The Font at Coventry Cathedral, Backed by a window by John Piper, a model of which features in the V&A Exhibition.

Channelling this drive towards modernity, embodying the reconstruction architect par excellence, and consequently featuring heavily in the first sections of the show, is Sir Basil Spence. Spence’s masterwork, which propelled him to international prominence, was his new design for the destroyed Coventry Cathedral, and the V&A show includes some beautiful pieces of work from the project, including several maquettes and drawings for stained glass, furniture, tapestries and objects. These serve, beautifully, to illustrate Spence’s success in assembling an incredible orchestra of contemporary artists, designers and craftspeople to fulfill his vision for a cathedral which would stand, beside a ruin symbolising the sacrifice, as a twin symbol of the resurrection.

Preliminary sketch of the Sea & Ships Pavilion, 1949
Preliminary Sketches for the Sea and Ships Pavilion, Sir Basil Spence, 1949.

Another featured project which benefited from Spence’s oversight was the 1951 Festival of Britain. A surviving scale model of his Sea and Ships Pavilion illustrates further his use of contemporary art and design in harmony with architecture to fully realise rich and multi-layered projects.

Trimphone
Trimphone, Martyn Rowlands, 1965 (one of which occupies pride of place in the Maynard studio).

While the explosion of modernity during the reconstruction provides an inspiring beginning to the show, it doesn’t drop off from there. The narrative winds through the decades, brilliantly illustrating the life and times of Britons through fashion, furniture, architecture, jewellery, products & media. On exiting the show I felt that I had not only been afforded a close-up view of an incredible amount of design eye-candy, but had also been given a greater understanding of the connecting tissue between the discrete styles under which design is so often categorised.

 

British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age
31 March – 12 August 2012
Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington

Aside
A wonderful resource of information on Sir Basil Spence can be found at The Sir Basil Spence Archive Project.

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