British Design 1948-2012:
Innovation in the Modern Age
Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7. www.vam.ac.uk
Until August 12
The limited space given to the V&A’s overview of 60 years of British design and architecture cannot do justice to its ambition
Where better to indulge in Jubolympic fever than the V&A, an institution founded at the height of the British Empire to house the artefacts of a nation’s conquests. This exhibition chronicles the radical designs that shaped British culture between two of this county’s Olympic games, the “Austerity Olympics” of 1948 and this year’s extravaganza.
With a collection as extensive as the V&A’s to grapple with, curators Christopher Breward and Ghislaine Wood split the show into three themed rooms: Tradition & Modernity, Subversion, and Innovation & Creativity.
The first gallery takes visitors through the conflicting forces of the post-war period, where modernisation was matched with a desire to preserve British tradition and heritage. The entrance articulates this tension by contrasting the Festival of Britain with the precisely choreographed coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. We are taken through a host of designs from London buses to drawings of New Towns, which transition to the consumer products of a burgeoning middle class.
The second gallery takes us into the 1960s and 1970s through the radicalism that grew out of British art schools and counter-culture. With music videos by David Bowie and the Beatles, a stage costume for Brian Eno designed by Carol McNicoll, and a scene from Antonioni’s Blow-Up projected on the wall, it is the most animated area. The final room is a large white space stocked with the products of British manufacturing and technology. It is filled with the macho eye-candy of aeroplanes and computer games, bridges and engines. The star of the show is a polished Jaguar E-Type, surrounded by a pack of drooling middle-aged enthusiasts. Recognising the exhibition’s correlation with the Olympics, it closes with a small model of Hadid’s Aquatics Centre, which sits shyly next to a towering model of Foster & Partners’ 30 St Mary Axe.
Source: V and A Images
The design of the exhibition, by London-based Ben Kelly Design (BKD), takes visitors through a sequence of decade-related colour palettes. Visitors progress from the pastels of the 1950s through the primary colours of the sixties and the black cube of the punk era, finishing with the ubiquitous white of today.
Rectangular diffusers hang from the ceiling like flying playing cards, washing light across the displays. As pleasant as the design theme is, the exhibition lacks the radicalism of the work that it displays, with artefacts often feeling cramped and fragmented. This, however, is a problem unrelated to its designers: it is the symptom of a museum overwhelmed by the scale of its own collection.
The V&A’s historical mandate has been to allow the public to engage with British manufacturing and design. The space required to do justice to 60 years of British innovation would be more fitting to the Crystal Palace than three rooms at the back of the V&A. By distilling such an ambitious project to such a small scale, without the room to go into detail, the exhibition loses its didactic purpose, providing little insight into the specific processes and innovations in technology and manufacturing that led to the products on display. What is it showing us that we have not already seen?
Lacking the jingoistic character of a jubilee, the exhibition is left in a middle ground where one can neither revel in nationalistic fervour nor indulge in specific developments in textiles, ceramics, fashion or architecture. Having said this, British Design is not without surprises.
The greatest asset of the V&A is that amidst the vast scope of its collection, there will always be something you haven’t seen before — you just have to find it.