World-beating British design

Britain makes a huge contribution to design worldwide and a major new exhibition at the V&A celebrates the nation's creativity.
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British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age looks at the UK's leading edge in design over three generations, from the postwar Austerity Olympics to the summer of 2012 — Games time again. During this time British design has regularly played with tradition and historical association, been a vehicle for subversion and irreverence and, above all, has been about innovation and creativity.

In the years immediately after the Second World War design was democratic, highly principled and optimistic. Postwar reconstruction gave an unprecedented opportunity to reshape Britain, not just aesthetically, but socially and democratically. Towns, homes, domestic products and ideas were created by men and women who were bent on creating a better world and, for them, design and architecture were key.

Initially they had limited resources, but that necessity fuelled their invention. The Festival of Britain in 1951 kick-started modernisation with a burst of very British modernism, on occasion tempered by a tweaking of tradition.

Establishing modern design in Britain was a long, slow battle. The Council of Industrial Design set up in 1944 helped to promote British design or what it dubbed "good design". Its influential annual awards were aimed as much at manufacturers and retailers as at the public.

Today the awards might seem rather worthy but then they promoted a colourful, hopeful, well-designed world. But it was an uphill struggle: even when manufacturers tried to create new designs, as with the Hille furniture company's long partnership with Robin Day, retailers were none too keen to sell the ensuing products — though ultimately the Hille Robin Day Polyprop Chair (1963) was to become the biggest-selling design classic of all time.

The 1964 Moulton Stowaway bicycle
The 1964 Moulton Stowaway bicycle (by Alex Moulton) allowed drivers to park and ride
Change, however, was in the air. As early as 1956 the radical architects, the Smithsons presented their House of the Future at the Ideal Home exhibition to popular acclaim. By the Sixties rising consumer demand based on increased prosperity led to a rejection of a state-encouraged, rather paternalistic "good taste" approach to design.

Britain's leading edge in design has run from postwar Austerity Olympics to the summer of 2012

New homes and newly filled wallets needed new furnishings, not traditional parental hand-me-downs.

Terence Conran opened Habitat in 1964, targeting the middle classes (often with foreign-designed objects), while the Sunday supplements began to cover "lifestyle", and designers such as Ken Grange created streamlined products that were mass-produced both here and abroad.

Sixties subversion, so evident in art and pop music, permeated the design world: street culture became the inspiration, with graduates of the new art schools dominating fashion, music and design. Bright colours, unlikely patterns, new forms and innovative materials were the new trends. The schools, particularly the Royal College of Art, were (and remain) key generators of global creative talent. But by the Seventies the subversive design force was more evident in graphics, music and fashion than in furnishings.

While Sixties design was international in outlook and futuristic, using new materials, gradually through the Seventies and early Eighties innovation in design became increasingly individualistic — often with a "just do it" approach. A creative anarchy fuelled by the economic, social and political crises of the era came to the fore, typified by the "creative salvage" reconstituted junk furniture by Ron Arad and Tom Dixon.

Jasper Morrison's 1986 Thinking Man's Chair
Jasper Morrison's 1986 Thinking Man's Chair, made by Cappellini since 1989
By the Nineties designers such as Jasper Morrison became more socially aware, but their end products could be rather self-conscious, slick in presentation and designed with an eye on the global market.

In the Noughties a more self-critical approach has emerged, with the likes of Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby (joint designers of the 2012 Olympic torch), experimenting with craft-based skills, new materials and techniques.

Today Britain has a reputation not just for experimentation with ideas and processes but for advanced digital design. This is often used to examine the interactions between humans and objects and the boundaries between artefacts and experience — be this in art/design installations or in computer games, with companies such as Troika and Random International achieving a worldwide reputation for innovation. The newest generation of designers is exploring design for personalised manufacture and the active participation of consumers in what they design.

* British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age is at the V&A from March 31 to August 12, 2012
Open daily 10am to 5.30pm (Fridays late opening to 9.30pm). Tickets £12. Visit


The V&A Shop has a selection of objects available to buy, plus a variety of tea towels reproducing original textile designs, £5, and the Anglepoise Type 75 Mini Lamp, designed by Kenneth Grange in aluminium, stainless steel and cast iron, £85.
* V&A Shop, Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, SW7 2RL (020 7942 2696;

Robin Day's 1950 steel and mahogany room divider
Joy division: Robin Day's 1950 steel and mahogany room divider for Hille
Twentytwentyone has a selection of furniture by Robin Day, the Fred Scott Supporto Chair, Race Antelope Chairs, Jasper Morrison Thinking Man Chairs, Michael Young Magazine Sofa, Thomas Heatherwick’s Spun Chair and Lucienne Day textiles. It also has a collection of vintage furniture for sale.
* Twentytwentyone, 274 Upper Street, N1 (020 7288 1996;

Aram Store has a wide selection of furniture by British designers from Jasper Morrison to Michael Young, as well as authorised reproductions of historical pieces.
* Aram Store, 110 Drury Lane, WC2 (020 7557 7557;


The book, British Design from 1948: Innovation in the Modern Age (V&A Publishing), edited by Christopher Breward and Ghislaine Wood, is available to Homes & Property readers at the special price of £35 (it is normally £40) including free p&p. To order, call 01256 302 699 and quote code 7AE before August 31, 2012.

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