New exhibition traces British design from the Austerity Games to the commercial conquest


Richard Hamilton - 'Just What Is It That Makes Today's Home So Different, So Appealing?', 1956.

Yesterday, the V&A opened a new exhibition that celebrates British design from 1948 to the present day. With the previous and upcoming Olympics in London as its two polar axes, British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age brings together over 300 objects that are not only brilliant in isolation but also as symbols of important stages in the trajectory of British culture. It is an indulgent celebration of the country’s achievements in design, fashion and art, which by no coincidence ties in neatly with the imminent opening of the 2012 Olympic Games, and the V&A state that the exhibition highlights ‘how the country continues to nurture artistic talent and be a world leader in creativity and design.’

The flux of any country’s social and political state is inevitably responded to through design, and the V&A breaks this acknowledgement down into three core eras: from the struggle between modernity and tradition, to the experimental movements and subversion through creativity in the fifties and sixties to the post-industrial innovation of today. Even the term ‘Britishness’ itself has shifted throughout this period, from its proud, patriotic, post-war meaning in 1948 – the year of the triumphantly optimistic ‘Austerity Games’, when rationing was still in force – to its nostalgic, at times superficial and increasingly anachronistic use in today’s globalised, post-internet Britain.

Shops are incessantly heaving with the nauseatingly twee appropriation of the ‘keep calm and carry on’ slogan and pre-distressed Union Jack flags, plastered onto as many domestic furnishings as possible with an emphasis more on light-hearted irony as patriotic candour. At the same time, an obsessive focus on branding and packageability has resulted in an infinite stream of widely accessible, palatable products that are often rendered more satisfying as marketed representations of desire for an object, than the object itself. It is perhaps worth noting that today’s consumers are far more inclined to spend money on decorative accessories for technological products such as the iPad or Kindle, than on the literary, musical or cinematic content which these products are ostensibly made to host.

Alastair Sooke’s passive remark in his review of this exhibition about the ‘unwelcome air’ of the inane branding that has washed over British design in recent years (thus ruining his charming experience) fails to pick up on the fundamental fact that this in itself is a symptom of British culture in its current, information-saturated state – made manifest in products – and is as important a reflection of today’s consciousness as Vivienne Westwood’s counter-culture fashion of the 1970s. Like it or not, we should be focusing on this as a prevalent cultural trend – another fascinating stage in the trajectory – rather than as an aesthetically displeasing, non-nostalgic reality that we’d prefer to sweep beneath the vintage Union Jack carpet.

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