Design Under Pressure: The Drive for Modernity

Categorised as ART., ART.

Alongside the Hockney, Freud and DaVinci exhibitions calling in the crowds and selling out within seconds this year, comes another blockbuster from another London institution: British Design 1948 – 2012 at the V&A promises to bring together and celebrate for the first time our design cream of the cream.

For a blockbuster show, there must be a blockbuster opening: award winning architect and silver fox Richard Rogers speaks; drinks are provided by national treasure M&S; and canapés are inspired by decadent British classics such as cucumber jelly, Welsh Rarebit and mackerel tartare (weird, amazing, fishy). It is exciting to see the place come to life with people, food and noise, and to walk freely through the exhibition without the steely glare of the security guard, a bus full of school kids or a jab in the ribs from a pearl-toting posh pensioner for looking too long at a piece, which usually plague my visits to their shows.

The first room of British Design is a somewhat champagne fuzzed memory of antiquated and very English tapestry, chairs and tables, and my first impressions come in confused headache form. This is the V&A’s most ambitious, and potentially significant exhibition – but here potentiality is lost in a web of colour, and a mishmash of different household and art objects, leaving an already dizzy mind a little dizzier.

But how first impressions can be deceiving. The rest of the show is a total knockout, each room and object dazzles, and it does what only the V&A can do in a time of severe arts cuts: presents a monumental body of work in a fantastically bespoke series of spaces.

Highlights are definitely the array of our iconic designs and movements; what is it that makes Britain great? It’s our drive forwards, towards modernity if you like, and towards change, and our designers do this in ever inventive and imaginative capacities.

Coming out of post war depression and quaint stuffy English tradition that fills the first space, we are greeted with the ‘youthquake’, the mood of the sixties and seventies: attire by Mary Quant, Ossie Clark, and Queen Vivienne and Malcom sit amongst David Bailey photography and a David Bowie jumpsuit to a soundtrack of The Specials and Roxy Music. These are accompanied by the contemporary greats of the St Martins set, Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan and other alumni show off their dressmaking genius in a private theatre.

Other than my particular penchant for costume, there is an amazing collection of everyday design – from Dyson hoovers to incredible architecture, and the seductively shiny Jaguar E-Type, which is the only car that’s ever given me butterflies, and a double look. The final rooms are multi sensual, lit with Troika’s beautiful falling light show commissioned by Swarovski and the acoustics of the seductive boop-boop-bi-boo lullaby of pre-2000 video games, where you can watch the progression of ‘Tomb Raider – Lara: from pixellation to pornography?’

And just ahead of his Tate show, Damien Hirst is featured here with his analysis of contemporary living Pharmacy, you know, all the pill bottles. An insightful look into the mind of a man who says he makes work from what surrounds him, and what surrounds him is money and drugs. Pharmacy seems out of place; I’m conscious that Hirst is an artist (along with Allen Jones, but his Chair from 1969 at least looks functional), the V&A curators draw upon the words of John Ruskin, that design is ‘the art of life’, by giving Hirst the privileged pedestal of the design innovator.

And ohh! Here they are again, hanging over the exhibition like a spandex-clad cloud, those two words I am already sick of: The Olympics. In his opening speech, Rogers swiftly brings our collective short attention to the Austerity Games of 1948 and the destitute and dustiness of his childhood V&A. The exhibition surveys design from this point until now, conveniently in time for our re-hosting the Games (does it really need a capital G?), a fact I don’t really feel I need reminding of any more.

British Design 1948 – 2012, is to me more a celebration of the creative and cultural diversity of London, our captial, rather than Britain as a whole. Natives and non-natives are brought together, to form a hybrid design hub, that is every bit the spirit of London.

It also triumphs consumerism, beautiful, well made things and the people who make them. Recent studies show that architects top the the poll of men’s sexiest professions, and this exhibition is teeming with masculine prowess: cars, building, even clothes, are the creative phalli of contemporary culture. I don’t know what it is about design that is so appealing – maybe something to do with how good a man is with his hands and how well he masters his material – but this show demonstrates the specific allure and ability of design to pull customers and prove a point.

So does British Design achieve its potential? Yes, most definitely. This is a show that won’t happen again (perhaps until the next time we host the Olympics), and if it takes the Games to bring such a show to one of our museums, then I’m going to have to do some rethinking. If you want to get lost for hours, watching videos, fantasising dress-up and re-discovering the greatness of Britain then this is a show not to miss.

British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, SW7

Starts 31 March 2012 Until 12 August 2012


Kat Hawker


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