British Design 1948-2012: about the exhibition

31 March – 12 August 2012

This was the first major exhibition to celebrate post-war British art and design, revealing the depth and quality of the Victoria and Albert Museum's collections while showcasing the richness of British regional collections.

The exhibition focussed on British post-war art and design from the 1948 ‘Austerity Games' to the present day. Over 300 British design objects highlighted significant moments in the history of British design and how the country continues to nurture artistic talent and be a world leader in creativity and design.

Video: British Design in 2012

A number of designers involved in the V&A's exhibition British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age discuss aspects of the exhibition, and British design in general.

View transcript of video

Inside the exhibition

The following sections were featured in the exhibition.

Festival of Britain poster by Abram Games, 1951. Museum no. E.308-2011

Festival of Britain poster by Abram Games, 1951. Museum no. E.308-2011


Anarchy in the UK T-shirt, by Vivienne Westwood & Malcolm McLaren, 1977-8, worn and altered by Johnny Rotten. Museum no. S.794-1990

Anarchy in the UK T-shirt, by Vivienne Westwood & Malcolm McLaren, 1977-8, worn and altered by Johnny Rotten. Museum no. S.794-1990


Brownie Vector Camera, by Kenneth Grange for Kodak, 1964. Museum no. Circ. 124-1965

Brownie Vecta camera, by Kenneth Grange for Kodak, 1964. Museum no. Circ. 124-1965

Introduction

In 1948 London hosted the first Olympic Games after the Second World War. The ‘Austerity Games’ (as they became known) took place at a time of economic crisis in a city devastated by bombing, but they provided a platform for reconciliation and reconstruction. In 2012 Britain welcomes the Olympics once more, and while the spirit remains, the context in which they are taking place has entirely changed. British Design 1948–2012 traces those changes by exploring buildings, objects, images and ideas produced by designers and artists born, trained or based in Britain.

The displays examine the shifting nature of British design over 60 years: three galleries respectively explore the tension between tradition and modernity; the subversive impulse in British culture; and Britain’s leadership in design innovation and creativity. The exhibition reveals how British designers have responded to economic, political and cultural forces that have fundamentally shaped how we live today. They have created some of the most inventive and striking objects, technologies and buildings of the modern world.

Tradition & Modernity

The impact of the Second World War on the social, economic and physical fabric of Britain was immense. The task of reconstruction dominated the post-war years. In 1945 a Labour government swept to power, and its radical plan for a comprehensive Welfare State would be broadly supported by all governments for the next 30 years. The drive for modernity in the rebuilding of Britain changed the nation forever. Events such as the Festival of Britain in 1951 presented a progressive view of the future and in the decades after the war Britain’s cities and homes were transformed.

However, a preoccupation with British traditions was often just below the surface and the grand spectacle of the coronation in 1953 reaffirmed traditional values for a world-wide audience. For many, the heart of British tradition was seen to reside in the land and many artists and designers explored themes that celebrated rural life and the countryside

Subversion

From the 1950s a new generation of Britons challenged the values of their parents. The focus of design moved from reconstruction to revolution. In the 1960s and 1970s, fashion, music, shopping, interiors and film enjoyed a fresh prominence as expressions of identity or radical intent. To adapt a common phrase of the time, the personal became political – and visible.

In Britain’s cities the shift was particularly powerful. From ‘Swinging London’ in the 1960s, through the nihilism of Punk in the 1970s, to the sharp presentation of ‘Cool Britannia’ in the 1990s, artists and designers pioneered an irreverent approach that marked the cultural landscape forever. In the studio and on the street, this subversive spirit has come to define British creativity for the past 50 years. Its sources are wide-ranging, from art students demanding reforms in the 1960s to Britain’s unique urban culture and social mix.

Innovation & Creativity

Britain has long been a pioneer of new ideas, particularly in the areas of industrial design and technology. Innovation has characterised British design from the introduction of spinning machines in the 1780s and the engineering of ships and bridges in the 1840s to the development of computer codes after the Second World War and the invention of the worldwide web in the 1980s.

Over the last half century, design culture has moved firmly away from traditional manufacturing towards innovative financial, retail and creative services. This radical shift has been accompanied by new attitudes towards commodities and global communication, which have fundamentally altered the way design is produced, consumed and understood. British designers have stood at the forefront of change. In so doing, they have created some of the most iconic objects, technologies and buildings of the last 60 years.

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