In 1946, war-weary Britain was facing difficult socio-economic challenges. A government-backed exhibition called 'Britain Can Make It' ran at the V&A for 14 weeks in the autumn of 1946 – confidently presenting a progressive, forward-thinking nation that could compete in a post-war global market.
The future of British design rests, in the long run, with you.
The aim of the Britain Can Make It exhibition was both to bolster Britain's manufacturing industry, and, to promote a 'design consciousness' in the British public. The severe debt left behind by the Second World War, as well as continued rationing – which wouldn't ease until 1952 – meant that income generated through trade, especially international trade, was crucial to recover Britain's crippled economy. The government decided that well-designed consumer goods for the domestic and export markets would represent British industry as modern, forward-thinking and high-quality. The Council of Industrial Design was founded to "promote by all practicable means the improvement of design in the products of British industry".
The exhibition emphasised how intrinsic industrial design was to economic renewal. All the goods featured in the exhibition would be made available for sale to foreign customers, while the home-grown consumer market would also get a taste of 'the best, and only the best' that modern, post-war Britain could produce. It was visited by nearly one and a half million people. The V&A proved the ideal venue – the exhibits usually on display had been removed for safety during wartime – freeing up about half the Museum's total area at the time for the show.
More than 3,000 items were displayed, divided into 32 sections, by nearly 80 top designers of technology, fashion, and household goods. From the entrance on Exhibition Road, visitors followed a winding path through the Museum, where they experienced the transition in manufacturing from war-time to peace (as the press stated, 'From Spitfire to saucepan') – including how raw materials are used and the types of goods being fashioned from them. Some displays were meant to be educational, explaining the stages of the design process (a fairly abstract concept for many) including mass-production techniques, raw materials and aesthetic considerations such as proportion, utility, colour, texture, decoration. Exhibition Designer Misha Black's The Birth of an Egg Cup exhibit used a four-metre-high plaster egg, industry murals and a piece of machinery that produced 3,000 egg cups a day to answer the question, "who does decide the shape of the egg cup?"
The exhibition section What the Goods are Made of included exhibits on Heat, Light, Power; Books & Printing; Women's, Men's and Children's Wear; Shopwindow Street; Furniture; Toys and the most popular section of the exhibition, the Furnished Rooms. The Furnished Rooms were just that – staged living environments designed for particular individuals or fictitious families, for example a sports commentator, a television engineer and industrial worker, a kitchen for a family of five, a child's nursery, and even a luxury bathroom. Our collections include a number of furnishings made specifically for the exhibition.
Radios for the home were a highlight of the Furnished Rooms. From the radio in the sports commentator's bedroom to the portable 'handbag'-type radio created for the newly perceived female market – the radio was a product that could be continuously advanced, both technologically and aesthetically. In the mid-1920s, the civilian radio had been considered a piece of furniture, manufactured by furniture-makers, with the valves, controls and speakers enclosed within a single wooden cabinet. By the 1930s, innovative plastics such as Bakelite (phenol-formaldehyde) allowed industrial designers and manufacturers to experiment with more modern designs. Production of civilian radios essentially ceased in Britain during the war, except for the 'Utility' radio – once described by a British MP as "cheap and nasty" in appearance. In contrast, the models showcased in Britain Can Make It boasted slender builds and "improved high fidelity sound". Ever-expanding colour ranges and shapes suited a variety of needs and desires, though many sets came with an equally impressive pricetag.
Utility Furniture Scheme cocktail cabinet and desk
During the war, the Board of Trade introduced the Utility Furniture Scheme, which standardised designs and restricted the type and quality of wood permitted in civilian furniture. When the war came to a close, more 'luxury' items were created, though the government still encouraged manufacturers to apply war-time production methods to the manufacture of peace-time products. One aluminium-framed furniture range, including a prototype cocktail cabinet and desk, experimented with using aircraft construction techniques. The metal framework could be packed flat, and the fitted panels of various materials would slot in for easy assembly. Although these prototypes never made it to production, the designer, A.E. Walsh, and many of his colleagues at the Board of Trade, including Ernest Race and Gordon Russell, would become well-known names in the post-war period of British design.
Ernest Race developed the concept of aluminium furniture with his BA-3 chair. Unveiled at Britain Can Make It, the chair used five interchangeable cast and polished aluminium components that could be easily disassembled for packing and transport. Aluminium was a freely available and unrestricted material, whereas wood and upholstery were still harder to come by. The green duck-cotton, also available in blue or brown, conformed to the conditions of post-war manufacture – the dye colours were in surplus due to their use in military uniforms. Restrictions on other colours would not ease until 1948. After the exhibition, Race's new company, Race Furniture Ltd, was contracted to supply 1,500 BA-3 chairs to troop ships that were bringing home demobilised servicemen. From 1947, the chair became available with arms (BA-3A) and in wood (BA-2).
Christopher Nicholson (the son of the painter William Nicholson and brother of the abstract artist Ben Nicholson), designed a striking wall clock for the research engineer's office within the Furnished Rooms display. The clock uses acrylic (perspex) for its outer ring and an inner dial most likely made of aluminium. This design exemplifies the two competing interests of post-war design – the advancement of new materials such as plastics, which would thrive in the 1950s, and a reminder of the wartime aesthetic of using non-rationed materials such as aluminium. The clock, together with a radiogram (radio and record player), were both designed by Nicholson for the English radio manufacturer Ferranti. The wall clock was a prototype that never made it to production, but with a few tweaks to the arrangement of the dials and speakers, Ferranti produced the radiogram for retail trade in 1947.
Whether or not the exhibition increased public appetite for sophisticated, or 'good design', it certainly helped to elevate the UK's industrial design standards. In the wake of the exhibition, the industrial designer emerged as a significant figure in British design culture.
You can watch original newsreel footage of the exhibition online courtesy of the BFI.
Read more about this landmark post-war exhibition in the book Britain Can Make It (2019), edited by Diane Bilbey.