Six years after the end of the Second World War, and exactly one hundred years since the famous Great Exhibition of 1851 – the first international exhibition of manufactured products – the Festival of Britain was a display of might and fortitude on a national scale, showcasing the best of British manufacturing and design.
The Festival of Britain was intended as a 'tonic for the nation', a spectacular cultural event to raise the spirits of a country still in the grasp of austerity and rationing, and undergoing severe social and economic reform. Held in the summer of 1951, it provided light-relief to 8.5 million people who visited the main Festival site on London's South Bank, and the events held in cities and towns across the country. Importantly, it also acted as a catalyst for a new design aesthetic, launching the career of noted British designers working in the fields of textiles, furniture and graphic design. Many of the designs originally produced for the Festival have been acquired for our collections.
Abram Games created many of the striking posters used throughout the Festival. He began his career designing impactful public information posters for the War Office, urging Britons to 'Keep a guard on what you say', 'Use spades not ships: grow your own food' and 'Your Britain: Fight for it now'. His designs for the Festival of Britain incorporated heraldic imagery and angular geometry to create a modern portrait of the national character. This emblem featured on posters, leaflets, souvenirs and catalogues, helping to create what would become known as 'Festival Style'.
Robin Day was better known for his furniture designs, especially the seating for the newly built Royal Festival Hall, but his contribution to the Festival's graphic design was equally important. His Exhibition of Science poster included Games' icon in the lower left corner, dominated by an image of the United Kingdom as a central nucleus, surrounded by the rings of speeding electrons. A reminder of war, the atomic symbol paid tribute to the immense role that science and technology played in the Allied victory.
Commercial print design also flourished in relation to the Festival. The Pleasure Gardens in Battersea (to the West of the main site) – which offered fairground rides and fun rather than cultural edification – was the one commercially sponsored area of the Festival. Beermaker Guinness entertained the crowds with its hugely popular Guinness Festival Clock, a 25-foot-high mechanical clock with a display of characters from Guinness advertising, as well as a zookeeper and the Mad Hatter. Continuing the theme, Eric Fraser's 'Guinness in Festival Land' poster parodies a passage from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, with everyone from the Mad Hatter to the chess pieces drinking a Guinness. At the bottom of the poster a familiar smiling face that featured on many Guinness posters beams out from the canopy of the 'Dome of Discovery'.
Bringing modern architecture to the heart of London, several unique temporary buildings were constructed for the event, including the Dome of Discovery, the largest dome in the world at the time, which housed exhibitions ranging from the physical world to outer space; the Skylon, a futuristic tower that 'floated' on cables; the Telekinema, a state-of-the-art cinema; and Royal Festival Hall, the concert venue that still stands today. Such sculptural structures required unique seating. With wood rationed, however, furniture designs needed to find ways to incorporate alternative materials, like aluminium or steel.
Ernest Race was used to working with the government restrictions, his company, Race Furniture Ltd, had been constructing utility furniture since 1946. The DA 1 armchair used cast aluminium frame parts – a technique which had been developed for the war-time munitions industry – rather than wood, and an internal frame made of steel rods. Five years later Race's Antelope chair, produced specifically for the Festival of Britain outdoor terraces, was constructed similarly from die-cast aluminium and steel rods. It featured a plywood seat, painted in the festival colours of yellow, blue, red or grey, along with distinctive ball feet and a delicate curving top rail that became synonymous with the Festival style.
The Springbok chair, also by Race, was stackable and used both indoors and out. Race made no effort to hide the frame or materials: the seat and back are formed of springs covered in PVC sleeves that could be supplied in the Festival colours. Both designs became hallmarks for Race, who continued producing them even after the Festival closed.
Heal's – the famous London department store – was well known for hiring prominent designers. Its main contribution to the Festival's furniture was the stacking chair designed by Andrew John Milne. Made of perforated steel sheet and steel rod, the chair was used as terrace seating alongside Ernest Race's contributions. Only 900 were produced, in typical early 1950s pastel shades of pink, blue, yellow and white. Milne was better known for his rosewood chairs, with their superb craftsmanship and elegant, sculptural arms, which he created for Heal's in 1947.
One of the most famous and long-lasting chairs produced for the Festival was Robin Day's 658 chair, originally developed for Royal Festival Hall and known as the Royal Festival Hall lounge chair. With its swan-like curves and wide proportions, Day's bent plywood and steel leg chair had massive appeal. The design was later put into regular production, differing only slightly from the original, which had copper-plated legs and lemon-coloured upholstery. Robin Day, together with his wife, textile designer Lucienne Day, became one of Britain's most celebrated post-war designers.
Lucienne Day's radically new and elaborate wallpaper and fabric designs were also showcased at the Festival, in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion, alongside furniture by her husband Robin. Her most celebrated textile design, Calyx, with its abstract plant motif, was a striking departure from the typical floral prints that were commercially available at the time. The vibrant fabric embodied the spirit of the Festival and went on to become a commercially successful product at Heal's.
Other textile designers chose memorable images or distinctive structures from the Festival as their motifs. Joyce Clissold's commemorative scarf celebrates the famous Dome of Discovery and the Skylon in a handmade block print. Joyce was the director of Footprints, a group of textile designers who specialised in block printing by hand using earthy colours and natural dyes.
John Barker's design includes an image of the exhibition on the South Bank (the main Festival site), juxtaposed with a reference to the Crystal Palace, linking the Festival to the Great Exhibition of 1851. Barker produced the print for David Whitehead Ltd, a Lancashire textile company which became a significant commercial force in British soft furnishings during the post-war period. Whitehead's bright, modern prints exhibited at the Festival secured its popularity as a producer of bold interior designs. The columnar design of Whitehead's Café fabric, for example, was based on a style from talented textile designer Jacqueline Groag, who would go on to become an influential designer of dress fabrics for the renowned couturiers Chanel, Schiaparelli and Lanvin.
Although the Festival was not without its critics, who argued against extravagance in a time of austerity, it had a lasting impact on the nation's design aesthetic, promoting an optimistic, progressive view of Britain's future. Craftsmanship and inventiveness were lauded, traits that would come to define Britain's identity throughout the post-war period and for the rest of the 20th century.
Watch original footage of the Festival of Britain online courtesy of the BFI.