British design: was this the future?
March 12, 2012 | By:
Previewing the V&A's major exhibition, Stephen Bayley reflects on some milestones of our lifetime and how the once modern and radical has become quaint
British design

Allen Jones sado-masochistic chair on a Peter Blake Pop Art background, flanked by the Robin Day stacking chair, an early Apple iMac and the Trimphone

As a child I had absolute clarity in my vision of the future. It was to be full of Scandinavian furniture, German appliances, American cars. All of this was to be accommodated, under forbidding lighting, in buildings where right angles and glass dominated. This was called ‘modern’ and it was very exciting. Now it has become ‘vintage’ and it looks like the hardware section of an Oxfam shop.

The problem in looking at modern (sorry, I mean vintage) design in the context of a museum is that in the past 30 years, museums have become more like shops, while the better kind of shop now resembles an art gallery. Visitors to British Design 1948-2012 at the Victoria and Albert Museum might wonder if ‘design’ is only a sophisticated branch of shopping.

Whatever you call it, here is a fine splurge of nostalgia for those inclined to sentiment. A young Terence Conran hammering away in a Notting Hill flat making angular furniture was the equivalent of Elizabeth David’s psycho-sexual romance with Mediterranean food. Conran and David, in their different ways, were heralds of the romanticism that defined the period.

In a similar spirit, when a group of artists and critics became bedazzled by US comics and trashy Americana, Pop Art was invented. That was 1956.

Ten years later, Americans repaid the compliment. We are very proud of ‘Swinging London’, although it took a Time magazine journalist to recognise it. But while London oscillated, the aircraft industry was strangled: the beginning of the fatal erosion of our technological base. While nurturing Herman and the Hermits, we lost the ability to make flying machines.

Consumer design was often just as tragic. A touching exhibit in the V&A show is Kenneth Grange’s yellowing plastic Brownie Vecta camera of 1964. “British Design,” the curators tell us, “has always been associated with great originality and innovation.” Are we sure this is correct? OK. Maybe originality and innovation are bad for business. Kodak, of Rochester, New York, has just gone bust.

Of course, the word British is a problem in our flat world landscape. Take Jonathan Ive, the inspired and inspiring head of design at Apple whose sensational 1998 iMac is rightly on display as a masterpiece of industrial design. Ive was born in Chingford, but has lived in California for nearly 20 years. He has been hugely influenced by German concepts of ‘Gute Form’. Apple is, of course, an American business. And its products are made in China. British? In what sense exactly?

What else will you see? Allen Jones’ sado-masochistic furniture, Peter Blake’s Pop, John Piper’s Festival of Britain murals, Robin Day’s polypropylene stacking chair, Vivienne Westwood’s Anarchy in the UK, Erno Goldfinger’s Russian constructivist architectural fantasies, the atrociously cack-handed 2012 Olympic logo. On this reading, sex, whimsy, eclecticism and irreverence do seem to be enduring British characteristics, I am proud to say.

But what I like best is the contrast between the mid-sixties Trimphone and the 1961 E-Type Jaguar. Laugh or cry? You can do both. The Trimphone needs to be imagined in a shade of avocado or tinned mushroom soup. It was a bold but poorly judged attempt at modernism by the GPO: as if granny wore a miniskirt and thigh boots.

Designed to be excitingly portable, it was uselessly constrained by the length of the cable. Additionally, the dial was illuminated by a lethally radioactive substance. A metaphor is struggling to emerge here.

Meanwhile, by international consent, the Jaguar E-Type is the most beautiful car that has ever been made. It transcends limited notions of ‘modern’ or ‘vintage’… as all great design should.

British Design 1948-2012: innovation in the modern age is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7 2RL, from 31 March to 12 August 2012

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