“Britain has since 1948 sustained an extraordinarily vigorous creative culture, even against a background of manufacturers leaving the stage like the instrumentalists in Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. It’s an inclusive culture, hence tapestries and Jaguars. It’s a culture that swoops artfully between high and low. It’s a culture that could import, with characteristic fairhandedness, both John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner. The one in thrall to the village, the other in thrall to steel and glass. Wonderfully, each was a founder of The Victorian Society. Their contrasting spirits dominate British design in the years before The Beatles’ first LP. Thereafter, the Britain of crumpets-with-vicar became the undisputed global capital of youth culture whose furious organic vitality still invigorates business life.”
❚ AN EXHIBITION TITLED British Design 1948–2012: Innovation in the Modern Age, is bound to infuriate as much as it excites. The grimly claustrophobic galleries that host temporary shows at the Victoria & Albert Museum abound with iconic and nostalgic everyday objects, rather as a good car-boot sale does. Yet the omission of much imaginative British media is unforgivable — the template for newspaper colour supplements laid out by The Sunday Times plus a serious investment in photo-reportage, for example… the more-British-than-British essence with which the American Joseph Losey propelled a whole chapter of stylish cinema… the sci-fi television fantasies of The Prisoner or Doctor Who…
What the V&A show’s three themes propose — under the headings Tradition & Modernity, through the Subversion of pop, to Innovation & Creativity — amounts to a vital module for every art or design student in the education system, whose forebears, thank goodness, benefited from the shake-up imposed in 1960 by the Coldstream Report.
Ignore most dithering reviews of this hot-and-cold exhibition. Instead, do savour the argumentative Stephen Bayley, writing in that onetime model of new newspaper design, The Independent. He nails the paradox of this show in a daydream: “I became drunk on memories of whimsy, charm, gentility, wit and Macmillan-era futurism. My imagination never turned to the ruins of industry, the loss of technological competence, the barrenness of every British city except London and the fact that the economy of our once-busy island workshop is now based on the theory and practice of a dodgy casino.”
Bayley then comes to the nub of the matter: “The tricky thing is ‘design’ itself. It’s often muddled not only with ‘innovation’, but with invention, fashion and taste-making, sometimes even with art. After more than 150 years of promoting design at the V&A, no one seems to have any very clear idea of what it is. If it is a real subject, it must have a discipline. But what discipline connects Spence’s Coventry Cathedral with Damien Hirst’s 1997 Pharmacy restaurant in Notting Hill, west London, each of which features here?
“If, as the design lobby often insists, ‘everything has been designed’, then everyone is a designer. So what special qualities do professional designers bring to any task?”
Aim Bayley’s question at three triumphs of design in the V&A show: the kinetic balancing act of the Festival of Britain’s Skylon structure; the bird-wing aerodynamics of Concorde miniaturised at the V&A in a 20-ft model; and the most thrilling artefact in the entire show: the skilfully lit Jaguar E-Type from 1961 which rival manufacturer Enzo Ferrari declared “the most beautiful car ever made”. Drop down to one knee and view the Jag diagonally from any corner and wonder at its lack of straight lines. One curve after another creates changing perspectives that conspire to emulate speed even as it stands motionless before you. Seldom will you hear both men and women purring over such a seductive silhouette! Seldom will you ever see such a thrilling manmade object.
There are a good number of breathtaking moments in this show that beg you to ask why and how an exhibit stopped you in your tracks, though not as many as you would wish.