Destination Guides

Creative UK

British design retrospective at London's V&A Museum

Creative UK

To mark his 80th birthday this year, Peter Blake redesigned his cover of the Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper. Instead of Marlene Dietrich, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Karl Marx, there is Damien Hirst, Paul Weller, Tom Stoppard and Vivienne Westwood.

The original Blake cover is one of many featured in the recently opened 'British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age' exhibition at London’s V&A. This well-though-out exhibition starts with post-war austerity and the 'Festival of Britain' (1951) and Queen Elizabeth’s coronation (1953), two huge events promoting Britain as a modern yet traditional nation.

These two celebrations, however, did little to hide the fact that Britain was a country in economic decline, albeit with brightly burning lights of innovation. It was in the 1950s that designer Terence Conran came to the fore, as did John Makepeace, a master craftsman who owed much to the arts and crafts movement of the previous century. Genuine post-war recovery was most apparent in the 1960s, and London in particular became a worldwide magnet for creative people. Of course, there was a high degree of hyperbole in the moniker of ‘Swinging London’, but there were few cooler places to channel one's creative energies.

'Double-D'mini dress. Artist: Foale & Tuffin, 1966. © Victoria and Albert Museum
© Victoria and Albert Museum

The presentation of 1960s London is one of four central streets in the exhibition, a period when words such as ‘lifestyle’, ‘throwaway’, ‘disposable’ and ‘flat-pack’ became central to a new consumer-driven culture; it was an era that created ‘icons’, whether the model Twiggy, the mini (car), the Beatles, photographer to the stars David Bailey or mini-skirt designer Mary Quant (who first made her mark in the 1950s). Visitors of a younger generation will be equally enthralled by the 1970s, with ‘outrageous’ costumes for Ziggy Stardust (aka David Bowie), clothes by Vivienne Westwood and punk bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash, later still the 1990s and Britpop.

The final part of the exhibition features British designers who have excelled in manufacturing and technologies. This section includes a superbly sleek 1961 E-Type Jaguar, Jonathan Ive’s Apple iMac, a host of British-made computer games, and models of Concorde and Sir Norman Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe skyscraper (better known as the Gherkin).

Jaguar E-Type, 1961. © Jaguar Heritage
© Jaguar Heritage

It is this manufacturing/technology section that forces visitors to look to the future, raising a key question: if the creative industries have played such a prominent role in contemporary Britain, what about coming decades? With a rapidly diminishing industrial base and hotter-than-ever worldwide competition, creating innovation-led industries are crucial. Whether the creative industries are up to that challenge will become clear in the next few decades.

'British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age exhibition' runs until August 12th at the V&A Museum in London.

See more about the exhibition at the V&A Museum webpage

'Torsion' chair. Artist: Brian Long, 1971. By kind permission of Brian Long. Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum
By kind permission of Brian Long. Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum