British Design Celebrated At V&A For Olympics REVIEW


With the eyes of the world upon us for London 2012, the V&A celebrates all things British

2012 is Britain’s year. With the eyes of the world upon the capital this Summer, it is perhaps the great chance of 21st Century to showcase and celebrate this nation’s vibrant cultural identity along with its achievements, both past and present. And, amidst the multitude of efforts to enlist the mass appeal of sport for the promotion of the Arts, the V&A – that great storehouse of British design and decorative arts – was hardly going to miss the bandwagon.

And so, the major new exhibition, ‘British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age’, is V&A’s roll of the dice in the national bid to get Britain noticed by the rest of world, as well as its contribution to the general atmosphere of self-congratulation spawned by hosting the Games. Unsurprisingly then, the show has been conceived in Olympian terms, bracketed by the two dates of British hosting – from the ‘austerity games’ of 1948, taking place in a London devastated by bombing and economic crisis, to the moment that we welcome the Games once again, 2012, within a radically different socio-political global climate.

But surprisingly for an historically-led exhibition of post-war British design, the show has been organised thematically rather chronologically, with three broad analytical categories – ‘Tradition and Modernity’, ‘Subversion’, and ‘Innovation and Creativity’ – traversing more or less the entire period.

Despite thematic trappings, the first gallery – by far the weakest of the three, so do not lose hope, noble visitor – feels more like an exploration of the application of Modernist principles to the rebuilding of post-war Britain. In orbit around an idealised, earthy depiction of ‘The Family’ by Henry Moore, we are presented with a dense survey of heroic design applied in an earnest effort to make life better: from the attractive standardisation of traffic signage, and the utopian visions for new ‘brutalist’ universities, to the constructed paradise of Milton Keynes – ‘different from the noisy, crowded and often ugly cities of today’, a place where people can ‘get away from the problems of overcrowding and housing nightmares’. But while there is a wealth of material here, the presentation is cluttered and confusing, with the curators failing to adopt the clarity of their subject matter. What’s more, there have been umpteen recent investigations of Modern design of this kind (albeit, here with the sporadic contemporary inserts), and few will learn much from this particular showing.

The second gallery – Subversion –, however, sees the V&A crank up the quality. As with the Postmodernism exhibition, there has been a considerable effort to create an immersive world that nods to the essence of the pieces on display, and to see that the museum’s exceptional resources are exploited to the full. Here also, is a far more energetic stab at the purported ‘thematic’ hanging, with the 1970s Punk vibe of Vivian Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, sloshed excitingly together with the fashion cultures of the swinging ‘60s, and the clinical glitz of the 1990s. Perhaps better named ‘design in pop culture’, this is a whole exhibition in itself, giving viewers succulent tasters of the various ‘alternative’ scenes of the last half-century, through their fashions, music videos, furniture, album covers etc. 

Finally, ‘Innovation and Creativity’ is best described as a whirlwind tour of Britain’s contribution to commercial manufacturing, or product design. Objects include an electric shaver, a food mixer, a sizeable model of Concord, and the ‘Eglu’ chicken house, aimed at New Age chicken-owning trendsters too cool for age-honoured meshing. But best of all is the room devoted to video game design, in a long overdue recognition of gaming – so pervasive in today’s culture – as a creative medium.  On display here is the infectiously witty pop-renderings of the Grand Theft Auto series, that, like the second gallery of this exhibition, offer up pastiches of the seedy visual cultures of the near-past, as well as a survey of the Tomb Raider games over time, with the protagonist Lara Croft growing ever less pixelated (and somehow ever less appealing).

And of course the exhibition would have to end with Olympics, Wolff Olins’ London 2012 logo proudly brandished across the final wall. Initially lampooned, its time-boundedness to the unprecedentedly brief era of New Rave has become irrelevant, having become that all-pervasive emblem for that moment in time when all of Britain is patting itself on the back. This exhibition is as big a pat on the back as any, and, though it gets off to a rather slow start, ultimately puts on a good show. And why should it not? Hurrah for us, and our fifteen minutes of fame. Words/ Photo Thomas Keane © 2012 ArtLyst

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