British Design 1948 to 2012 at the V&A

Me & A went to see this newly opened exhibition over the Easter weekend, and for the most part, I thought it was very good.

Divided into three sections, assessing (in order) the post war years, the late 60’s/ early 70’s up to current times, and the third section concentrating on the industrial and technological aspects rather than arts and culture, it was the immediate Post War years that appealed to me most. There was nothing we hadn’t seen before really (being regular visitors to the V&A), but it’s always impressive seeing lots of things which really appeal to your own sense of aesthetics, all collected together in one space, it definitely gives them additional impact: Spence’s Coventry Cathedral, Robin And Lucien Day’s chairs and fabrics, lots Festival of Britain stuff, a Henry Moore sculpture, Hans Coper and Lucie Rei ceramics…

It was particularly pleasing in this section to see the original artwork produced by Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert for their ground breaking new road signs. A pioneering piece of design so good that its hasn’t really changed since the mid 1960’s when it was first unveiled (an achievement that almost certainly deserves a post all of its own).

There were also some excellent objects in the final section. You might of course expect to see an E Type Jaguar and Concorde as good examples of British Industrial design, but it’s always good to be reminded of the smaller, everyday objects, like the Trim phone, the Moulton Stowaway small wheeled bike or the mixers, shavers and camera’s that the hugely talented Kenneth Graham designed throughout this period.

So you’ve probably concluded that it was the middle section that didn’t quite work for me. The 70’s were fine, the whole Punk thing is always good to see, but it was the 80’s and 90’s that not only disappointed, but actually made me quite cross… One quite large room consisted of four hats made of dead fish, 2 dresses (one of which was shaped like and egg and looked silly) and two throughly hideous pretend verdigris doors by someone I’d never heard of… Pointless, uninformative and a wasted opportunity in my book. I didn’t really like the Damien Hirst room either but I’ve gone on about him lots before, so I’ll let that go…

Maybe it’s all still too close to be able to look back effectively and be anything less than critical, but for me, the stuff representing the last years of the Century, all seemed vacuous and pointless: all a bit too clever, clever and self reverential… I mean Nigel Coates and Ron Arad might well be nice guys, but I can’t see their product design from this period as anything other than overblown and ridiculous…

As with any exhibition that attempts to cover a 60+ year period there were inevitably a number of important names sadly missing, the biggest omissions to my mind would include Neville Brody, Ken Adam, Vaughan Oliver and Stanley Kubrick.

Having said all that, and aiming as always to finish on a positive note, I would definitely recommend a visit if only to make your own mind up, because without doubt, the good stuff far outweighs the weak… and like I did, you will almost certainly leave with the feeling that we Brits are pretty good at creating clever and beautiful things..

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