Design Council Slide Collection: an online guide to the resource

Dr Simon Ford and John Davis - Manchester Metropolitan University

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The Festival of Britain

The original idea for the Festival of Britain emerged in 1943, when the Royal Society of Arts proposed that something should be done to commemorate the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851. After the war the government took up this proposal, but instead of attempting to stage another major international exhibition it decided to organize an event that would instead celebrate 'the British contribution to civilization, past, present and future, in arts, science and technology, and in industrial design.'

General view of the Festival of Britain South Bank Exhibition site, 1951General view of the Festival of Britain South Bank Exhibition site, 1951

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Reversible teapot stand/dish in glass decorated with the 1951 Festival of Britain symbol designed by Abram GamesReversible teapot stand/dish in glass decorated with the 1951 Festival of Britain symbol designed by Abram Games

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Wall-mounted signs indicating the directions to various amenities at the Festival of Britain South Bank Exhibition site, 1951. Designed by Milner GrayWall-mounted signs indicating the directions to various amenities at the Festival of Britain South Bank Exhibition site, 1951. Designed by Milner Gray

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The Festival of Britain was, however, more than a single event. Throughout the summer of 1951 a multitude of pageants, processions, exhibitions and other activities took place across the UK. Whilst the majority of these were initiated and organized by local communities, a number of much larger, high-profile public projects were planned and funded by the government. The biggest of these, and the centrepiece of the Festival, was the South Bank Exhibition in London.

Exterior view of part of the Festival of Britain site 1951, showing 'Antelope' and 'Springbok' chairs designed and made by Ernest Race LtdExterior view of part of the Festival of Britain site 1951, showing 'Antelope' and 'Springbok' chairs designed and made by Ernest Race Ltd

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Display on women's hair brushes (in form of a giant test-tube) in the 'Things in the Home' section of the Festival of Britain Land Travelling Exhibition, 1951Display on women's hair brushes (in form of a giant test-tube) in the 'Things in the Home' section of the Festival of Britain Land Travelling Exhibition, 1951

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Kitchen in showflat in the Exhibition of Architecture, Town Planning and Building Research, 1951Kitchen in showflat in the Exhibition of Architecture, Town Planning and Building Research, 1951

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A 27-acre, largely derelict and bomb-damaged area between the Thames and Waterloo Station was chosen as the site for the exhibition, and a team of young architects, planners and designers was assembled to work on the project. The South Bank Exhibition acted as a showcase for modern architecture and urban design, with pavilions and the futuristic structures of the 'Dome of Discovery' and the 'Skylon' grouped around a series of open spaces. Modern industrial design was a key feature of the exhibition, and the CoID was made responsible for selecting all the manufactured items that were displayed. It also controlled the choice of street furniture, signage and lettering used on the South Bank site.

Bed-sitting room for the single girl designed by R.Y. Goodden and R.D. Russell, 1951Bed-sitting room for the single girl designed by R.Y. Goodden and R.D. Russell, 1951

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Dining area in a room setting designed by Robin Day in the 'Entertainment at Home' section at the Homes and Gardens Pavilion at the Festival of Britain, 1951Dining area in a room setting designed by Robin Day in the 'Entertainment at Home' section at the Homes and Gardens Pavilion at the Festival of Britain, 1951

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Part of a room setting representing a sitting room for an old lady, designed by Rupert Nicholson in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion at the Festival of Britain, 1951Part of a room setting representing a sitting room for an old lady, designed by Rupert Nicholson in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion at the Festival of Britain, 1951

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To allow an informed choice of exhibits to be made, the CoID's Industrial Division systematically compiled records on British-made goods in current production. Starting in 1948, manufacturers were requested to submit details of their best designs 'in the contemporary idiom' and from this information a 'Stock List' was drawn up. By 1951 the list contained information on 20,000 different products. It was deemed to be of sufficient value and interest in its own right that it was made available for visitors to the South Bank Exhibition to consult. The key role of the CoID in planning the exhibition meant that examples of what it considered to be 'good design' were much in evidence throughout the South Bank site. Furthermore, the Council played a part in other Festival projects, including the Land Travelling Exhibition (which visited Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Nottingham), the Exhibition of Live Architecture (for which it furnished rooms in a newly redeveloped area of Poplar in London's East End) and the Industrial Power Exhibition in Glasgow. It also initiated and co-ordinated the Festival Pattern Group, a scheme in which 28 manufacturers drew on the emerging science of crystallography to develop new pattern designs that were applied to fabrics, wallpapers, carpets and other products.

Wallpaper with pattern based on the crystal structure diagram of boric acid, designed by William J.Odell, 1949-51Wallpaper with pattern based on the crystal structure diagram of boric acid, designed by William J.Odell, 1949-51

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Two furnishing fabrics with woven patterns based on the crystal structure diagrams of orthoclase (left) and hydragillite (right), produced by the Old Bleach Linen Co. Ltd.Two furnishing fabrics with woven patterns based on the crystal structure diagrams of orthoclase (left) and hydragillite (right), produced by the Old Bleach Linen Co. Ltd.

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Three octagonal moulded glass ashtrays based on the crystal structure of pentaerythritolThree octagonal moulded glass ashtrays based on the crystal structure of pentaerythritol

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Furnishing fabrics designed by Marianne Straub & Alec Hunter produced by Warner & Sons Ltd, 1949-51Furnishing fabrics designed by Marianne Straub & Alec Hunter produced by Warner & Sons Ltd, 1949-51

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The Festival of Britain presented the CoID with an ideal opportunity to broaden the appeal of modern design, as the South Bank Exhibition alone attracted 8 million visitors. The growth in popularity of a distinct 'Contemporary' style in Britain in the early 1950s can be seen as a measure of its success. After the Festival the CoID continued to use exhibitions as a key means of promoting modern British design. In particular, it turned its attention towards the creation of a new focal point for its activities in the form of the Design Centre.

 

 

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