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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > Exhibiting Britain > Britain Can Make It > BCMI Introduction

The Britain Can Make It (BCMI) exhibition was held between September and November 1946 at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, London. It was organised and held under the auspices of the Council of Industrial Design (COID) which had been established by central government in 1944 ‘to promote by all practicable means the improvement of design in the products of British industry’ (COID, 1946, 5).

In an announcement released to Trade Associations in September 1945, the aims of the exhibition were declared:
The Council of Industrial Design will hold in the summer of next year a national exhibition of design in all the main range of consumer goods – clothing, household furnishings and equipment, office equipment and civil transport…It will represent the best and only the best that modern British industry can produce…[it will be] British industry’s first great post-war gesture to the British people and the world
ID/361: Summer Exhibition 1946: Policy Committee Minutes
BCMI would display the consumer goods which, the government intended, would form the basis on which the economy of post-war Britain would be renewed. Six years of war had left the country in severe debt. The government’s main concern was to ensure that income could be generated through trade, particularly with countries overseas. Hence all effort in production was aimed at the export market while the British market remained subject to a rationing even more severe than in wartime. This situation was made clear at BCMI where all the goods on display were for purchase only by the export market and would not be available, at least in the short term, to home consumers (hence the popular nickname for the exhibition, Britain Can’t Have It).

The fact that the exhibition was organised by the COID and was described as ‘a national exhibition of design’ reveals how intrinsic design was to economic renewal. Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade, the government department of which the COID formed part, emphasised this in a speech made in November 1945:
Design is a factor of crucial importance to British industry today…
He continued:
…we must have something more than British solidity to sell our goods in competition with others
Cripps, 1945
The future of British design rests, in the long run, with you.
COID, BCMI Guide, 1946
But in 1946, the notion that design, and designers, could enhance a product and were a ‘good thing’ was a relatively new one to the British. So, in addition to the task of presenting well-designed goods to the overseas market, BCMI was also used to present the idea of the need for design to the British public. Thus alongside the displays of consumer goods, the COID also included stands devoted to the role of the designer and the history of design in Britain. In addition, this belief in the absolute necessity of design meant that the COID did not just ensure that all the goods on display were well-designed but that the very environment in which they stood reinforced the design values it endorsed.

From October 1945 onwards, the Exhibition Committee which was set up by the COID to oversee BCMI, worked to these twin briefs: selling Britain and selling design.
View of queue outside the V&A ESD00975 View of queue outside the V&A

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BCMI catalogue ESD00984 BCMI catalogue

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Exhibition Design

At the end of the war the Victoria and Albert museum was standing empty. Its exhibits had been stored in the safety of the countryside during hostilities and had not yet been returned. The museum was, after much debate, agreed as an appropriate site since the founding purpose of its collection was the improvement of design. In all, 90, 000 square feet of museum space would be allocated to BCMI, about half the museum's total area.

In October 1945 the Exhibition Policy Committee for BCMI met to appoint the designers who would have overall responsibility for the design of the exhibition. As Chief Display Designer, it appointed James Gardner who S.C.Leslie, the Council's chair described in retrospect as:
... a comparatively young man, just released from the Army where he had done brilliant work in camouflage; his pre-war achievements in display, publicity and exhibition design were also outstanding, and those who had used his services were enthusiastic about their quality
Maguire & Woodham, 1997, 51.
Gardner’s appointment may also have been helped by the fact that a former employer, Jack Beddington, was a member of the Exhibition Committee. He, Gardner wrote later:
…was still under the misconception that I was a genius – no need to disabuse him.
Gardner, 1983
Though Beddington’s patronage may have helped Gardner’s case, there was not that much competition, few others had the sense of ‘design consciousness’ which would have enabled them to take on the task of designing the setting for BCMI. Gardner recalled:
[there were] only people like Misha Black and Ashley Havinden
Gardner, 1983
both of whom he recruited to design individual sections of the exhibition.

Gardner would work alongside an Exhibition Architect appointed to assist him. Following consultation with the Royal Institute of British Architects, Basil Spence was given the post. Both men were paid a fee of £1050 plus a sum for working expenses and a subsistence allowance of 23 shillings and 6 pence a day.

It was Gardner’s task to create the plan of the exhibition within the 90, 000 square feet space available. He was also charged with overseeing the work of the other designers who were recruited to design the individual stands. The extent of his responsibility was significant; the design challenge even more. During most of the planning stage Gardner had to design without any knowledge of the type or number of goods to be displayed. Stafford Cripps stipulated that since this was the case, the challenge was:
…to design a show that would look complete in every detail if we didn’t get exhibits
In response, Gardner developed a new type of layout plan:
…instead of presenting goods to the eye, as in an open market – and that is how exhibitions had evolved – I tucked them round corners, behind screens & in little enclaves, so at first the visitor would see lots of "décor" but no goods – wouldn’t even notice if there were no goods at all. This introduced a surprise element.
Gardner, 1983
This policy evidently worked. A contemporary observed
…the abiding memory was not so much the product as the presentation…at that time, nobody was used to conspicuous design…to walk into a hall which was all peaceable and all pleasure was a very striking experience…
Kenneth Grange in Sparke, 1986
Once Gardner had resolved the planning of the space his attention then turned to a second area of responsibility:
…selecting and coordinating the team of designers; [and] showing a ‘semblance’ of authority …over the building contractors who knew more about building exhibitions than I did (a good thing as it turned out) Gardner, 1983
Gardner chose a team of designers who exhibited an appropriate level of ‘design consciousness’ and were the fledgling leaders of an emerging discipline. Individuals or teams were appointed to each section of the exhibition and charged with the challenge of inserting their display into the space available to maximum effect.

In all there were 5000 goods on display in 32 main sections (many more sub-sections) designed by nearly 80 designers. Visitors followed a complex route through the V&A’s main halls. This was out of necessity for, as Gardner commented, ‘BCMI had a very convoluted plan – it was a very convoluted building’.

The entrance to BCMI was at the Exhibition Road side of the V&A. From the foyer, visitors entered the opening rooms of BCMI where they were presented with the main theme of the exhibition, the transition from war to peace and how developments in technology and production in wartime were now being applied to the task of reconstruction. From this section ‘War to Peace’ they then entered the exhibition proper. Here they followed a path which led from displays on the raw materials, old and new, which were available to British manufacturers in a section called ‘What the Goods are Made of’ to displays which showed the goods fashioned from these materials. Here the visitor could see such stands as ‘Heat,Light, Power’, ‘Books & Printing’ and ‘Women’s Dress’. Visitors were also presented with a series of room settings which displayed these goods as they might be incorporated into the dwelling. Finally, a series of displays were devoted to explaining the nature of design.

Visitors’ practical needs were not forgotten. A tea lounge and cloakroom were also provided, as well as information and press stands.

Here the module will focus on two sections which display different facets of designing exhibition displays and some of the different themes of BCMI.
James Gardner ESD00148 James Gardner

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Basil Spence ESD00987 Basil Spence

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Interior of V&A as work begins ESD00149 Interior of V&A as work begins

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Views of work underway ESD00150 Views of work underway

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Views of work underway ESD00151 Views of work underway

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Plan of BCMI ESD00986 Plan of BCMI

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Fashion hall ESD00282 Fashion hall

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Packaging section ESD00472 Packaging section

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See Case Studies:

Menswear and What Industrial Design Means