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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > Exhibiting Britain

This module is about the ways in which architects and designers responded to the challenge of representing British industry and culture in exhibitions in the years between 1946 and 1967. It uses the example of stands designed for the Britain Can Make It exhibition, London, UK, 1946, and the British Pavilion at Expo ’67, held in Montreal, Canada, 1967. It is intended to serve as a precedent study for students of exhibition design. In so doing it has four chief aims:

- to enable students to see how designers in the past have dealt with the problems of designing exhibition displays and stands
- to consider how design has been used to impart ideas about ‘Britishness’ in an era when Britain was being reconstructed after six years of war; an opportunity which led to a thoroughgoing modernisation and reinvention of the nation
- to place this in the context of post-war British design culture
- to encourage students to consider how they would work under similar restraints and influences

The module will be divided into two parts which can be followed as separate routes.

The first will analyse two sections of the Britain Can Make It exhibition (BCMI) which was held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in 1946 and organised by the Council of Industrial Design:
- ‘Menswear’ designed by Ashley Havinden
- ‘What Industrial Design Means’ by the Design Research Unit

These will be examined to see how different designers responded to the task of displaying British industry and design in the period of reconstruction and austerity which followed the end of the Second World War. It will consider the issues – aesthetic, practical and ideological – which informed their designs.

The second route will use the example of the British Pavilion, commissioned by the Central Office of Information, which formed part of Expo ’67, the Montreal World Fair. Discussion will focus on the ‘Britain Today’ section in the Pavilion which was designed by James Gardner. It will consider how, twenty years after BCMI and in an era of affluence, popular culture and new technologies, both the technique of representing Britain and the Britain which was represented had changed.

Notes for Users

The module has been written to provide the user with a sense of the context – economic, cultural, political – in which the stands under discussion were designed. The task of the user is intended to be two-fold:

- to evaluate the material presented and gain an understanding of the historical circumstances in which the stands were designed. These circumstances range from changes in the practice of design to shifting notions of what constitutes Britishness
- to relate the issues outlined here to their practice today

Thus it is suggested that in following either pathway, users ask themselves the following questions:

- what were the key historical factors which led to the commissioning of the stands?
- how can this be read from what the designers produced?
- how would you have reacted in those circumstances?
- do the same constraints inform exhibition design today? what has changed?
- who are the tastemakers today: designers or their clients?
Key Themes

The subjects of this module have been chosen because they raise a set of issues of interest and relevance to today’s practitioners. These may be grouped under two main headings:
The Politics of Practice
…after the war we shall enter into a period of tremendous creative reconstruction in which the talents of all designers will be taxed to the utmost. Those with clear heads and constructive ideas to offer will revolutionize the appearance of everyday life – from Architecture to the Poster – from Town Planning to Interior Decoration – from Painting to Plumbing. Huge strides forward will be made in evolving purer and better adapted forms allied to new conceptions of colour and tone.
Ashley Havinden in Anon, 'The Artist in Uniform, Ashley', Art & Industry, 32, (1942), 90-93.
Havinden’s words of 1942 summarise the hopes of designers in wartime. They looked ahead to Britain in peacetime and envisaged a society in which they could play a central role, in which design was treated seriously and modernism would become the visual language of everyday life. This would have been in sharp contrast to pre-war Britain when design and designers were viewed with suspicion by government and laypeople alike, and modernism was very much outside the mainstream of architectural theory and practice.

When peace came in 1945, Havinden’s hopes became reality. A newly elected Labour government was committed to the creation of a new Britain from the ashes of war and by the end of 1945 had laid the foundations of the Welfare State which would care for Britain’s citizens ‘from the cradle to the grave’. Britain’s major industries were brought into public ownership, the National Health Service was established and major programmes of social housing, school and hospital building were inaugurated.

This new government viewed design as absolutely integral to the transformation of Britain into a modern state:
The architect [was] to design…buildings serving their purpose in an efficient way, that are beautiful and reflect the culture, outlook and spirit of the times.
It became the major employer of architects and designers and set up new cultural organisations such as the Arts Council and Council of Industrial Design (COID) to promote and better the understanding of the modernism which they considered to be the appropriate language through which the new Britain could be signified. Modernism became, in effect, the ‘corporate image’ of the Welfare State.

Such conditions allowed another hope of pre-war designers to be realised. Hitherto, designers in Britain had been a rather disparate bunch and little formal training existed in design disciplines other than architecture. Many designers, before 1939, had been pressing for a higher status for design, both professional and academic, but with little success. The emphasis placed on the role of design after 1945 by central government, its creation of the COID as well as plans to reform design education, all created an atmosphere in which the design profession could be more firmly established and its status enhanced. There was also a strong sense that the public needed to be persuaded of the need for design. Hence this period is characterised by a desire to educate and inform people about what design was and what designers did. It was in such a context that the Britain Can Make It exhibition was held.

Twenty years later, when Expo ’67 was held, circumstances were very different. By this time, the status of design and designers was firmly established and no one needed persuading that design was a good idea. Academic training for designers had formalised and the designer was a recognised personality, employed by government and private companies alike.

The necessity of design, what design meant and the status of designers were the key issues which underpinned design practice from the late 1940s onwards. How did these concerns inform the work of designers at Britain Can Make It and Expo ’67? How did they accommodate these demands within the creative process?

The Politics of Representation
Alongside the twin aims of developing the visual expression of the new post-war Britain and the establishment of the design profession, the designers under discussion here also had to produce displays which conveyed various aspects of Britishness.

At BCMI, designers were charged with the responsibility of giving a visual face to British reconstruction and displaying the manufactured goods which would underpin post-war recovery in the best possible light. Their client was a central government body, the Council of Industrial Design. How did designers negotiate design in response to such a body? How free were they to design what they liked? Did ideological concerns override aesthetic concerns? And did more practical problems have an impact on their work too? How did they respond to post-war restrictions on materials and the challenge of working in the idiosyncratic spaces of the Victoria and Albert Museum?

In 1967, the need to represent Britain abroad remained although the Britain to be projected was a very different place. Reconstruction was no longer an issue and restrictions on materials had gone, replaced by new technologies of presentation which offered new challenges for the designer. On an ideological level Britain was transformed from the dreary, class-ridden, monochrome world of 1946 to a more egalitarian, colour saturated environment of ‘mini skirts and beat music’, as one contemporary commentator put it. The Central Office for Information (COI), a government body which commissioned the British Pavilion, was also a very different client from the COID. Unlike the COID, the COI was not driven by economic concerns. Instead, its remit was the cultural projection of Britain overseas. As such it could be much less controlling than the COID had been in 1946. With such a different client and in such a different Britain how did designers work to represent the nation?
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