Architecture & Design: If it's post-modern, it has to be British

Thirties' artists believed that if you could do one thing in design, you could do everything.

Whether it is really possible to `Go Modern and still Be British' is a question vexing quite a few people today. We may see the struggle going on - in the faces of elderly painters and young architects, manufacturers, shop windows, facades of buildings." So wrote the painter Paul Nash in 1932, encouraging his fellow Brits to take the plunge across the Channel to discover what "Being Modern" was all about.

Paul Nash is a good representative of the theory that went with Modernism in the Thirties, that if you could do one thing in design, you could do everything. He designed textiles, glassware, posters, books, even a spectacular bathroom for Tilly Losch, the dancer, although he remained first and foremost a painter.

His work in several of these fields is shown in Modern Britain 1929- 1939 at the Design Museum. If you want to know why the Design Museum is exhibiting some of the best examples of fine art produced in the Thirties, Nash's work helps to provide the answer.

Painters and sculptors, including Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Graham Sutherland, believed that they could become better engaged in the social issues of the time by creating an awareness of visual form and language.

The Design Museum has chosen to show what a New Statesman-reading intellectual in Hampstead would have had in his sitting-room. As the poet Stephen Spender wrote, the intelligentsia was excited about "the idea that architecture, the design of rooms, and of the things within those rooms, could alter people's lives". This desire to rebuild everything from the ground up was an essential part of the Modern.

The exhibition has sections devoted to Abbatt's educational toys (some designed by the architect Erno Goldfinger) as well as the enthusiasm for Health Centres. Most European countries developed Modernism in the Twenties, ahead of Britain, in response to the need for reconstruction after the First World War. It was part of the rehabilitation which any therapist would recommend for a sick nation. For Nash, as for other painters, design was a way of beating the depression that had stopped people buying pictures.

In the Nineties, we have become fascinated with the idea of English national identity, but in the Thirties, the search for essential Englishness had a modifying effect on Modernism, seen in artefacts produced for the 1937 Coronation, such as Eric Ravilious's commemorative Wedgwood mug, a reworking of the folk art tradition. Some critics have seen this as a compromise, but it was partly commercial pragmatism and partly a deeper understanding that Modernism is not so much a style as a diagnostic method, the outcome of which cannot be predetermined.

If the exhibition offers any new interpretation of the period, it is to emphasise how, from 1935 onwards, Modernism in Britain was often more like Post-Modernism.

It was a conscious play with language and meaning, enjoying the ambiguity of double coding, as the architect Berthold Lubetkin did with his Penthouse at Highpoint II in 1938, where cow-hide chairs (two of which are in the exhibition), a mobile by Calder and a painting by Fernand Leger (also in the exhibition) held conversation with Victorian Pollock toy theatre prints pasted on the walls. Thus the paradox of "Going Modern and Being British" was resolved by mixing strong flavours together.

The use of design with technology could bring a better life to every- one, through plastics for radio cases, cheap printing for Penguin books and artist-designed seating for the London Underground.

Modernism was no longer elitist or alarming, although only a minority wanted to buy into the whole package. In 1936, when Nikolaus Pevsner published A Survey of Industrial Design, he thought that 95 per cent of British goods were badly designed.

Arts and Entertainment
Above the hat of the toy gibbon, artist Mark Roscoe included a ‘ghost of a bird’ and a hidden message
art
Arts and Entertainment
Alien: Resurrection, Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder
film
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable