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 & Entertainment
Jessica Pare as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as the troubled, melancholy Don Draper
tvAnd six other questions we hope Mad Men series seven will answer
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

'Rebel without a Cause', 'East of Eden' and 'Giant' re-released

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
TV The second episode of the hit HBO featured a surprise for viewers
Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'
books

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show
TV

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'
film

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Arts & Entertainment
Andrew Motion would send 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens
booksLeading writers protest against government restrictions on prisoners receiving books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?