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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

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 apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home