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.