Preview: British Design 1948-2012

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Has the V&A built a shrine to the great objects of British design, or curated a glorified jumble sale? Stephen Bayley wonders what to make of its new show

To get into character for writing this piece, I shaved with my Milward Courier (battery-powered) razor, stepped into my bracingly synthetic Irvine Sellars flares, and, slotting Ziggy Stardust into the Super-8 tape player, drove my liver-brown Austin Allegro, the one with the "innovative and progressive" square steering wheel, to London's South Bank. (Square wheel? They called it "Quartic"! Were hallucinogens widely used at Longbridge?).

Parked, I doffed my Kangol at the Royal Festival Hall, chief monument to 1951 and the orgy of cringe-making sentimental self-regard that was the Festival of Britain. Then I sat on a wiry Ernest Race "Antelope" chair (pink), erected on a plinth celebrating native genius, and day-dreamed of Basil Spence (in brick), John Piper, Biba, a topless Germaine Greer dancing on the cover of a counter-culture mag, the punk era and Sir John Hegarty's brilliant ads.

I became drunk on memories of whimsy, charm, gentility, wit and Macmillan-era futurism. My imagination never turned to the ruins of industry, the loss of technological competence, the barrenness of every British city except London and the fact that the economy of our once-busy island workshop is now based on the theory and practice of a dodgy casino.

That is, of course, a bit of a fiction. But so, too, is a bit of the narrative about British design, the subject of the V&A's latest categorical exhibition. I sometimes think we have all heard quite enough, fact or fiction, about 1951, but, yet again, it is generously treated in British Design, 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age (to give the exhibition its full title), although I concede that the Festival of Britain is full of arresting symbols.

Take Powell & Moya's bold and thrusting Skylon, a missile-shaped folly that pointed a hopeful, but fretful, Albion towards the future. It was not a real building, still less was it rocket science, but a theatrical lash-up that soon ended up as scrap. When we tried to build proper rockets, they fizzled expensively in the Australian Outback. There is meaning here for those willing to see.

And the 1963 Milward Courier razor? It looked smart and artfully sculpted in an acrylic sort of way, but never worked even on pre-teen fluff. I know. I was given one for my 12th birthday. And the Allegro? Few would dispute that this was one of the worst cars ever made. With great fastidiousness, the V&A has excluded the atrocious Austin, but reserves space for Skylon, the Festival of Britain, Basil Spence, and my old chums, the tartan-suited Hegarty and Terence Conran, who so very successfully sold furniture to the sort of people who had to buy their own.

With every new initiative to explain it, the idea of "design" becomes less clear, more fugitive. What exactly, apart from an interest in the potential of jewellery, has Louis Osman's Coronet for the Prince of Wales's 1969 Caernarvon investiture got to do with David Bowie and an androgynous identity so carefully developed on his vinyl album sleeves? You might well ask. You might still be asking after deep immersion in the fat, hardback exhibition catalogue, which I have before me as I write.

The problem with design exhibitions is, as I found out long ago, that they can look like an Oxfam shop that has been invaded by ambitious curators with a determination to label. A great deal of "innovation" has ended up as yellowing plastic in thrift shops. And the scope of this exhibition is so huge, from curtains to cars, that more questions are raised than answered.

For example, "British". We have reason to be proud of Apple designer Jonathan Ive, but his products are made in China and designed in California, where Ive has lived for nearly 20 years. When production inevitably moves to India, where its owners are based, what nationality will Land Rover be? And "modern"? This is now a period style-label, like Baroque. Then there is "innovation". I give you Kenneth Grange's Brownie Vecta camera, prominently treated in the exhibition's catalogue: it was redundant soon after its launch. The Brownie's manufacturer, Kodak, is now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in America, the gloomy antechamber of commercial oblivion.

But the tricky thing is "design" itself. It's often muddled not only with "innovation", but with invention, fashion and taste-making, sometimes even with art. After more than 150 years of promoting design at the V&A, no one seems to have any very clear idea of what it is. If it is a real subject, it must have a discipline. But what discipline connects Spence's Coventry Cathedral with Damien Hirst's 1997 Pharmacy restaurant in Notting Hill, west London, each of which features?

If, as the design lobby often insists, "everything has been designed", then everyone is a designer. So what special qualities do professional designers bring to any task? If design is meant to be good for business, why did Biba go bust? John McConnell's wonderful 1966 graphics were not enough to save it. Will the exhibition be sufficiently analytical to note that the Mini's ruinously expensive specification (and production arrangements at Longbridge) led to speculation that the early models were being manufactured at a loss of as much as £30 per car? If design is about commercial success, then the Ford Anglia was a far superior design. I like John Piper's paintings, but why are they "design"?

Clarity is perhaps not the point. It is easy to satirise the cack-handed provincialism of the British motor industry in its last years, but, besides my liver-brown Allegro, this same moribund industry also produced that famous Mini, the Jaguar E-Type and the Range Rover, masterpieces all. Questions remain. How could Clive Sinclair be responsible for the fastidious and "innovative" electronic calculator, a world first, then, a few years later, produce his ludicrous tricycle comprising washing-machine parts and wooden planks?

The start point of 1948 is a reminder of London's last Olympics. Few would disagree that the 2012 Olympic logo compares not at all well with its predecessor, designed by Walter Herz. But happily, defying all predictions, Britain has since 1948 sustained an extraordinarily vigorous creative culture, even against a background of manufacturers leaving the stage like the instrumentalists in Haydn's Farewell Symphony.

It's an inclusive culture, hence tapestries and Jaguars. It's a culture that swoops artfully between high and low. It's a culture that could import, with characteristic fairhandedness, both John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner. The one in thrall to the village, the other in thrall to steel and glass. Wonderfully, each was a founder of The Victorian Society.

Their contrasting spirits dominate British design in the years before The Beatles' first LP. Thereafter, the Britain of crumpets-with-vicar became the undisputed global capital of youth culture whose furious organic vitality still invigorates business life.

In all the confusions and contradictions you find here, there is a majestic point, that the character and appearance of the things we buy and use is of central importance to civilised life. At a moment when even the dimmest politician is beginning to acknowledge that we need to rediscover the culture of manufacturing, here is a vivid demonstration that people who believe in making real things are essential to both a healthy culture and a healthy economy.

I suppose that's what we mean by "design". For bankers and for MPs, attendance at this exhibition should be compulsory.

 

'British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age', Victoria and Albert Museum from Sat (020-7942 2000; vam.ac.uk)

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