British postwar design: Immaculate conceptions

An ambitious survey of British postwar design shows just how much today's artists and architects owe to their innovative forebears

How much has British design changed since 1948? The poster for the so-called Austerity Olympics in London that year showed a statuesquely naked athlete, coiled and about to release his discus towards Parliament. In 2012, the Olympic logo is designed to allow sponsors' corporate colours to be used in the symbol. How did we get from a broadly civic, welfare-minded postwar design culture to 21st century design industries whose essential purpose is to make as much money as possible?

It's a complicated story and the V&A's new blockbuster show, British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age, is timely and ambitious. Its 300-plus exhibits sample the genetic material of design through this 64-year period, and Christopher Breward and Ghislaine Wood have curated a series of overlapping windows on tradition, modernity, subversion and latter-day innovation.

This show will be a must for design students, and a trip down various visual and emotional memory lanes for anybody who knows that the best of 21st century British design owes almost everything to a stream of bold artistic and manufacturing experiments in a Britain that still smelled of Spam, Player's Navy Cut cigarettes, and Brut aftershave. This sense of design as a series of surprising experiments has largely vanished into a profitable haze of ironic, mass-affordable designer gubbins – Philippe Starck lemon juicers, designer wellies, 4WD vehicles with bull-bars and tough names, like Raptor, for city dwellers.

The show is a kind of British identity parade, a magpie's nest of evolving ideas about living, hoping, imagining, wanting, and getting. It's the first time that postwar design in Britain has been portrayed in such detail – indeed, the V&A had to acquire almost 40 iconic objects at a cost of more than £60,000 to create a sense of cultural completeness.

Hardcore design fanatics will palpitate at the prospect of seeing rare original examples of design icons such as Ernest Race's Antelope steel rod bench from the 1951 Festival of Britain, Alexander McQueen's astonishingly lush, digitally printed Horn of Plenty dress from the Noughties, Frank Bowling's hallucinatory 1966 painting, Mirror, and Brian Long's still astonishing 1971 Torsion chair.

Today, we take this kind of design innovation for granted, not least because sophisticated production technology allows once impossible shapes to be mass-produced. But in the 1940s, the idea of well-designed products for the public was relatively novel. The Council of Industrial Design sponsored the Britain Can Make It show at the V&A in 1946, Enterprise Scotland the following year, and other big industrial design shows in Sheffield and Bradford. The Council declared that "exports were paramount, good design crucial, and thoughtful consumption essential."

Thoughtful consumption, indeed! Design consciousness was in the hands of the toffs, and wannabe toffs. The 1945 Labour government's social reform and welfare state agendas produced a most frightfully decent consensus in which, as the historian Arthur Marwick put it, "a well disposed, well educated upper class, cooperated with the various factions of the middle class in running the country in the best interests of everyone, it being understood that those interests comprised spending money on both welfare services and on culture."

But this essentially paternalistic top-down vision could not stop radical design. Could anything be more purely shock-of-the-new than James Gowan's drawing of the Skylon, the quaintly named "vertical feature" of the Festival of Britain in 1951? You want Brave New World? Try Henry Moore's stolid Family Group on the concrete plaza in Harlow new town. Fab gear London in the 1960s? No problem: the V&A exhibition will allow you to get close to the first E-Type Jaguar exhibited at a motor show.

The Festival of Britain may have introduced the British public to the possibilities of a postwar modernist fantasy world, but if there was a seminal moment that prefigured the future of British design, it was probably the now legendary This Is Tomorrow show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956.

Here, for the first time, a largely unsuspecting British public encountered super-savvy, self-critical design – most famously in the form of Richard Hamilton's collage Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? A bare-breasted woman wearing a lampshade for a hat, a cut-out of bodybuilder Charles Atlas, a tape recorder... what, only two years after the end of rationing, could this possibly mean? Hamilton had seen the future, and that meant design that was low-cost, expendable, glamorous – and big business. The linger-longer, chaotically branded ambience of shopping malls was clearly foreseen.

In the 1960s, Britain's first hip architecture critic, Reyner Banham, eulogised a new design ethos in which plastic, steel, aluminium, neon, inflatable homes, napalm, the superficial, and "the voice of God as revealed by his one true prophet, Bob Dylan", were all groovily sacred and profane. The conservative architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, deplored this excessive design stimulation: "We cannot, in the long run, live our day to day lives in the midst of [design] explosions."

But we have, and do, and the V&A show will be full of them. The balsa wood model of the ziggurat-like halls of residence at the University of East Anglia; "Her House", a 1959 design for a home of 1,070 square feet and costing £3,000; the 1968 "Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down" poster from the Hornsey School of Art; David Bowie's 1973 stage costume, designed by Kansai Yamamoto; Brian Duffy's "How to Undress in Front of Your Husband" cover shot for Nova magazine in 1985.

These may seem predictably retro examples of design, but they arose in a highly charged climate of creative objection and change that was increasingly forced by art and design students themselves. Today's anything-goes design fecundity goes back to at least 1970, when the government's Coldstream Report responded to a wave of protests by art students concerned about the meaningfulness of their courses.

The report effectively dissolved the barriers between high art and popular culture in art schools, and ushered in degree-level experimental and conceptual art. It also set the stage for Margaret Thatcher's speech to a technology conference at the Barbican in London – itself a design icon that has just reached its 30th anniversary. "We shall not blaze the trail that Brunel, Morris and Marconi found," she declared, "if we consign their successors to the consensus of committees and irksome regulation."

The V&A have underwritten the British Design show with a densely informative book whose range of 30 essays – from Maurice Howard's look at nation, land and heritage, to Michael Bracewell on subcultural lifestyles – is exemplary. There is, too, a typically witty polemic from Jonathan Meades that, among other things, kicks the living bejaysus out of James Stirling, the great god of British postmodern architecture.

It's disappointing, then, that the show's set-piece architectural exhibits are rather safe. There can be no objection to featuring the mod-baroque espresso machine otherwise known as Richard Rogers's Lloyd's Building, or Zaha Hadid's Olympic aquatics centre – even if the Velodrome is just as remarkable.

But is Norman Foster's 30 St Mary Axe (aka the Gherkin) really as startlingly innovative as his Willis Faber headquarters was in the 1970s? And why feature the Falkirk Wheel as an example of design and engineering when the instantly iconic structure of King's Cross station's brand new western concourse will be used by tens of millions of travellers – and perhaps even an Olympic discus thrower or two?

British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age, V&A Museum, London SW7 (020 7942 2000) 31 March to 12 August. A book, edited by Christopher Breward and Ghislaine Wood, is published by the V&A

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