Design: Explosions in a post-war world

Marooned in a grim sea of Utility furniture and muted browns and greens, British design after the Second World War was ripe for a change. And then, as a new exhibition shows, came pop culture, Conran and bouncy steel chairs.
For those of us born since the war, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like to live through those traumatic years. More disheartening still was that, after it was all over, it took so long for life to get back to normal and for standards of living to rise. After the war, manufacturers had to rebuild their businesses and retrain their workforces from scratch. Shortages were still rife, and rationing was retained until as late as 1951.

Throughout the late 1940s, Spam, dried eggs and sliced bread were the norm. Fridges were still a rarity and twin-tubs were considered positively hi-tech.

Eventually, though, things began to pick up, and, with the Festival of Britain in 1951, the tide really turned. By then British manufacturers were back on their feet and had begun to respond to the initiatives of young designers. Sensible but dull Utility furniture had had its day, and in its place came the bouncy steel-rod Antelope and Springbok chairs of Ernest Race and the stylish bent plywood furniture of Robin Day. Textile and wallpaper designers such as Lucienne Day and Jacqueline Groag threw caution to the wind and evolved an imaginative new genre of dynamic, abstract, linear patterns, with more than a nod to Mir (and a healthy injection of molecular biology too).

Out went the muted browns and greens of 1930s interiors, and in came bold mix-and-match colour schemes. What's more, the initiatives of design leaders such as Heal Fabrics, Whitefriars Glass, Midwinter Pottery and Race Furniture had a trickle-down effect, prompting many other manufacturers (both downmarket and upmarket) to introduce new "Contemporary" lines.

These radical changes in attitude, and the catapulting forward of design during the post-war period, are the subject of a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, "From the Bomb to the Beatles", which focuses on the crucial years from 1945 to 1965. The birth of the "Contemporary" style only really makes sense in the context of what had gone before. Even the explosion of popular culture in Britain during the early 1960s can be seen as a delayed reaction against the austerity of the early post-war years.

It was all about rejecting the "make do and mend" culture of the war. People wanted new things with a "new look" - and, above all, labour-saving gadgets - as a symbol of the brighter future to come. But if they couldn't afford new furniture, they had to content themselves with restyling: rounding the edges of old sideboards or fitting them with new plastic handles, Formica tops and splayed legs. Instead of Ikea's "chuck out your chintz", the rallying cry of the 1950s was "panel your doors" - anything to make the home look bright and modern.

For young designers such as Terence Conran and Robert Welch, this was an exciting time to be starting their careers. These were young men (and an increasing number of young women) with a mission, and that mission was to revolutionise design. Welch infiltrated the establishment from the inside, creating ground-breaking new Scandinavian-inspired product lines for the hitherto traditional stainless steel manufacturer, Old Hall.

Conran also worked freelance during the early 1950s, designing exuberant printed furnishing fabrics for the go-ahead Lancashire firm of David Whitehead, and creating quirky ceramic patterns for Midwinter Modern. Conran was a born entrepreneur and, in order to speed up the frustratingly slow pace of change, he established two companies of his own, Conran Furniture and Conran Fabrics, during the mid 1950s. His masterstroke, though, was in launching a direct onslaught on public taste by setting up the country's first all-singing, all-dancing "contemporary" home furnishings store, Habitat, which opened in a blaze of publicity in May 1964.

This is where the Beatles come in, because they, along with Conran's friend Mary Quant (who did for fashion what Conran did for furniture), were among the shop's first customers. Habitat seems so familiar to us now that it is easy to take it for granted, but in the mid 1960s Conran's guerrilla tactics were genuinely revolutionary, bringing good design to the masses in a way that was accessible and fun. Since then Conran's career, along with the British economy and British design, has seen many ups and downs. He himself, though, is as tireless as ever. His latest project has been to design "From the Bomb to the Beatles", which should make it a doubly interesting show to see.

`From the Bomb to the Beatles' is at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 (0171-416 5000) from 25 March 1999 to 29 May 2000, 10am- 6pm, museum tickets pounds 5 adults, pounds 2.50 children. To accompany the exhibition, a book, `From the Bomb to the Beatles', by Juliet Gardiner with a foreword by Terence Conran, is published by Collins & Brown at pounds 19.99