Style on the South Bank: The Festival of Britain was a celebration of modern design after the drab post-war years
Trish Lorenz celebrates its legacy 60 years on
Friday 15 April 2011
Our love affair with all things vintage is about to get serious. A few 1950s tea cups and a pretty cake stand are no longer going to cut the mustard. Get your bunting out, polish you Ernest Race rocker and wash those Vivienne Day curtains: this year is the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Festival of Britain, and on 22 April the Southbank Centre in London will kick off four months of celebrations. All things British and 1950s are set for a wholehearted revival.
The Southbank's anniversary celebrations take place on the original site of the festival and will include, among other things, a temporary Museum of 1951, a vintage fair and the opportunity to take tea and sherry with Heston Blumenthal and Jancis Robison.
On the high street, retailers are already seeing a jump in demand for products from the Festival of Britain era. "The Ercol Chiltern range, which draws on original Fifties designs, is currently one of our best-selling dining ranges," says Dave Britain, head of furniture buying at John Lewis. "We've found the mid-century style is just as popular with young fashion-aware couples as it is with people who remember the look from the first time around."
The designer Wayne Hemingway, who together with his wife Gerardine is curating the Museum of 1951 and organising the vintage fair, says our love-in with the Fifties is about more than just nostalgia. "It's about celebrating great design," he says.
Russel Pinch, the furniture designer, agrees. "The Festival of Britain still has a huge influence on British design," he says. "The air of optimism and opportunity that surrounded the event inspired designers of the time and has a lasting legacy in today's British design aesthetic."
A tonic for the nation
Devised by the Labour government of the day as a "tonic" for a nation still recovering from the austerity of the war years, the festival was a showcase for modernist architecture and contemporary design. The Royal Festival Hall, the only permanent building erected for the Festival, was one of Britain's earliest post-war public buildings. Some 10 million Britons flocked to see it, the temporary pavilions and the 296ft high Skylon, which towered above it.
Designers such as Ernest Race and Robin and Lucienne Day came to prominence during the Festival. Race created furniture, including the iconic Antelope chair and the Days played an integral role in designing the interiors of the Festival Hall, with Lucienne's textiles and wallpapers displayed alongside Robin's steel and plywood furniture. For many Britons, the Festival's logo, by Abram Games (featuring Britannia adorned with red, white and blue bunting), also became evocative of the period.
According to Emma Mason, a specialist in British printmakers from the Fifties onwards, the impact of the festival rippled out for many years. "The 1950s became a very creative time for designers and artists in Britain and many broadened their boundaries, creating textiles, wallpapers, ceramics, posters and book covers," she says.
Designers working today still find inspiration in the period. Pinch says Race's furniture "always made a great impression" on him. "The sculptural beauty and pared-down simplicity is something I try hard to follow," he says.
The work of the textile designer Angie Lewin is also influenced by the Festival. "This era opened up a contemporary way of depicting forms – especially the work of Lucienne Day and Jacqueline Groag and the designs for fabrics made by the Festival Pattern Group," she says.
With British Fifties style becoming headline news, now is a good time to invest in British design, says David Tatham of mid-century design specialist The Modern Warehouse. According to Tatham, British designers of the Fifties and Sixties are still undervalued. "British designers are still affordable and are definitely worth collecting at the moment. Ernest Race, John and Sylvia Reid and to some extent Robin Day don't command anything like the commercial values of their Scandinavian or American contemporaries," he says. "The anniversary year could create some international interest and boost the values of pieces that on a financial level are punching well below their weight."
Tatham recommends keeping an eye out for storage and lighting by John and Sylvia Reid, Frank Guille's storage units with coloured panels for Kandya, the furniture maker, and any pieces by Gerald Summers.
Try The Modern Warehouse (www.themodernwarehouse.com) for a set of four Ernest Race BA3 chairs for £795. Chairs and Skycrapers (www.chairsandskyscrapers.com) has a set of four Kandya chairs (£1,400) and stackable Robin Day chairs (£150 each). And Fears and Kahn (www.fearsandkahn.co.uk) and Chairs and Skyscrapers both stock good-quality Fifties storage pieces. Expect to pay from around £300 for a small chest of drawers to £1,200 for a sideboard or larger storage units.
If furniture is too much of an investment, textiles and prints are more affordable and easier to find space for. Try Emma Loves Retro (www.emmalovesretro.co.uk) for a good selection of limited-edition vintage textiles and cushions: the Atomic cushion, £49.50, has a real Festival of Britain aesthetic.
Or try H is for Home (www.hisforhome.com) for Fifties-style accessories. Look for modernist lines and simple molecular motifs or plant patterns – such as the Cassandra cake plates, £22, by Jessie Tait for Midwinter Pottery – if you're after a Festival feel.
British prints from this era are also worth collecting. Some artists such as Edward Bawden and John Piper are already well known and command high prices. But, says Mason, "printmakers such as Bernard Cheese, Edwin La Dell and Robert Tavener are very collectable and still reasonably priced". We particularly like the 1955 Fairground lithograph by Robert Tavener, £600 (www.emmamason.co.uk).
Festival of Britain memorabilia is regularly available on eBay but prices are increasing. Expect to pay around £50 for an original programme.
On the high street
If you like the Fifties aesthetic but don't have the time or inclination to trawl vintage stores, the high street has plenty of products on offer too. Many high street brands are digging through their archives and re-issuing designs from the period, and others are working with designers inspired by the decade.
Mini Moderns (www.minimoderns.com) has a great selection of rugs, cushions and wallpapers. We like the Festival rug in blue (£495) and the Festival wallpaper in concrete (£50).
For textiles try St Jude's Fabrics (www.stjudesfabrics.co.uk) and Sanderson (www.sanderson-uk.com), which has also just released a 1950s collections of fabrics and wallpapers including Mobiles, designed in 1950 by Marian Mahler; Perpetua, based on a design by Lucienne Day; and Festival, a reproduction of a design by Jaqueline Groag created specifically for the Festival of Britain. John Lewis (www.johnlewis.com) stocks Sanderson fabrics and has also upholstered its mid-century inspired Radio chair with Sanderson's Festival design.
For more furniture, Ercol's Chiltern range, is available from John Lewis (www.johnlewis.com) and draws on 1950s designs. And if you want to see contemporary furniture inspired by the Festival of Britain era, visit Pinch Design for ideas (www.pinchdesign.com).
* 60th Anniversary Celebrations, South Bank London – will include pop-up structures, fairground rides, outdoor dancing, music, eating and drinking. (22 April to 4 September; www.southbankcentre.co.uk ).
* The Museum of 1951, Royal Festival Hall – a temporary museum featuring memorabilia, artworks, personal histories, models and photographs (22 April to 4 September; www.southbankcentre.co.uk)
* Take Tea and Sherry with Heston Blumenthal and Jancis Robinson, South Bank London (9 May; www.southbankcentre.co.uk)
* Vintage Festival, South Bank London – vintage markets, catwalk shows, dance lessons, bands and DJs, workshops and makeovers. (29 to 31 July; www.vintagebyhemingway.co.uk)
* Land of Lost Content, Craven Arms – billing itself as "the national museum of British Popular Culture", check out its more than a million items of vintage memorabilia. (www.lolc.org.uk)
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