Fifties: A golden age of British design

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A new exhibition shows how post-war Britain embraced the colourful world of DIY decoration.

Before the 1950s, the chance of the average British homeowner getting creative with a tin of paint and some fabric offcuts was as likely as Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen going for a "less is more" approach to bedroom interiors. Rich people got someone in to decorate, everyone else made do with plain walls and the odd cushion.

This began to change with a few canny designers and a growing middle class who, taking advantage of the optimistic post-war spirit washing over the country, together created a market for bright, design-led interiors. Today, so in thrall is the British public to home improvement, it is hard to imagine how we filled our time before DIY became a national sport.

The 1951 Festival of Britain kick-started the movement. It was intended to spur the process of redeveloping the worst-bombed areas of cities, and it showcased a number of new designers and affordable home-design options. The response to drab war-time design was a riot of brightly coloured textiles, printed in bold and sometimes humorous graphics, often in vivid pillar-box and claret reds and acid greens. Some of the best examples of these fabrics feature in the new exhibition, Designer Style: Home Decorating in the 1950s, at the Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture (MoDA), located at Middlesex University's Cat Hill campus.

Lucienne Day was one of the most important textile designers of this era. "She was very influential," explains Zoe Hendon, the museum's senior curator, "and one of the first people who knew how to promote her name in association with her designs." As retailers now know, linking a designer's name to a product makes it seem unique, even if it is mass produced, and increases its desirability.

Day had particular appeal because her husband, Robin, was also a designer, most famous for his minimalist chairs. The couple, both now over 90, shared the utopian belief that lives could be transformed by good design.

Lucienne's love for the artists Joan Miro and Paul Klee was reflected in her prints, but this new, energetic aesthetic might never have reached the masses were it not for developments in colour printing and the enthusiasm of the magazine industry for running design features. "Magazines like House & Garden had lots of pages to fill," says Hendon. "Textile designs such as those by Day reproduced well and it was a great way of getting colourful images into the magazine."

While the new interiors magazines allowed Fifties housewives to pore over soft furnishings from their kitchen tables, it was developments in DIY tools which turned their dreams into practicable realities. It had previously been unthinkable to try to tart up your living room without skilled help, but ready-mixed wallpaper paste and electric power tools allowed the amateurs to transform their own interiors.

MoDA has trawled its archives to present this snapshot of 1950s DIY, helped by the design company Twenty Twenty One, which has reproduced 12 of the 70 original designs Lucienne Day created for Heal's in the 1950s. Terence Conran was another interior design pioneer and in 1964 opened Habitat, which currently sells Robin Day's classic furniture designs. The proof that the 1950s was a watershed era in interior design is evidenced all over the high street, where the popularity of quirky graphics and the plain lines of G-Plan-style furniture has never waned. Given that few people can afford to move house at the moment, maybe another DIY renaissance is on the horizon.

'Designer Style' opens Tuesday at MoDA, 020-8411 5244, moda.mdx.ac.uk

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