Monday, 21 May 2012

Designing Women and Designing Britain

A recent visit to London resulted in an overlap of exhibitions: Designing Women: Postwar British Textiles at the Fashion and Textile Museum and British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Both exhibitions made the case for Britain as a centre of excellence in design in the wake of the Second World War. This was explored further in relation to 'Spaces and Places' in a two day conference at the V&A.

With a background in museums and galleries, I am always interested in the design of an exhibition. The Designing Women exhibition was restrained and simple in its design and layout, allowing the textiles to speak for themselves and have room to breathe. I had encountered many of the designs in books, but nothing compares to seeing them in the flesh, printed on different types of fabrics and reproduced in multiple colour-ways.

The exhibition at the V&A had, not surprisingly, a large budget for design. I know that some people prefer to steer clear of exhibition design which is too striking due to a concern that the design will overpower the displays. My personal response to the British Design exhibition was that the design complemented the objects, creating a unified exhibition which also clearly demarcated the three distinct sections of the exhibition. The project was undertaken by Ben Kelly Design, with graphics by Graphic Thought Facility.

Ben Kelly Design

Ben Kelly Design

Ben Kelly Design

One of the speakers at the V&A conference was Christine Lalumia, a former curator at the Geffrye Museum. Her paper concerned the 1965 Living Room at the Geffrye Museum, one of a series of period rooms recreating homes from particular eras. As the curators decided how to put together a 'typical' living room of 1965, they had to consider whether to go for a 'modern' and 'contemporary' style, or a more traditional sitting room.

Living Room, 1965, Geffrye Museum
Lalumia spoke of how this brought up issues about access to, and interest in, modern interior design. The exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum displayed wonderful colours and edgy patterns, but how many members of the British public actually wanted to live with them? And how many could afford these textiles, or the cutting edge furniture which accompanied them? As Lalumia stated, many preferred a traditional interior, with older fashioned furniture and knick-knacks on the mantelpiece. Those who did interact with modernism were usually middle class, with an academic background.

To me, this relates to Dovecot activities of the 1950s, during which the so-called 'Contemporary Style' in fabrics and interiors was emerging in exhibitions and magazines. Dovecot hoped to compete within the domestic interior market with smaller, design-led tapestries. The problem was, who would want them? And, how could they compete, wither financially or stylistically, with mass produced textiles? The ultimate answer is that they couldn't. Tapestry suffered from an old-fashioned reputation, associated with the Arts and Crafts. It was also well outside the ordinary person's budget. It was in the 1960s, with the increase in opportunities for large-scale, architectural commissions that Dovecot's tapestries really came into their own.

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