A partial history. British Design 1948-2012

Design history never quite knows what to do with graphics, a fact, says Rick Poynor, made all too obvious by the V&A’s Olympic tie-in show, British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age

With its recent exhibition about postmodernism, the V&A completed a series of major shows about 20th-century design. These investigations, which included Modernism and Cold War Modern, were gripping, world-class re-evaluations. The V&A’s latest exhibition, British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age, has a lot to live up to in terms of both critical and educated public expectations, and one might wonder how the curators would negotiate postmodernism’s central role during the 60-year period that the British show covers. Was another exhibition focused on these years really needed so soon?

British Design largely dodges the issue, so perhaps postmodernism wasn’t such a factor as we were led to suppose, at least in the UK. From the point of view of CR’s readers, though, the exhibition has an even more fundamental drawback. It’s a curious feature of ‘design history’ as a field of scholarly inquiry that it never knows quite what to do with graphic design. This is odd because graphic design is clearly as central to design history, and to everyday life in an industrial society, as industrial design, furniture design or fashion design. The stumbling block is simply that design historians who are fascinated by objects often tend not to possess the same interest in two-dimensional design and they know less about it. Graphic design history then finds its own specialists who concentrate purely on this area, exacerbating the sense of a divide. What we continue to lack in design studies is an even-handed, truly integrative history.

The familiar bias has emerged again with British Design. One of the curators, Christopher Breward, now principal of Edinburgh College of Art, is an authority on fashion; the other, V&A researcher Ghislaine Wood, curated Surreal Things at the museum – a design show that also marginalised the graphic dimension. Breward and Wood have an overwhelming amount of ground to cover and the catalogue, in particular, represents an impressive feat of research and synthesis when it comes to every aspect of the subject except for graphic design.

The curators divide the material into three chronologically overlapping themes – tradition and modernity (1945-79), subversion (1955-97) and innovation and creativity (1963-2012) – each section illustrated by examples of all kinds of design.

All the much-trotted out icons of post-war British design are there: the Mini, E-Type Jaguar, Moulton bicycle, Mark II stacking chair, Kenwood food mixer, Routemaster bus, and Concorde, as well as architectural models of the Lloyd’s building and 30 St Mary Axe (Foster’s Gherkin). No doubt these have to be included in a rounded survey, but that doesn’t make it exciting or illuminating to see them yet again. Equally essential to any overview is the 1951 Festival of Britain, a strong graphic section in the show somewhat blunted by the panoramic exhibition about the festival recently mounted at the Royal Festival Hall.

The central section devoted to subversion is the most graphic, though many exhibits have an air of ‘greatest hits’ about them – four Beatles album covers, a Stones cover, Hendrix and Bowie. The vertically organised punk display looks surprisingly tawdry given the movement’s galvanic social, musical and graphic effects, though full marks for including David King’s Rock Against Racism poster, even if it’s slightly out of place. King is a maverick designer who deserves to be much better known. There is a continuing over-estimation here of Factory and Peter Saville – four exhibits plus a reconstruction of a chunk of Haçienda dance floor. Saville also gets the catalogue’s only personal view of graphic design. His contemporary, Neville Brody, is represented by a single cover of The Face and no spreads. I remember those years clearly and the cultural impact of Nick Logan’s magazine and his media-star designer far exceeded Saville’s and Factory’s. The V&A, which gave Brody an unprecedented retrospective in 1988, thought so too.

It’s good to see the Blow Up poster and a clip from the film and there is a great Terence Donovan shot from Man About Town showing a sharp-suited gent in a cloud of factory steam – fashion, as you would expect of Breward, is covered well. A 1966 copy of Queen magazine with the cover line ‘Swingeing London: The Truth’ plays nicely against Richard Hamilton’s painting Swingeing London. One of the exhibition’s highlights for me, because I had never seen it before and learned something, is a screen-printed poster by John Maybury from 1986 titled Even To Spark Out Now Would Be No Pain. It shows an artist, model and designer known as Trojan, who died of a heroin overdose at 21 shortly before the poster was issued, and its style is an amalgam of psychedelia, punk and protest graphics. The role of a show conceived on this scale is to produce many more moments that make us reconsider passages of design history we thought we knew well.

The exhibition ends perversely with the shamefully bad Olympics logo (more pointed to have left it out, surely?) and a brace of old ads: ‘Go to work on an egg’, Saatchi’s pregnant man, and Collett Dickenson Pearce’s classics for Benson & Hedges. Given that space is limited, do any of these shed light on what was innovative and creative about British graphic design, and is advertising graphic design, anyway? Many would answer that with an emphatic ‘no’, but the issue is at least open to question. In the catalogue, John Hegarty contributes a personal view harnessed to an essay about design consultancy, again suggesting that the curators think advertising and graphic design are synonymous, irrespective of their largely separate motivations, methods and visual influences. Despite having a section on subversion, Ken Garland’s First Things First, a heart­felt and telling moment of resistance in 1964 to the dominance of advertising, finds no place in the show.

In fairness, British Design has plenty to recommend it to the general viewer and on a Saturday morning it was packed with visitors reminiscing about items they remember seeing in the past. But considered as a survey of significant British graphic design, it tells us nothing new and has many strange omissions, Penguin being perhaps the worst. Meanwhile, across town, a private space – Gallery Libby Sellers – was staging an exhibition of work by Richard Hollis, one of the most noteworthy British graphic designers of the past 50 years. I hope you caught it because there isn’t a single piece by Hollis in the V&A’s design show.

British Design 1948-2012: Innovations in the Modern Age is at the V&A Museum in London until August 12. vam.ac.uk

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