Brave new world
In the 1950s, Britain saw a revolution in design. Philippa Stockley looks at the decade that made Britain modern
At this time of post-referendum uncertainty, a spirited exhibition that demonstrates British dazzling postwar creativity, enhanced by the input of talented foreigners, is timely. ‘Britain in the Fifties’, at the Warwickshire countryhouse art gallery Compton Verney, colourfully demonstrates how, in the decade after the Second World War, British manufacturers and designers pulled together to create a fresh spirit of vibrancy, modernity and internationalism that was influential at home and abroad.
this new British design was first showcased at the groundbreaking 1951 Festival of Britain, the original poster design and early pencil sketches for which are on display.
Many things we take for granted today were developed then, with the streamlined designs, distinctive shapes and colour combinations that changed our aesthetic notions of desirable form. think of Ercol’s range of beech chairs and tables or Robert Welch’s still ubiquitous steel cutlery and iconic 1956 toast rack (a special edition is on sale).
television sets went mainstream in the 1950s. More than half the population watched the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, ITV launched in 1955 and, by 1959, there were 10 million sets in Britain. this made us a more visual nation; we saw things and wanted them. By 1956, 86% of the population was connected to the National Grid, so stylish new electrical kitchen appliances proliferated. Electric cookers, distinctively shaped Kenwood food mixers, curvy refrigerators and Hoovers: those then futuristic shapes are back, as ‘retro’ ones, today. the decade saw an explosion of important design classics, among them the Routemaster bus (not on show) and Sir Alec Issigonis’s Mini (on show).