Festivals of Design

The end of post-war austerity was celebrated by the Festival of Britain in 1951. Sixty years on today’s designers are lauding the design that was a hallmark of the festival and the Fifties era. Pamela Buxton reports

Mid-century design, specifically that of the Fifties, is having something of a moment, with the celebrations this summer of the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain and a new exhibition on the work of Robin and Lucienne Day. The famous Skylon and Dome of Discovery may be long gone but the imagery and influence of the 1951 event lives on.

There’s festival-themed wallpaper from Mini Moderns, wall paint with newly issued Fifties paint colours from Fired Earth and mid-century nostalgia at Wayne Hemingway’s Vintage event in July. But this trend hasn’t popped up out of nowhere.

For the past decade, the appeal of post-war design has been steadily growing, so much so that what was once considered quirky retro is heading for the mainstream. And in the auction houses, mid-century design has become increasingly collectible as interest in Victorian and Edwardian-era furniture has waned.

At the time, the Festival of Britain offered a fresh, colourful and optimistic outlook to a country of rations and austerity. Instead of the heavy, upholstered furniture of previous decades, work by young designers such as Robin Day and Ernest Race seemed light and jaunty in contrast. Textiles by Lucienne Day and graphics by Abram Games were colourful and lively, and the architecture was exhilarating.

‘Every single person that went to the Festival of Britain enjoyed it. There was a sense of fun – think how unusual that was in life,’ says festival expert Paul Rennie, head of context in graphic design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. His personal collection of festival ephemera formed a recent exhibition, Tonic to the Nation.

‘Most people were looking for a glimpse of the future. It wasn’t necessarily that they wanted to live in it then,”’ he adds. ‘It’s taken 60 years for people to become comfortable with that idea of modernity.’

Cherrill Scheer, whose family (of Hille furniture fame) collaborated with Robin Day for decades, attended the event as a child. ‘It was forward-looking and offered a whole new feel for design after all the austerity… it was simply good design,’ she says.

Core to the spirit of the festival was the desire, personified in the subsequent work of the Days, to showcase work that was well designed and could be mass produced for a wide audience. This was something, adds Scheer, that is very much needed today. Use of innovate materials and techniques such as that demonstrated by Day’s Polyprop chair required considerable investment.

‘The tooling was very expensive… Robin was very focused that he wanted to bring good design that was accessible for everyone wherever they were – schools, hospitals, sports grounds,’ says Scheer. It paid off – Polyprop was licensed in 40 countries around world and sold in millions.

While the Festival of Britain and the work of designers such as the Days have been topics for design and architecture students ever since, it’s taken the broader public audience longer to embrace the particular brand of British modernism that emerged from the event.

Lucy Ryder Richardson has been co-running the Midcentury Modern selling shows for the past eight years and has seen the appeal of that era of design soar and widen in that time: ‘Our audience has grown. Originally it was architects and designers but seems to have expanded to a middle market, even expanding into the Home Counties. Where people would normally have bought Victoriana, now they’re mixing styles.’

She reckons the appeal of midcentury vintage has been fuelled by the recent recession, that people feel more secure with the pieces they grew up with in their homes. ‘Nostalgia gives us a feeling of security,’ she says.

‘There’s definitely something fresh and attractive about the Festival of Britain,’ adds Rennie, who has also seen a surge in interest in the Fifties, particularly recently, with the era seeming to have recession-chic appeal.

Another issue is sustainability, especially for the sort of consumer who is tired of buying short-lived furniture, and instead is looking at investing in more lasting pieces such as those from the mid-century modern era.

‘It [mid-century modern] appeals to the eco-generation. They don’t want to buy landfill,’ says Ryder Richardson, who is excited by a new wave of designers such as Zoe Murphy who are up-scaling mid-century pieces to create reworked furniture.

Meanwhile, the growth of interest in mid-century design shows no sign of abating and the anniversary celebrations this summer should further broaden appreciation of the era. Here we talk to contemporary designers about the continuing appeal of mid-century design and how it has influenced their work.

Wayne Hemingway
Design Consultant and Organiser of Vintage, Southbank Centre, London

Mid-century modern has mainstream appeal among people who appreciate design. It mainly appeals because it’s stood the design test of time so well. It has longevity and timelessness plus British quirkiness. It’s bright and cheerful without being cheesy. Was it optimistic or just good design? Good design is just good design.

A lot of furniture designers today are creating art rather than something you can be comfortable with – unlike in the Fifties, when it wasn’t just about making an artistic statement. At the time, Robin Day was a quiet name.

Design is one of the only industries where you don’t think you should look back – it’s accepted that in music you take something great and turn it into a new, 2011 musical genre. These celebrations are keeping great design alive.

Matthew Hilton
Furniture Designer

I’ve always looked back to the past and used it as a feeding ground. The Fifties is a period that’s important to me, but not the only one or the most important. When I was at art school, the Festival of Britain was talked about a lot but I thought Fifties design was pretty ugly. I liked art deco. But later on in my working life I began to appreciate the Fifties more. It’s hard to know why people identify with a certain period at a certain time. I think it could be nostalgia – there’s definitely an appreciation of the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies right now – and it does seem to help people’s appreciation of modern design. Maybe the appeal is an imaginary view of what the Fifties and Sixties were like. We look at these things with distorted views. There must have been a lot of optimism around but it was pretty tough in the Fifties. For me, Robin Day isn’t a visual influence but I have respect for his achievements as someone who was successful in design in Great Britain.

Chris Eckersley
Furniture Designer

I don’t think many designers are deliberately setting out to make ‘retro’-styled pieces, it’s just that many of the pieces we admire date from the Festival of Britain era, and so sometimes work comes out with a mid-century feel. It’s not always a question of styling, it’s just that if you accept the tenets of the Design Council, and its predecessor the Council of Industrial Design, you will naturally want to design furniture that is honest, uncluttered, forward looking, and well made. It’s also desirable that pieces are designed with ease of manufacture in mind so that good design is available to as many people as possible.

I’m not convinced that the current popularity of ‘midcentury modern’ is due to a similarity between post-war austerity and post-credit-crunch Britain; I think it’s more that in a better-educated and better-informed society the modern movement has finally achieved the popular approval it deserves.

Russell Pinch
Of Furniture Designers Pinch DesignM

There is definitely a boom in mid-century design, albeit cherry-picked from that period. There was a real air of optimism surrounding the Festival of Britain and maybe we need that at the moment. Today there’s a real appreciation of craftsmanship and well-made, beautifully proportioned pieces. A lot of what was coming out of the mid-century period was to that brief.

Mid-century design has always appealed to me. There were genuinely some amazing designs. I’d hate for our work to be seen as Fifties but there are obvious [midcentury] influences. The bits that appealed to me are where the sculptural meets the practical. The sculptural isn’t domineering, but is quietly engaging, like Ernest Race’s chairs at the Festival of Britain. There’s also the craftsmanship. We like to make in the UK and expose the maker’s mark, and a lot of our furniture is handmade. That sort of thing came naturally in the mid-20th century.

Zoe Murphy

One of the many reasons I feel a personal relationship with the Fifties era is that all my inspiration comes from my home town of Margate, and Margate’s heyday was in the Fifties and Sixties. It’s super-interesting that everyone is so into the Fifties at the moment. It was a very optimistic time, especially in the USA in the Kennedy era. There was room for growth, and it felt like a time to do things properly and freshly. We can relate to it now, when we find ourselves in a time with involvement in foreign wars, and having to tighten our belts in a recession and rein in consumption. The Fifties were like that too, and the era is something we can look back to when the family was important and people were still making most of their own clothes and cooking meals from scratch. In my work, I like to reuse furniture from the Fifties and Sixties such as G-Plan or Uniflex. This was the last time that things were really well made, screwed together not glued together. I print or paint retro-inspired imagery on to pieces in bright, optimistic colours.

Keith Stephenson & Mark Hampshire
Of Mini Moderns

KS: We’ve always loved the Fifties and are avid collectors of Festival of Britain memorabilia. We started in the Eighties when it was considered kitsch. I think it’s an enduring style. The Festival of Britain is an influence because of the optimism after post-war austerity and because of the new British designers. The festival was about a very British slant on modernism. It gave birth to a lot of pattern designers when much European and American design wasn’t so pattern based. With the introduction of hire purchase, new design was available to everyone. There are also parallels with the new austerity.

MH: There’s been a hard-core of real design aficionados interested in a pure form of Fifties design for some time. Now the appeal is more mainstream. The spirit of optimism, when things were bright and purposeful, is something we’re really desperate for after a decade of design icons and trophy purchases. Perhaps the interest in the Fifties is a move back to good design principles. People want to invest in things with some longevity. Items from that era are established as the new collectibles. The bottom’s fallen out of the ‘brown’ furniture market and dealers are looking at post-war onwards.

The Festival of Britain has always been a central influence in our work – we are influenced by the optimistic mood. We wanted our Festival wallpaper range to look like it was commissioned for the festival and used traditional production methods. It’s the fastest-selling wallpaper we’ve ever done. In July we’re introducing a Festival tea service.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

Working on something exciting? Submit your project to Design Curial.

Submit project to DesignCurial