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Design and the 1951 'Festival of Britain'

Whilst it is a truism to say that the War stimulated and pushed the barriers of invention and innovation it is also accurate to say that post war design remained resolutely rooted in functionality rather than aestheticism. A forties kettle remained stubbornly kettle shaped and although, doubtless the finest kettle ever manufactured… it could never be described as a thing of beauty.

The years after the war were bleak, austerity and rationing was an enduring feature of everyday life and the population was growing ever restless, growing ever weary of the continuing privations. Ideas were big and sometimes foolhardy, in 1946 Bevan had instituted the building of over 200,000 ‘high quality’ new houses and proposed fourteen new towns with ‘inspiring’ new schools. And in 1948 despite the crushing poverty the targets for new housing were almost reached… and in a further effort to ease the housing crisis as a short-term solution over 40,000 ‘prefabs’ were erected. Nevertheless rationing was at a damaging level, worse than that experienced during the War.

Come 1947 in a bizarre initiative designed to raise the UK’s morale the government purchased several shipments of bananas. However man cannot live by bananas alone and abundance of yellow fruit does not a happy population make. In a desperate bid to lift the gloom the government canvassed new ideas. Gerald Barry the then editor of the News Chronicle recalling the Great Exhibition of 1851 suggested the ‘Festival of Britain.’

The Labour administration decided to run with the idea however, rather than celebrating British endeavour and Empire as the Victorian exhibition had done… and ever mindful of the chronic lack of finance this Festival would be a simple British trade fair which would be designed to entertain, educate and commemorate industry. In 1949 Herbert Morrison was appointed minister to the Royal Festival of Britain and an area of blitzed and derelict land on the south bank of the Thames was identified as its site. The Government had decided that this was to be a ‘peoples’ festival and extravagant plans were laid for the exhibition area and for the construction of a brand spanking new concert hall.

The Tories opposed the idea… and to be fair the flaws in this lavish enterprise can be appreciated, why should London be so favoured? They argued that the population was heartily sick and tired of coruscating poverty, and pointed out that in 1951 rationing … some six years after the war… was still a reality, and that ‘make do and mend’ was the never-ending mantra of a Government devoid of imagination. Backed by the newspapers they derided the enterprise as an intemperate and an unwarranted indulgence.

Undaunted, Hugh Casson was appointed to oversee the Festival architecture and the centrepiece ‘Royal Festival Hall’… which was to be designed by Robert Matthew and Leslie Martin to a radical new blueprint. Proposed, was a decidedly modernistic structure embracing the spirit of le Corbusier, Bauhaus and egalitarian ideals… a radical design that was essentially a concert hall shoehorned into an accommodating larger structure. The flowing interior was a sumptuous mix of modern materials, formica, light timber, alloys - all complimenting graceful, unadorned clean surface lines and curves …designed to please and reflect contemporary taste. And uniquely the hall’s acoustic was painstaking addressed.

Surrounding the hall were twenty-seven kiosks or ‘pavilions’ illustrating aspects of contemporary society, industry and endeavour, whilst at the centre was the futuristic ‘Skylon’ a slender aluminium assembly that was constructed so as to appear to hover unsupported in the heavens. Lower down the river at Battersea Park Osbert Lancaster and John Piper designed an ultramodern amusement park and under the supervision of the humorist Emmett a crazy railway was constructed.

The Royal Festival Hall was unofficially dubbed ‘the Peoples Palace’ and was immediately adopted by Londoners… the reception and café area staged regular free Jazz and Skiffle concerts, the concert hall was used for many populous low and high brow performances and within the Hall the national poetry archive was established.

The Festival was deemed a success. Eight million people in six months had visited the event. Nevertheless Britain was still in a state of penury and many saw the Festival as an expensive extravagance. It did not directly lead to the return of the Tories in 1952 but it certainly did nothing to hinder their arrival.

Probably the greatest legacy of the festival was its seminal influence on domestic and public design. The Skylon had become emblematic and its futuristic outline was mirrored in textiles, ceramics and public and domestic furniture. In a blinding flash we realised form and good design could be incorporated into the commonplace.

Enid Seeney in 1988 with her 'Homemaker' TureenAfter the festival, in a rush of creativity, Hugh Casson and Jessie Tate introduced their ‘Riviera’ ceramics, Whitefriars exhibited their modern chunky glassware, John Luxon revolutionised crystal, Lucien Day’s textiles were stunning, Poole Pottery introduced its ‘freeform’, and in 1956 Enid Seeney (left) designed the iconic ‘Homemaker’ range of ceramics. All now highly regarded examples of their genre and very, very collectable… modern antiques, in fact.

In the fifties Ercol designed beautiful, functional furniture, soon to be emulated by Gomme and ‘G Plan’ Modernism and functionality was the new fashion. As the decade progressed new designers were to revolutionise the way we looked at items of public and domestic equipment and the way we handled new materials, the ‘space race’ raised the awareness of the rocket, and so now the humble kettle could legitimately resemble something other than what it was, and even the workaday vacuum cleaner would now remind you of an item from science fiction.

Industry in the fifties still had to understand and embrace the notion of ‘built in obsolescence’ generally engineering and industrial processes manufactured with integrity and merchandise was built to endure. Ingrained and fomented by years of privation the concept of the ‘throw away’ society remained a deeply mysterious and subversive theory.

The fifties is often regarded as a monochrome decade, however in many ways within the rich history of the UK the decade marked a defining epoch. It was a time when we realised ideas, ideals and concepts of right and wrong could be challenged. We realised that our ‘Elders and Betters’ were not always infallible. But importantly we discovered ‘style’.

In the fifties Society had matured and was never to be the same again.

Today the only feature remaining from the Festival of Britain is the elegant Royal Festival Hall - a building of and reflecting its time. In an action that smacks of pique the new Tory government ordered complete demolition of the pavilions and all the other structures, the massive and unsightly, inappropriate Shell building now occupies the Festival site. The fairground persisted until the mid seventies when lack of interest forced its closure.


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