Today design is everything. Housing developments are described as “design led,” kitchens and clothes are “designer” and even gardens are designed or in Dermot Gavin’s case welded! Design led industries from fashion to cars are huge money earners and the valuations on “design brands” are enormous with Prada di Milano valued at euro 12 Billion. But how different it was so long ago in austerity Britain coming out of a World War and its aftermath preceded by a long depression in the 30’s. The event which introduced “Design” to modern Britain was the Festival of Britain in 1951 which itself was to commemorate the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Now design is everywhere with designer coffins, energy-generating paving stones and the so-called "Boris bike" are among the shortlisted entries for the fourth annual Brit Insurance Design Awards, on display at the Design Museum in London.
The Southbank Centre is to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Festival with a summer of celebrations. Tracey Emin will provide the art, Ray Davies will come up with the music and Heston Blumenthal will be on hand to serve a 1950s-inspired afternoon tea. Back in 1951, the festival was devised by Labour deputy leader Herbert Morrison as "a tonic for the nation". A newsreel of the time described it as giving an "inexplicable lift to the heart", recreating the feel of a trip to the seaside.
|An aerial view of the Festival site at the South Bank, London|
Devised by the Labour government of the day as a "tonic" for a nation still recovering from the austerity of the war years, the festival was a showcase for modernist architecture and contemporary design. The Royal Festival Hall, the only permanent building erected for the Festival, was one of Britain's earliest post-war public buildings. Some 10 million Britons flocked to see it, the temporary pavilions and the 296ft high Skylon, which towered above it.
The idea of a Festival to commemorate the centenary of The Great Exhibition of 1851 first appeared in 1943 at a time when the country had a great deal of other things to ponder upon. In 1945 it raised its head again when a letter from contemporary designer, John Gloag, appeared in the Times, an event that inspired the editor of the News Chronicle, Gerald Barry, to write an open letter in his paper addressed to Sir Stafford Cripps. As President of the Board of Trade, Cripps would be the one that Barry needed to progress his suggestion of a trade and cultural exhibition which would repeat the success of Prince Albert's Great Exhibition and promote and advertise Britain's design and manufacturing skills to the world in the immediate post-war era.
|Dome of Discovery and Skylon, 1951|
|The Queen meeting workers on the|
South Bank site
The Exhibition on the South Bank was housed in a futuristic series of pavilions designed by some of the finest designers and architects of the time. Between May and September 1951 the nation celebrated the Festival of Britain. After the devastation of war and years of austerity the Festival aimed to raise the nation’s spirits whilst promoting the very best in British art, design and industry. The London based centrepieces of the Festival, the South Bank Exhibition and the Festival Pleasure Gardens in Battersea were the most visible elements of a Festival which was celebrated in cities, towns and villages all over Britain.
|Wearing 3D glasses at a movie at the Festival|
Ten million people - one-quarter of the population - visited the London festival and its sister sites across the country. The Conservatives came into power in late 1951 and they could not see the back of the Festival and its buildings fast enough.
Ralph Tubbs pleaded for his dome but got nowhere. Lord Eccles showed some interest but eventually told Tubbs that he felt 'the dome had served its purpose and, anyway, how could he be sure that it would not leak in future if it was preserved.' Tubbs with "Freeman Fox" sought alternative locations and uses. Negotiations began for its transportation to Sao Paulo for use as a sports arena, to Montevideo, to Coventry, whose City Architect declared its proposed demolition as 'a shocking waste of public funds', and to Sydenham - the former site of the Crystal Palace (the re-built 1851 Great Exhibition building).
|Inside the Dome of Discovery - This inspired the ill fated 2000 Millennium Dome in Greenwich which was originally spearheaded by Peter Mandelson, Herbert Morrison's grandson|
|Festival Piazza 1951|
|Festival building on Waterloo Road|
The 1951 festival which cost £8m - or £200m in today's money, a huge amount in Post-War Britain still subject to rationing, but to Churchill and the Conservatives it reeked of Labour propaganda and a modernism and egalitarianism which the Squirearchy who provide the backbone of the Tories despised. Not for the first (or last time) had a Tory Government come to power with a slash and burn agenda. So the South Bank was laid to waste and an important part of the patrimony of Britain and London was lost.
"It will leave behind not just a record of what we have thought of ourselves in the year 1951 but, in a fair community founded where once there was a slum, in an avenue of trees or in some work of art, a reminder of what we have done to write this single, adventurous year into our national and local history."
So it is right that all summer long in London we will be celebrating 60 years of arts and culture since the original Festival of Britain in 1951. The Festival of Britain anniversary events take over the whole of the Southbank Centre complex with artist led performances, talks, themed weekends, outdoor attractions and much more. The first of three annual summer festivals to be sponsored by MasterCard, the festival also pays homage to the South Bank Exhibition of 1951, which took place on the site of what is now the celebrated Southbank Centre. See you there!