The British Interior: Views from the V&A

Celebrating British Design

Annual Conference British Institute of Interior Design

June 21st, 2012

‘God Save the Queen’, poster promoting the Sex Pistols, designed by Jamie Reid, 1977
© Jamie Reid, Photograph by Victoria and Albert Museum

Glenn Adamson, head of research at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, presented a very intriguing view of British interior and furniture design referencing the current exhibition of ‘British Design’ and the recent ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 to 1990’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  He also referred to the Geffrye Museum in London.

‘Torsion’ chair, designed and made by Brian Long, 1971 By kind permission of Brian Long /
Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum

‘Period rooms’ and exhibitions allow us to see interior and furniture design from the point of view of a museum installation. Museums are able to present normally subjective designs’ that follow fashion and trends of their day in an objective way. However opinions on what periods had good or bad interior design are largely based on an individuals taste and background.  The nature of design, being often derived or evolved from past and or contemporary influences, makes it difficult to predict the future of interior & furniture design let alone discuss our present state.

Aquatics Centre for the London 2012 Olympic Games, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects,
completed 2011; shown in Legacy mode © Zaha Hadid Architects

Glenn’s presentation gave an overview of British design from the 20th century.  He stated that the 21st century is still too much upon us to be retrospective, but the hot topic of ‘where are we now?’ was very provocative to an audience actively involved with contemporary design.

Antelope’ outdoor bench, designed by Ernest Race for the Festival of Britain, 1951, manufactured
by Race Furniture Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum

The most current interior design period room installation at the Geffrye museum shows a ‘loft style’ room. 
In the age of minimalist influence, the mundane has become the norm with the abundance of Ikea furniture, off white walls and large flat screen TVs acting as a focal point to the sterile ‘modern’ sitting room. Viewing this exhibit one could surmise that interior design is no longer in it’s prime at the end of the 20th Century as it continues into the early 21st.

Loft Apartment 1998 installation at the Geffrey Museum

I cannot agree more with Glenn that we are now in a fragmented if not transitional period of design where the ‘the visual’ has taken over and it could be said we ‘have too much choice now’.  Could this arguably be seen as a positive influence for Interior and furniture design as it follows society itself?  If we are now global, interconnected and have access to more information than ever in the history of mankind, is it not natural that we would appear to be fragmented and chaotic?  Is this the result of adjusting to the information shift in human communication and even our evolution?

Hare jewel from ‘Masquerade’, Kit Williams, 1979. Private collection
Sotheby’s Picture Library / Kind permission of Kit Williams

It would also be expected that we would look backwards for comfort in times of change, mixing in our own snippets from the ‘information overload’.  Perhaps upcycling could define our current state where the past, present and awareness of our impact on the environment come together in an individualistic way where each piece is unique. A reaction to mass production and a combination of existing elements that are more visual than designed for function or well crafted.  Is the loss and lack of craftsmanship affecting our standards of interior and furniture design?

The presentation raised a lot of questions and gave the audience a lot to think about. Glenn concluded his talk by proposing a cliff hanger for the audience: ‘What do we do now?’  His answer: ‘design with character and integrity are needed’.

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