Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Post-war Britain

The last lecture we had explored the links between art, science, natural and machine. It focused on Designers who's aim was to make art and design accessible to the people. Christopher Dresser, William Morris, Bauhaus, Joseph Paxton (Crystal Palace) and Le Courbusier all featured.

We were asked to research the Festival of Britain to further our learning, which reminded me of a   channel 4 programme The House the 50s Built , that I watched while back. Unfortunately the programme is no longer available to watch on 4OD, so I can't watch it again, but luckily there is an outline of each episode on the website to remind me. The series celebrated the science behind the inventions and innovations that transformed the way we lived and catapulted an exhausted post-war country into the modernity of 1950s Britain.

During the WWII, design and technology stood still in Britain's homes, because all the countries efforts were focused on winning the war. It was only after the war ended that we could begin to apply new scientific and technologic advances (some of which were developed for the war effort) to make the lives of the people of 1950s Britain easier, brighter and more fun.

The new developments of the science world had a direct effect on design in everyday peoples homes. Sciencists invented many different forms of plastics from the polymers found in oil including:


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Created by impregnating paper with phenolic resin and building up lots of layers and heat pressing together until set into a laminate. Formica was a colourful and hygienic worksurface for the new fitted kitchens of the '50s

Polyurethene Foam 

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The unhygienic horsehair and straw used in pre-war sofas was replaced by this clean and cheap synthetic foam. This made the stuffing for upholstery lighter, less bulky and designers could mould it into any number of shapes.

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Pre-war furniture was carved from separate pieces of carved solid wood and joined together by experts furniture makers. But with the invention of PVA glue and a WWII technique used to develop the Mosquito fighter bomber, it was possible to glue thin sheets of wood together and mould them with press into different shapes to create iconic furniture that is still considered fashionable today.

Vinyl Paint

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PVA glue was also used to make vinyl paint, replacing the dangerously combustable linseed oil paint and toxic lead paint, that had to be mixed by hand by a professional. The new vinyl paints adhered well to walls and created a smooth wipe clean surface. Home decorating became popular as paint companies marketed this new ready mixed paint at the DIY market.

Wallpaper Paste

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Pre-war, wallpaper paste was made from flour and water, making wallpapering messy and unpredictable. But in 1953 a new synthetic wallpaper paste, marketed under the name of Polycell, was launched. Its mass production lead the rise of the 'feature wall' as people bought the new abstract wallpaper designs first showcased at the Festival of Britain in 1951.

Nylon and Polyester

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Nylon was developed as a replacement for silk used in parachutes in during WWII. But come 1950, it first hit the UK shelves in the form of nylon stockings. Nylon was cheaper than the pricey and hard to come by silk, and had elastic properties that made underwear and stockings supportive yet comfortable.
In 1952 Polyester was made into a thread and used as a replacement for wool. Suit salesmen would jump into swimming pools, fully clothed, to demonstrate the amazing drip dry properties of this new wonder fibre.

Not only did the science provide materials for designers to use in their work, but they also provide new inspiration for abstract print designers such as Lucienne Day. This iconic woven jacquard from the Warner Textile Archive in Braintree is called Hemsley and was designed by Marianne Straub for the Festival of Britain (1951). The design was inspired from the atomic structure of nylon. The Warner Textile Archive have used this design as part of their new wallpaper range, which was actually used the  channel 4 programme 'The House the 1950s Built'.

image from here

Finally, with these new scientific and technological innovations, William Morris' dream of "art for the people" was now achievable. Many of Lucienne Day's fabric designs were made in long production runs, which kept the price affordable. It pleased her to think that people who could not afford to buy a painting for their living room could at least own a pair of abtract patterned curtains. She, along with many more designers of the 1950s, had made the link between mass production and fine art. 

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