A time when Britain was trying to shape a new future through stylish designs and dreams of a better life is being revisited for an exhibition.
Britain in the Fifties: Design and Aspiration at Compton Verney will be a trip back to the past for those old enough to have lived through it, and who may have their own feelings about a decade when post-war food rationing did not entirely end until 1954.
Some items will also seem familiar as they enjoy a new popularity through the retro and vintage craze. Others still lasted a long time; there is a display of the original illustrations for the Ladybird book Shopping with Mother by Harry Wingfried from 1958 but the book, with its social and gender stereotyping as noted in the gallery caption, was still popular in the 1970s.
Abram Games is one designer who appears several times. There are his original sketches for the Festival of Britain logo, and the logo itself, along with other festival souvenirs, pamphlets, a scarf and a model of the skylon, the huge structure Winston Churchill apparently ordered to be taken down as it reminded him of the socialist aspirations of the previous Labour government.
There are photographs of some of the new homes which were built, focusing on West Point in Allesley Village, Coventry, which still exists. One gallery is hung with beautiful colourful textile designs including influences in fruit and vegetable patterns from William Morris in one by Terence Conran. Another by Robert Stewart oddly features a man riding a fish.
Household gadgets are interesting for their innovation or not – a mechanical potato peeler does not seem to have stood the test of time. A coffee maker designed by Abram Games looks like something elegant but also straight out of a science lab. Ken Wood turns out to be a real person with an electric toaster on show and there is a toast rack by Robert Welch, whose firm also lives on today. There is a table and sideboard set with beautifully elegant crockery by firms including Derby and Midwinter.
In another room, you are invited to sit in a mock up of a 1950s living room to read the newspaper story about the climbing of Everest while watching on a replica TV the Queen’s coronation. More attractive crockery is on show including a cucumber plate.
Elegant looking cars, hiding simple designs, are celebrated through images of vehicles including a Triumph TR2 from 1953, made at Canley, Coventry.
A display of attractive dresses from Horrockses feature an unusual name as one designer; Graham Sutherland took time out from his Coventry Cathedral tapestry design to come up with a printed design dress for Liberty which showed busts of classical characters face to face, and a diagonal neckline and side-buttoning bodice.
Cathedral designer Basil Spence also created a poster promoting rail travel for British Rail, showing his design for it in 1967, several years before it was officially opened. Abram Games also designed a poster showing the shape of the country in railway livery.
Larger items on show include a Mini car, and a small caravan created as a gift for the young Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
The exhibition also draws interesting attention to social change – 90 per cent rented homes in the 1940s, to 60 per cent home ownership by 1959, and the fact that many apparently labour-saving devices actually kept women in the kitchen more. Sadly it seems design itself wasn’t enough to produce massive social change in certain areas.
*On until October 2, 2016.