Nick Hackworth

Designing Modern Britain, Design Museum

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

This year-long display attempts to show how design in Britain, from graphic and product design to urban planning, addressed the task of adapting society to the rigours of the modern world.

The curators are only able to present a fragmentary picture. But the selection of documents and objects — including vintage cars, austere furniture produced during the Second World War, an edition of groundbreaking Eighties style bible The Face and details of the current regeneration plans for the Lea Valley — is broad and thought-provoking.

The exhibition starts in the Thirties when a group of European émigrés found Britain, as Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin put it, “lost in a deep provincial sleep”, and tried to shake things up, starting a ceaseless tussle between the love of traditional ornamentation and the Modernist taste for straight lines and simplicity.

The pace of change was quicker in areas where the general population had less say. One of the most significant items is one of the earliest, Harry Beck’s Thirties schematic of the London Underground. Beck modelled his design on a circuit board, effectively summing up the new world-view in which efficiency was all.

The principle is visible too in the change from the 1920s Austin Seven, Britain’s first widely affordable car, to the sleek curves of the E-Type Jaguar of 1961.

As the last, foreboding display of the Lea Valley regeneration scheme highlights, the pressures of modernity are only increasing. Designers, as ever, face the unenviable task of shaping that change.

Until December 2006 (0870 833 9955).