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March 26 2012

British design in the modern age: from punk bands to boom-time brands

Has the V&A's new show captured British design from 1948 to now? Justin McGuirk enters a world of spindly furniture, punk safety pins – and plastic chicken coops

In 1948, still reeling from the war, Britain steeled itself and cobbled together the first Olympic games of the postwar era. The London Olympics were known as the "austerity games", and yet proved a triumph of resourcefulness. It's with this moment that the Victoria & Albert museum begins its new survey exhibition, British Design 1948–2012 – an irresistible conceit, as London counts down to its second Olympics.

The other key moment in British design was the Festival of Britain in 1951. Then, Britain finally grasped the modernist nettle, seeking to drive manufacturing with a genuine design culture; now, a Britain that is renowned for its design (and not its manufacturing) is about to embark on an Olympic celebration that feels more like the culmination of something than its beginning.

The austerity may be back, but it is difficult to overstate the scale of the political shift that has occurred. The Festival of Britain was the brainchild of a Labour government forging the welfare state; the 2012 Olympics are presided over by a coalition government dismantling what's left of it. Some of this show rubs our noses in that polarity. Here is Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert's 1957 design for the national road signage system, going on show the week after it was announced that roads may be privatised. Here are London county council's ambitious postwar social housing programmes, whose corollary today are the "luxury" apartment blocks thrown up by private developers. Then it was the technological finesse of the 300ft Skylon tower; now we have the oligarchical vanity of the Mittal-Orbit structure on the Stratford site, by Anish Kapoor. The exhibition illustrates not just the history of British design, but of British politics.

In a show of such scope, there is an understandable tendency to fall back on the greatest hits. On one level, British Design is a sequence of cliches that we are familiar with. The 1950s are all spindly furniture and molecular patterns; the 60s are about two Minis (a car and a skirt); and the 70s careen from punk's safety pins to Concorde (the only piece of technology in the show that hasn't been surpassed). The 80s are represented by Peter Saville's album covers for Factory Records and a little piece of Manchester's Hacienda nightclub (whose designer, Ben Kelly, also designed this exhibition). Meanwhile, Cool Britannia and the obsession with branding takes care of the 90s, here represented by objects from Pharmacy, the restaurant Damien Hirst opened in London in 1998. (Always more about money and PR than it was about art or design, this episode sits uncomfortably with the rest of the show. But then the "real" design of the period is not much better: if Michael Young's aluminium and vinyl Magazine sofa, which belongs in a tacky nightclub's VIP area, is the pinnacle of 1990s furniture design, the decade itself was not a high point.)

There is little in the way of revisionism or controversy here; but if the objects are overfamiliar, the subtexts running through them are less so. Avoiding a simplistic chronology, the curators have chosen to define the characteristics of British design thematically. The middle section of the show focuses on subversion. From the late 1960s, a younger generation of creative talent fostered in the British art school system began reacting against the paternalistic impulses of the postwar rebuilders, swapping consensus for dissent. From pop music to fashion, the alternative was suddenly the answer. Samples here include David Bowie and the outlandish outfits of glam rock, the Sex Pistols' anti-aesthetic, Ron Arad and Tom Dixon's salvaged-metal furniture. You could throw in the architecture of Zaha Hadid who, before she was a star, was a kind of one-woman subculture. Hadid spent decades in the wilderness, failing to get her deconstructivist designs built. This anti-authoritarian streak, by turns camp and punk, has become one of the defining features of Britain's cultural self-image; it's a spiky brand identity that Wolff Olins' Olympic logo has attempted to make official.

The role recession has played in shaping Britain's design identity is one of the more revealing themes. The Festival of Britain was conceived as a means of stimulating the economy, while punk and the creative salvage scene were born of the economic crises of the 1970s and early 80s. In 1986, James Dyson had to take his famous vacuum cleaner design to Japanese manufacturer Apex, because no recession-weakened British manufacturer would take it on. Industrial decline is a bigger story, of course, and yet many of the innovations of the last three decades have been responses to it. When the Sinclairs and Amstrads of Britain's personal computer industry could no longer compete with America and Japan, they moved from software to hardware. Today, British computer game designers are lead players in an industry that's now worth more than Hollywood, responsible for such successes as Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto.

How does the story end? What does a show that is part of the flag-waving runup to the Olympics tell us about British design today? In the end, not that much, partly because it is drawn mainly from the V&A's own collection, and museum collections are weakest when it comes to contemporary artefacts.

The last decade is much richer than you would think from the few pieces shown here; as the show approaches the present, the narrative threads that run so richly through the rest – of tradition versus modernity, of youth versus authority – begin to fray. The Olympic buildings are here, as well as a plastic chicken coop manufactured by Omlet in Britain (a huge commercial success). The latter at least raises the question of whether manufacturing might start to return from Asia, now the costs of outsourcing are rising.

Troika's Falling Light installation (2010), a programmed chandelier that precipitates light like raindrops, is probably the most representative example of contemporary British design. Neither a product nor an artwork, this is innovative for its own sake and was made by a group of designers from France and Germany living in London. It shows us that the boundaries of design are dissolving, and that it is time for us to dispense with the notion of "British design" altogether. The UK's design scene is now nothing if not international, and London, in particular, is a magnet for talent from all over Europe. The question is, once the Olympics are behind us (and we have another recession to kick against), how will design in Britain reinvent itself again? © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 25 2012

Dennis Morris: 'Suddenly we were black, not coloured'

Dennis Morris is celebrated for his iconic photographs of the Sex Pistols and Bob Marley. But few knew that in that pivotal era he was also documenting black British life in London…

I meet Dennis Morris on the steps of Hackney town hall in east London, and we set off up Mare Street, through a church yard that leads into a small park, and out on to Homerton High Street, where his old school, Upton House Comprehensive, has been transformed into City Academy. It was there, aged 16, that Morris told a careers adviser that he wanted to be a photographer.

"The guy just looked at me like I was mad," he says. "Then he said: 'Be realistic. There's no such thing as a black photographer.' Those were his words and I've never forgotten them. I told him about Gordon Parks and James Van Der Zee, but he just looked at me blankly and shook his head."

Nearly 40 years later, with his new book of photographs, Growing Up Black, about to be published in a limited art edition, Morris has agreed to guide me around the streets of Hackney, where he grew up in the late 1960s and early 70s. It is a place that, as we soon find out, only fully exists now in his memories. The street names are the same, the churches and the schools remain, but four decades of redevelopment have rendered much of his boyhood manor all but unrecognisable. "It's strange," says Morris. "So much has changed but it's still the same vibe on the street, still the same mixture of people, though it's a lot more trendy these days."

For those of us who know Dennis Morris primarily for his music photography, specifically his evocative shots of the Sex Pistols in their mid-70s heyday – Malcolm McLaren made him the group's official photographer – and his portraits of reggae pioneers such as Bob Marley, Gregory Isaacs and the Abyssinians, the book is a surprise. It is a slice of social history as well as a kind of impressionistic visual autobiography. As Morris puts it: "Alongside the music stuff, I was also taking photographs at a pivotal time for black people in Britain, politically and culturally. Suddenly we weren't coloured people any more – we were black. It was a question of pride and of self-definition. I see it now as a pioneering time, a time of great struggle and change."

Growing Up Black is divided into eight chapters, each one documenting a stage in Morris's photographic life and providing a wider glimpse of black British experience. The book's narrative begins in St Mark's church on St Mark's Rise in Hackney, where Morris was once a choirboy, and ends in the Black House, a north London building occupied by a radical British black power collective led by the controversial figure of Michael X. "The book touches a lot of bases, I guess," says Morris. "The church, reggae, radical politics, the neighbourhood and street life. In a way, photography was my life and my life is there in the photographs I took. I was always recording my experience with the camera."

Morris's family came to England from Jamaica when he was four years old. St Mark's church provided a religious and social fulcrum for both his mother and her son, as well as the wider West Indian community in Hackney. The vicar, Reverend Donald Pateman, was a local legend: a man on a mission to do good in the community and keep the local youths on the straight and narrow.

As we walk up Sandringham Road, traversing Cecilia Road, where his childhood home was, Morris turns quiet. The rows of Victorian terraced houses have been replaced in great swathes by more nondescript houses and apartments. Outside the church, a crowd of older West Indians have gathered for a funeral. We sit on a low wall opposite and chat quietly.

"The vicar was a strict disciplinarian," says Morris. "And the West Indian parents loved him for it. He ran the choir like a public school and dressed us up like little toffs in Eton suits. We took a lot of stick from the other kids around here, but we were tough street kids and we gave as good as we got. It was like a strange double life I was leading, but it definitely gave me a sense of self-confidence."

The choir was funded by the church's benefactor, Donald Paterson, who had made his fortune in camera technology. It was Paterson who organised and financed the St Mark's camera club, where, at the age of nine, Dennis Morris discovered his  vocation.

"He's the reason I'm a photographer," says Morris. "He convinced my parents that I could make a career out of it even when the school was against it. More than that, though, he opened my mind to the possibility that you could go beyond what was expected of you."

Growing Up Black is dedicated to Mr Paterson, who, as Morris writes, "guided me, taught me, encouraged me". Morris tells me about the bittersweet day, several years later, when, at 18, he had one of his images used on the cover of NME for the first time. "Believe it or not, I'm not sure if it was Bob [Marley] or the Sex Pistols, or even if it was 1976 or 1977. But what I can remember clearly is running from my house to Mr Paterson's office to show him the front cover. It was like a vindication of all his faith in me."

When Morris entered the office, though, he was met by a group of sad-faced men and crying women. That day, his mentor had drowned in a lake alongside three young members of the choir, while on a camping trip to Scotland. "I was devastated," says Morris. "It was like a light went out in my life, but, after a while, I realised that he was always there with me when I was taking a photograph and if I gave up, I would be letting him down. That's what kept me going."

There is just one portrait of Dennis Morris in Growing Up Black. It was taken in 1973, when his career as a music photographer was just beginning and he's wearing stylish shades and a black polo neck. This was also the year he first encountered Bob Marley, when the Wailers arrived in London from Jamaica to play the Speakeasy. Having bunked off school, Morris waited outside the club from early morning. His patience paid off when Marley invited him inside to hang out with the group and to shoot some pictures while they were sound-checking. The next morning, again at Marley's request, he accompanied the Wailers as they boarded a van for a short tour of Britain. "I put my cameras in my school sports bag alongside a change of clothes and just took off with them for a week or so," he says.

That reckless decision led to a career as a music photographer with the NME in the 1970s, and to his meeting the Sex Pistols and bonding with John Lydon over their love of reggae. He subsequently became a floating member of Lydon's post-Pistols group, Public Image Ltd, designing their logo and the round metal canister that contained their Metal Box album. "It was a creative time, but nobody ever got paid," says Morris, laughing.

Alongside his adventures in the music business – he formed Basement 5 with the DJ Don Letts in the late 70s – Morris kept on photographing the world around him. He has two other series about London: one based in and around Southall, and another focusing on the white working-class community in Hackney. One senses that Growing Up Black, though, is his most personal project.

"It brings back a lot of memories," he says of the series. "It reminds me of how hard it was back then. There was a lot of sacrifice, a lot of struggle. I remember when I was starting out as a photographer and still living at home, I would keep the window open in my room so I could hear the public phone on the street ring. We didn't have a phone so I used to give people I worked for the number of the public phone outside the house."

I ask him about the extraordinarily evocative series of photographs entitled simply "Wedding, Town Hall, Mare Street, Hackney, 1971". "Man, that was a big thing, a real big thing. I knew a few black guys who had married white women, but this was the first time I saw a wedding between a white man and a black woman. I was a photographer for hire then and got jobs word of mouth because I was cheap and dependable. I remember a certain tension in the church, mainly coming off the in-laws. You can feel that tension in the photographs. It was moving, though. I felt they were very brave people, the bride and groom. Pioneers."

The book could easily have been called "Black Pioneers". You sense that sense of adventure and uncertainty in many of the photographs. It's there in the portraits of the early sound system pioneers posing in sharp suits beside their custom-built speakers, in the defiant gazes of the young radicals in thrall to the black power movement, in the casual poses of the young women gathered at a blues dance in a Hackney basement. As the cultural historian Stuart Hall writes in his introductory essay: "Without working consciously to a plan, Morris seems to have used every opportunity – studio work, special occasions, photoshoots, in the street, around the ''hood', indoors, the big moments, the incidental – to capture another dimension of this experience. The results constitute a thoughtful, beautifully observed, richly expressive, quietly eloquent collection of images of everyday black diaspora life, as well as making a major contribution to an archive of tremendous social, historical and visual significance." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 22 2011

Preserving the Sex Pistols' graffiti is an archaeological swindle

Comparing the scribblings of the Sex Pistols to cave art is a rotten attempt to drag archaeology into populist culture. Archaeologists should know better …

Archaeologists must get sick of kneeling in the rain, mud soaking into their jeans, trying to identify an ancient coin as sceptical farmers look on. They must get fed up of spending years analysing the foundations of a Roman villa, only for all trace of their discovery to be covered up by a road or a housing estate.

They try to get their message (that the past is magical) across to a superficial world. They dress up as Vikings to take school groups around a dig. They write books bubbling with matey phrases and contemporary comparisons. But still the relentless juggernaut of stupidity rumbles down the motorway, and archaeologists flip their lids.

I am just trying to understand the thought processes that have led archaeologists writing in the journal Antiquity to call for Sex Pistols graffiti in a London house to be preserved and cherished in the name of "anti-heritage". They compare the wall drawings, mostly by John Lydon, with Paleolithic cave art.

The argument is bizarre for several reasons. When it comes to preserving the history of punk, how is that an innovative or provocative idea? Ever since Greil Marcus and Jon Savage wrote serious tomes on the Sex Pistols, the band have been recognised as fodder for cultural analysis and reverence. Lydon got so fed up with the pretensions of critical writing on the Pistols that he wrote his own memoir, giving his more down to earth version of the story.

From the point of view of Marcus's book Lipstick Traces, the moment when the Sex Pistols tore through the fabric of reality would constitute an epochal event, worthy of commemoration. But the academics behind this latest study seem unaware that such recognitions are now a routine part of cultural history. They suggest putting up a blue plaque as if it was a daring idea to take popular culture seriously. Have they looked at blue plaques in London lately? Near where I live there's a plaque to Kenneth Williams, star of the Carry on Films. A plaque to the Pistols would ruffle no feathers whatsoever.

Their real agenda is to provoke their own profession, to imply that archaeology should be about graffiti as much as it is about cave paintings. But here they are being the very opposite of subversive. Everything in our culture glorifies the immediate, the contemporary, and – as George Costanza once put it in Seinfeld – "stuff we don't have to think about too much." Archaeology has a subversive vocation to resist this shallow culture and make us recognise the existence of profoundly different pasts on our own soil.

The news stories that have leapt on the Sex Pistols "cave art" show how these disillusioned archaeologists are just playing to the prejudices of modern culture. Of course people love to be told the Pistols are more important than the remote past. But there is absolutely nothing subversive about such a claim. It is the cliched dumbness of our age. Archaeology has a duty to be different; this daft argument betrays that vocation. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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