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August 18 2012

David Bowie: the mannequin who fell to earth

The V&A plans to use David Bowie's exotic costumes to chart his life and times in an exhibition next year

David Bowie is to part-curate an exhibition of his life and work told primarily through his extravagant costumes at the Victoria and Albert museum next year.

The show will chart his rise to cult rock star status from his early years in Brixton, south London, using his collection of outfits to illustrate his constantly changing identity.

Details about the clothes are being kept under wraps until next month's official announcement of the show, but the V&A's director confirmed to the Observer that Bowie is involved in selecting exhibits. Many of the flamboyant outfits worn by Bowie in his years as a pioneer of rock style will come from his own collection.

The exhibition is expected to draw large numbers of visitors. However, some critics lament what they see as a further descent of a serious museum into the cult of celebrity.

Bowie's look was inseparable from his sound. The 65-year-old singer and actor, who merged rock and theatre with his androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust, is synonymous with futuristic costumes and outlandish makeup, from space-samurai outfits to white satin kimonos, flame-red hair to eye-liner.

He achieved wide popularity with his psychedelic rock single Space Oddity, coinciding with the first moon landing, and became an international star with albums such as The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His films include The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Speaking to the Observer, Bowie's biographer Paul Trynka said that Bowie was at the forefront of fashion, recreating his own image with the aid of cutting-edge designers.

Seeing the costumes close-up would be amazing, he said. "Although he's an artist who… doesn't tend to revisit his own past, there's a kind of contradiction in that he's collected his pieces for over two decades, lots of them historic and iconic, not just for Bowie fans but for popular fashion… He's always had a public presentation in mind." Costumes that Trynka expects to be included in the exhibition at the V&A include the "bunny leotard" created by Kansai Yamamoto, one of the avant-garde designers whose potential was spotted by Bowie.

"That was quite groundbreaking because Yamamoto wasn't known in the UK," Trynka said. "Although other pop stars had flirted with high fashion, [Bowie] was the first one to use it as an integral part of his look. He then went on to even more outrageous Yamamoto designs. There's a fantastic one with hugely-inflated legs … and I suspect that will be there … [It] is engagingly ludicrous. Nobody had that effrontery to wear those kinds of outfits before."

Among other likely highlights, he said, are homemade catsuits created by the late Freddi Buretti, a designer who described himself as a "seamstress".

Martin Roth, the V&A's director, said: "Bowie is incomparable. No one has inspired the whole world not only in terms of music but also arts, fashion and style. He created a vision of individualism for an entire generation."

Others are less impressed, particularly following the V&A's 2007 exhibition dedicated to Kylie Minogue, which included her dungarees from the Australian soap Neighbours. Critics felt that it was unworthy of a museum dedicated to showcasing the finest arts and crafts.

The Bowie show has been condemned by Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, the museums watchdog: "The museum world is losing the plot. They're just crazed about numbers at any cost… Obviously you could fill the V&A every day of the week if you had a pop concert or a bunch of celebs."

Noting that the V&A also covers fashion, he added: "Fashion is a bigger thing… than the cult of one man. If Bowie, why not Liberace? It's about the cult of celebrity, particularly youth." Bowie, he added, did not fit the museum's remit for recording significant fashion.

The V&A is of course tapping into a demand, but whether a cultural museum should be meeting it is another matter. The Kylie Minogue exhibition attracted 271,000 visitors and was one of the museum's most popular shows.

Trynka, who wrote the Bowie biography Starman, said: "Bowie epitomises Britain's influence on fashion and textiles. He represents the best of it. Kylie is a wonderful pop icon, but she hasn't had a lasting effect on popular culture outside of her fanbase."

Today Bowie himself remains elusive. He has not toured since 2006, and turns down requests to appear in public – most recently, the Olympic Games closing ceremony, although his song Fashion was used.

There have been reports of ill-health. Roth said: "[People] try to build a story around him. There's a lot of gossip."

Bowie's spokesman declined to comment. © 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

August 06 2012

John Travolta's white suit to star in V&A exhibition

Saturday Night Fever's 'shining light' in 1970s polyester tracked down for museum's Hollywood Costume show

The most famous white suit in the world, a classic example of the finest 1970s polyester tailoring, has been tracked down by the Victoria and Albert Museum after an international search.

The three-piece suit was as much a star of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever as John Travolta who played Tony Manero, or the Bee Gees, who provided the soundtrack for the story of a young man who disco-dances his way out of the ghetto.

Bought off the peg in a cheap men's clothes store in Brooklyn, the suit was last seen in public 17 years ago, when it was sold at a Christie's auction to an anonymous bidder for $145,000 (£93,000), three times the top estimate. The curators of this autumn/winter's exhibition on Hollywood costume were determined to find it and put out an international appeal – and to their surprise it has turned up in London, in immaculate condition, and the owner has agreed to lend it to the museum.

The owner, who wishes to remain anonymous but has let slip his age, is not a collector.

He said: "I was nine years old when Saturday Night Fever came out and before seeing the film I had already fallen in love with the legendary soundtrack.

"The ritual of [Travolta's character] choosing his clothes to go out at night, in a world of his own and disconnected from the reality of his life, particularly resonated with me. It was the first film I really loved,

and in essence it was part of my own rite of passage … When I saw the suit on sale, I wanted to buy it because of what it represented to me personally."

Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis, a designer and historian of film costume – her own credits include Michael Jackson's Thriller video and Raiders of the Lost Ark – is senior curator of the exhibition. She said: "Saturday Night Fever was actually a very dark little movie, and this suit, made of completely gross polyester, was the shining light, the symbol of aspiration and hope that shone in the film in that heart-stopping moment when it all comes together, the music, the lights, the suit, and Travolta dances in it.

"It took me totally by surprise. I fell completely in love with him, as everyone who sees the movie does."

The broad lapels, tight waistcoat and high-waisted flared trousers – a 71cm (28in) waist which Travolta could never get into these days – have been endlessly imitated. But there is no doubt that this is the genuine article. The curators have already been to inspect it, and found conclusive proof in the actor's handwriting.

It was first auctioned in 1978 for charity, when the American critic Gene Siskel, who listed Saturday Night Fever as one of his favourite films of all time, paid $2,000. The actor signed it and the inscription is still faintly visible in the lining: "So here's to a classic, your friend, John Travolta."

Originally the character of Tony Manero was to strut in a black suit, but white was the inspired choice of the film's costume designer, Patrizia Von Brandenstein. "Heroes from Sir Lancelot to Tom Mix wore white in the great contests to express purity and single-minded devotion to the task at hand. So for me, white was the only choice for the suit."

She went shopping in Brooklyn where the character lived, with the director John Badham, and Travolta – who was then starring in a hit television series, Welcome Back, Kotter. As word spread that he was in the neighbourhood, screaming mobs descended on the small clothes shop where he was trying on the suit, beating on the windows and pleading with him to come out.

Nadoolman Landis said buying it off the peg was a piece of genius: "Even in a low-budget movie like Saturday Night Fever, they could have found the money to make Tony a suit – but the fact that it was bought from an ordinary shop that anyone could go into gave it a great truth, exactly the sort of garment somebody from his background would see and long to own."

Brandenstein actually bought several suits, two to dance in, and two that had to be turned up at the hem for Travolta's much shorter stunt double. The other suit worn by Travolta was stolen from an exhibition in the US, so Nadoolman Landis had almost abandoned hope of including the item in the V&A show, which includes costumes worn by characters including Pirates of the Caribbean's Jack Sparrow, Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's and Darth Vader.

"The costumes in this exhibition are so powerful that each has its own soundtrack which the visitor will hear in their heads – but even in this company the white suit is special," she said. "It is the Turin shroud, the closest an ordinary mortal can come to the body of the actor."

• Hollywood Costume, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, October 2012 to January 2013 © 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

June 27 2012

Arab Spring photographs added to British Museum and V&A collection

Art Fund says it is giving £150,000 to establish joint collection that has been in development over the last three years

Photographs created in reaction to the Arab Spring of 2011 will form an important part of a major collection of Middle Eastern photography being established jointly by the British Museum and the V&A.

The Art Fund said it was giving £150,000 to establish a collection that has been in development by the two institutions over the last three years.

The fund's director, Stephen Deuchar, said it would help remedy an under-representation. "It is a response to the surge in interest in visual arts in that part of the world, a surge that has not been matched by its representation in museums generally."

Both institutions have hugely important photographic collections for slightly different reasons. Roughly speaking the British Museum collects to tell the stories of societies while the V&A explores the possibilities of particular mediums.

"Putting the two together allows so many different narratives and no narrative, I think, is more important at the moment than that of the contemporary Middle East," said the British Museum's director, Neil MacGregor. "That is a world that we need to understand and photography is a particularly powerful way of allowing us to do so."

More than 80 works by 22 artists form the collection to date including more recent photographs taken as a response to the Arab Spring. Most of the works will be on show at an exhibition called Light from the Middle East: New Photography at the V&A that will run from 13 November until 7 April 2013.

That show's curator, Marta Weiss, said contemporary Middle East photography was some of the "most exciting, innovative and varied art anywhere in the world."

The artists include Youssef Nabil who took portraits of the last surviving Yemeni seamen who settled in South Shields to the UK's oldest Muslim and Arab community; and the Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian who took portraits of women dressed in traditional late 19th century clothing but with modern anomalies added – such as sun glasses or a Pepsi can.

The donation came as the Art Fund gave an annual update on its activities and revealed a 20% rise in membership in 2011/12. That increase was down to the launch in April 2011 of its National Art Pass which gives free or discounted entry to museums and galleries across the UK.

The Fund gave a total of £6m to arts organisations to help them purchase works of art including its biggest ever grant of £2m which it gave to the National Gallery and National Galleries of Scotland for Titian's Diana and Callisto. © 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

New Middle Eastern photography comes to UK

An exhibition at the V&A in London this November offers a long-overdue opportunity to admire the sophistication of contemporary Middle Eastern photographic artists

In pictures: Light from the Middle East

The announcement that the V&A and the British Museum in London have acquired a major collection of Middle Eastern photography just ahead of the V&A's big November show of contemporary work, Light from the Middle East, is further evidence of how vibrant photography is in the region, and how relatively late we have been in catching up to that fact. As Marta Weiss, curator of the exhibition, notes: "contemporary photographic practice from and about the Middle East has been some of the most exciting, innovative and varied anywhere in the world".

That, in part, is to do with the ways photographers and artists have responded, both formally and in terms of subject matter, to the political upheavals in the region, including the Arab spring. The exhibition, which spans the past 20 years and includes the work of 30 artists from 13 different countries, is divided into three themes: Recording, Reframing and Resisting.

Alongside established photojournalists such as the Iranian-born Abbas, the V&A will be showing the work of Youssef Nabil, who once worked for David LaChapelle and was championed by Tracey Emin when she discovered his hand-coloured photographic prints made in homage to old Egyptian film stills.

More provocative is the work of Shadi Ghadirian, which was snapped up by the Saatchi Gallery in London and questions the traditional role of women in her native Iran. In her staged series, Like Everyday, Ghadirian mischievously places kitchen utensils over the faces of veiled women, playing with both language – "doormat", "hatchet-face" – and representation. Newsha Takavolian, a female photojournalist from Tehran, also addresses women's roles in Iranian society in her potent series of portraits, Mothers of Martyrs.

The V&A will also be showing the work of the Atlas Group, a fictional collective formed by Walid Raad, perhaps the best known contemporary artist from the Middle East. Lebanese-born Raad, who lives in New York, won the Deutsche Börse prize in 2007 and the prestigious Hasselblad prize last year. His practice uses still photography, video and text to address the history and politics of Lebanon in an often oblique way.

Politics, society, identity and belonging are recurring themes here, as well as the psychic fallout of war and revolution. But it is the ambitious and challenging ways artists and photographers have responded to those subjects that have made contemporary Middle Eastern photography so exciting, complex and multi-layered. It should be quite a show. © 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

Light from the Middle East: new photography – in pictures

A major new collection of contemporary Middle Eastern photography has been announced by the V&A. Here is an advanced look at some of the collection's best works

June 26 2012

Britain Creates: when fashion and art collide

Getting fashion designers and artists to work together on a concept project might seem too abstract to succeed. But Britain Creates actually works

Let's be honest: art-fashion concept projects can be a little hard to get a handle on. I'm used to talking about beautiful dresses, new hot colours. Bikinis such as those Kate Moss wears; shoes that will give you Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's legs. Stuff that, frankly, we can all get the point of. The collaborative-artistic project stuff can seem, to someone as shallow and impatient as me, a little abstract and dry by comparison.

But you know what? It's fascinating what happens when you matchmake some of Britain's best fashion designers with artists. Britain Creates, conceived by the British Fashion Council as an opportunity to commemorate the London Olympics and to celebrate the breadth of British creative talent, does just that. It pairs fashion designers with visual artists to produce one-off collaborative works of art. The first thing that strikes me, looking at the nine artworks that have emerged, is that although this is fashion's pet project – backed by the BFC, in partnership with Harpers Bazaar magazine and with Selfridges, which is hosting a charity auction of two of the pieces – only one is a piece of clothing. Giles Deacon and Jeremy Deller have created a cloak that looks like a coat of arms come to life, which they have dubbed "an Arts and Crafts suit of armour for an athlete".

Seven of the pieces come within the category of visual artworks. Hussein Chalayan, who collaborated with Gavin Turk, felt that people expected "a dress with one of Gavin's images on it". Both keen to move beyond their comfort zones, they made The Four Minute Mile, a four-minute recording of Turk talking about art and Chalayan humming in accompaniment, set to a rhythmical soundtrack of running feet.

Putting designers and artists to work together poses the question of whether fashion is art. These pieces will be displayed first in the Victoria & Albert Museum; in August, they will move to Selfridges where they will be centrepieces of the Olympic window displays.

The first time Jonathan Saunders met up with artist Jess Flood-Paddock, they talked a lot about the differences between their worlds. "Fashion is a business," says Saunders. "I am in the service industry. My job is about meeting consumers' needs, which is totally different from fine art, which is about personal expression. We talked about consumerism, and Andy Warhol, and screen printing and the mass production of art." They found the similarities in what they do – "we are both process-driven" – and came up with an installation of 200 screen-printed plastic sheets hung on a rail. The effect is a little like walking into a high-end boutique where fine art swings from the hangers.

I spoke to Susanna Greeves, the curator of the exhibition, as she was overseeing the installation, and asked if she saw visual themes emerging. "If you look at it as an exhibition, there is a lot of radiance and luminosity and jewel-like colours," she say. "And you can also see an emphasis on craft, on the presence of a human hand in the making of these works. It makes me wonder if the artists are subliminally responding to the idea of the V&A as a setting."

The explicit theme is the Olympian spirit, in its broad sense. "The original Olympic values of strength, power, honesty – the inspiring stuff – were very much part of the brief," says Caroline Rush, CEO of the British Fashion Council, "but we also wanted it to be completely open-ended." Paul Smith and Charming Baker's installation of a tiny mouse holding up a bicycle, and Mary Katrantzou and Mark Titchner's digital video installation with the words "Courage, Ambition, Passion, Strength" show Olympic spirit, but both add a wink in the title. The mouse-and-bicycle is dubbed Triumph in the Face of Absurdity ("It's about the British way of rooting for the underdog," says Baker) while the Katrantzou/Titchner piece borrows a line from Emily Dickinson: "Tint the Pallid Landscape (Off to the wars in Lace)".

Matthew Williamson partnered Mat Colishaw, whose images of butterflies he had long admired, "but I hadn't realised that they were actually real, burned butterflies, in those pictures. And me being a kind of happy, upbeat person, when Mat told me that, I thought it was quite sad, even though I am drawn to his aesthetic, that distortion of nature. I wanted to take his butterflies and bring them back to life. So Mat gave me the canvas and I embellished it with tiny beads strung on the end of miniature drinking straws. Now you can still see the decay and the macabre element if you look closely, but you see the beauty first."

In an Olympic year, you can't keep positivity out of fashion. "If I could buy one piece, I'd buy the Celestial Bonnet, the five rings light installation by Stephen Jones and Cerith Wyn Evans," says Caroline Rush. "It's such a happy piece: a halo moment, a crowning glory. And it's just so, so beautiful."

Britain Creates 2012: Fashion + Art Collusion, a collaboration between the British Fashion Council and the V&A, 6-29 July (free). © 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

May 30 2012

Thomas Heatherwick gives a tour of his London V&A show – video

The English designer takes Steve Rose through his retrospective show Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary, which runs at London's V&A until 30 September

May 19 2012

British Glamour Since 1950

V&A, London

The V&A's new show, Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, an exhibition that also marks the reopening of its much-loved fashion galleries, is not for everyone. On my way in, I heard a man all but beg his wife not to drag him round it ("I thought this was a cultural expedition, not another bloody shopping trip!" he might have told her, had he not been practically mute with despair). Once inside, I couldn't help but notice that there was not a male of the species anywhere to be seen.

But if you like a properly made frock and hanker, even just a little, for the days when a big night out meant long, silk gloves and a Dubonnet rather than T-shirts and cheap vodka, it will have you swooning with delight. Yes, you will feel unpleasantly covetous. Yes, you will wonder if you shouldn't, after all, lose a stone, or six. But these things will pass. Fifteen minutes in and your absorption in the way Norman Hartnell used corsetry or Zandra Rhodes quilting will be total. The world will shrink to the dimensions of a bodice or a buttonhole, a collar or a cuff.

Gallery 40 was originally a spectacular domed court, with architectural columns and ornate mosaic floors. The V&A's refurbishment has uncovered the mosaics and a grand staircase now sweeps the visitor up to a mezzanine gallery beneath the dome. The result is elegant and spacious; the mezzanine, circular and lofty, brings a couturier's showroom instantly to mind. But the gallery's lighting still feels excessively muted to me. Downstairs, I struggled to read the labels and if a dress is placed anywhere other than right at the front of a display case, it's impossible to see the craftsmanship involved.

Strange, too, that while dresses and suits from the permanent collection are shown alongside handbags and jewellery, hats and shoes, the ballgowns, temporarily visiting, have only outsize cardboard cutouts of accessories for company (though they're labelled as if they were real, bizarrely). Were the curators worried a brooch or stole would steal the gowns' thunder? Or is this a nod in the direction of the new austerity?

The finest of the dresses – the most beautiful and the best made – are also the oldest. I had a moment of pure buyer's lust (so bad my fingers tingled) in front of a citrine evening coat with voluminous fur cuffs by Norman Hartnell, from 1965. Hartnell, who designed both the Queen's wedding dress and her coronation gown, is thought of now as rather fusty, a lickspittle rather than an innovator. But at his best, his designs had an authentic drama: no wonder Edith Evans was a customer.

And perhaps Hartnell, the son of a Streatham publican, knew precisely what he was doing when it came to establishment commissions. A state evening dress designed for the Queen Mother in 1953 – a crinoline that recalls similar gowns in the paintings of Franz Winterhalter, it has a V-shaped neckline, floaty cap sleeves and a motif of tiny flowers – tells you a great deal about the woman who wore it. At once grand and girlish, it speaks both of entitlement and self-delusion; for a pretty dress, it's magnificently repulsive.

Hartnell isn't the only star in the downstairs gallery. Bellville Sassoon, the debs' favourite house, features strongly: there is a beautiful dress made for Princess Anne in 1968, comprising a buttercup skirt and an extravagant embroidered bodice in shades of brown and orange (a famous recycler of clothes, I do wonder why HRH got rid of this one); and a truly adorable gown of pale pink Swiss organza from the designers' Infanta collection, its pattern of tear-drop shaped embroidery and crystal drop beads offset by its superbly neat lines.

Sybil Connolly's 1966 leaf-green pleated skirt, embroidered white blouse and pink belt is a cool reinvention of the evening dress: daringly, it is made of cambric and linen. Connolly, who was Irish, isn't much remembered now, but Jackie Kennedy was among her clients. Sadly, though, this isn't a detail you'll find anywhere in the gallery. Background information is, it must be said, infuriatingly thin on the ground and the pathetic catalogue, which longs mostly to be Vogue, no help at all. Sweeping past Catherine Walker's "Elvis" dress for Diana, Princess of Wales – a novelty number I've always hated – and the hideous 80s creations of Victor Edelstein ("Let's just stick a giant bow... right here!"), we go upstairs to the contemporary gowns, to dresses worn on red carpets rather than in stately halls, and it's strangely anticlimactic.

For one thing, most of these have been lent by their designers; they were borrowed by the actresses and models who first wore them, rather than bought and loved and kept carefully in tissue and mothballs for a lucky daughter or niece. This makes them, in my eyes, so much less interesting. Their value is mostly monetary. They lack emotional history. Aesthetics have all too often been replaced by the need to draw a cheap kind of attention (though Giles Deacon's tumbling black silk dress from 2007 – it was inspired, he says, by a visit to a car wash – is a deft tribute to Fortuny by way of Issey Miyake).

For another – and this is much worse – they seem not truly to be of service to the bodies that inhabit them, however briefly. The curators note that Roland Mouret has spoken "eloquently" of the pressures of the red carpet, of the fact that a dress must withstand the pressure of flashbulbs from 360 degrees. And it's true that here in the gallery, on a mannequin, his peach asymmetric silk dress from 2010 is perfect from every angle, a feat of precision engineering. Only then you look at the photograph of Maggie Gyllenhaal in the same dress at the Golden Globes and it suits her not a bit. Would it suit anyone? I doubt it. The finest dresses are forgiving. Their artiface encompasses great kindness. But this one is unmerciful; it disdains every inconvenient body part. It seems – what a sign of the times! – hardly to have been designed for a woman at all. © 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

May 18 2012

Belle of the ballgowns: a guide to the V&A exhibition

From a blue-beaded evening dress made for the Queen Mother in 1953 to the silver satin worn by Beyoncé to Obama's inauguration party – the meanings behind the frocks in the new V&A show

In the spring of 1953 London newspapers reported that Norman Hartnell had been ordered by doctors to take several days' rest. "Britain's First Couturier" was, quite simply, exhausted. Not only was Hartnell working flat out making the coronation robe for the new Queen's forthcoming investiture, he was also responsible for the outfits worn by the female members of the royal party, not to mention redesigning the robes for the peeresses of the realm. It was as if the royal dressmaker was in attendance not just on Cinderella, but her fairy godmother, her sisters and the entire chorus line too. And, to add to the pressure, each required a gown of such exquisite loveliness that it would make the watching nation burst with pride.

Sixty years on, with the nation once again getting ready to feel pleased about its knack for putting on a gorgeous display, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London is showing Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950. Some of the dresses – by Hartnell, Victor Stiebel, Zandra Rhodes, Jonathan Saunders and Hussein Chalayan – are from the museum's permanent collection; other dresses have arrived straight from the catwalks of Roland Mouret, Giles, Erdem and Antonio Barardi. Meanwhile, Gareth Pugh, one of the country's more conceptual young designers, has made a leather dress stiffened with silver – more sculpture than ballgown – just for the occasion.

The exhibition takes as its starting point Hartnell's designs for the coronation. There are several gorgeous examples of that signature silhouette, comprising a tight strapless bodice, with a full, bell-shaped skirt – a rustling, silky promise of an age of plenty. One of the most spectacular, a blue-beaded evening dress made for the Queen Mother in 1953, is a timely reminder that ballgowns have never been exclusively for the ingénue. Indeed, they work particularly well on older women. Long, full skirts are forgiving, while elbow-length gloves, stoles and capes break up the line of exposed flesh. These are neat tricks still employed on the red carpet today, as the Jacques Azagury empire-line dress with bolero jacket that Helen Mirren wore to pick up her Bafta for The Queen, demonstrates triumphantly. Another particularly dramatic piece – a backless gown in scarlet-and-black by Victor Edelstein – was worn with panache by a fifty-something Anne Heseltine in 1986.

Once the excitement of the coronation had fallen away, ballgowns stepped out of the spotlight and returned to the grand country house ball. It was here that couture dresses by Hartnell, John Cavanagh, Hardy Amies and Worth reported for duty. And a big part of that duty involved setting off heirloom jewellery to perfection. With an upper class that had never been obliged to flee a revolution with diamonds sewn into its underclothes, Britain still boasted some of the finest private collections of gemstones in the world. This need for a ballgown to work in tandem with show-stopping rocks explains, suggests the exhibition's co-curator Oriole Cullen, why certain jewel-tones reappear so regularly in any parade of British ballgowns. Amid the ivories and creamy pinks you will see singing reds, greens and blues making their return time and time again.

As the 1960s progressed, debutantes were keen to shed the "girls in pearls" tag that had clung to their mothers. Hip young things who wore Mary Quant and Biba by day wanted something similarly sharp for evening. The design duo Belinda Bellville and David Sassoon then entered the market. Their slender, columnar shapes, stopping a good inch or two off the ground, allowed you to kick off your shoes and dance. One example of their work, a mustard-coloured silk sheath bought off the peg by Princess Anne in 1968, still looks fresh today.

As "the season" gradually lost its allure in the 1970s, there were some odd stabs at formal evening wear, including a rock-chic ensemble from Ossie Clark in which a gold leather corset and jacket is set off by a virulent purple lace skirt. Then there is Yuki's raspberry kaftan, which looked lovely on the statuesque Anglo-American actress Gayle Hunnicutt for whom it was originally made, but might make lesser souls (and bodies) look as if they were in a touring production of Abigail's Party. Rhodes, meanwhile, sums up the end of that stylistically difficult decade with an ensemble comprising a black quilted satin bodice, gold pleated lamé skirt and panniers over black tulle. The effect is of Marie Antoinette during her milkmaid days crossed with a giant Ferrero Rocher chocolate.

These off-kilter extravaganzas from the 70s were designed to be worn at the cycle of semi-public events that had begun to replace country house dances. Not only were film premieres, charity balls and museum galas open to anyone who could afford a ticket, they were also spectacles to which millions more had access via TV and newspapers. Ballgowns, in consequence, became increasingly scrutinised for the non-verbal messages they were intended to convey. Into this category comes Catherine Walker's triumphant "Elvis" outfit of 1989, which saw Diana, Princess of Wales, telegraphing her growing independence from the establishment in a figure-hugging white sheath studded with pearls and sequins, topped by an outside collar. A cerise silk gown from Bruce Oldfield, meanwhile, was Bianca Jagger's weapon of choice in the late 70s when she wanted to show Mick just what he was missing by going off with Jerry Hall.

Ballgowns takes full advantage of the V&A's newly lit and restored Octagon Court, with its display of red carpet glamour – where actresses in mostly borrowed frocks replace society women in couture. This faster tempo is picked up by the mannequins, who pose in mid-stride and even, on occasions, do a dynamic twirl. Here you will find a Stella McCartney outfit from 2011 (worn by Annette Bening to the New York Film Critics Circle in New York). What appears at first glance to be a full black satin skirt turns out, on closer inspection, to be flowing trousers, a clever choice that reflects Bening's insider-outsider status. There are classic styles here too, suggesting that even the most successful of professional women can't resist dressing up as a princess. Hence Maggie Gyllenhal's fishtail Mouret dress in sorbet pink worn to the Golden Globes in 2010, alongside Jenny Packham's powder pink crystal gown chosen the following year by Sandra Bullock.

Just as Hartnell's designs for the coronation shaded off into a kind of performance art, Ballgowns ends with work by contemporary designers such as Giles, Gareth Pugh and Alexander McQueen who situated themselves inside a similarly theatrical arena. Craig Lawrence's dress, with bits of what look like aluminium foil and KitKat wrappers stitched on to a knitted tube, produces a satisfying rustling sound, as well as a metallic shimmer. Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen has constructed a gown entirely from ostrich and cock feathers, which turns the wearer into a rather marvellous giant dove. Also on display is the silver satin Ralph & Russo design worn by Beyoncé when she performed at Barack Obama's inauguration ball in 2009. And, finally, just to make the point that, these days, a ballgown can be pretty much anything it choses, there's even a lace-print latex dress by Atsuko Kudo, the woman who regularly shrink-wraps Lady Gaga. © 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

All aboard: Heatherwick Studio - in pictures

From Manchester's B of the Bang to Paddington's curling bridge, from the Shanghai Seed Cathedral to London's new double-deckers, one British practice is turning design on its head. A new exhibition at the V&A celebrates the Heatherwick Studio. Here are some of their best-known projects

April 11 2012

V&A Museum's Great Bed of Ware makes itself at home

Giant four-poster, whose colourful past includes cameos in plays by Shakespeare and Jonson, sent back on loan to home town

Shakespeare used it as a byword for huge size and 26 butchers and their wives allegedly spent the night in it for a bet in 1689. Now the enormous Tudor bed that has been a centrepiece of the Victoria and Albert Museum for more than 80 years has a new temporary home.

The piece of furniture in question is the Great Bed of Ware, which has left South Kensington to take pride of place in the tiny museum of its Hertfordshire home town for a year.

Moving it was a huge logistical challenge from which emerged a surprise: hitherto unknown graffiti from 18th- and 19th-century admirers wanting to leave their mark on the bed.

Kate Hay, a curator in the V&A's furniture department, said the discovery of the graffiti – more than 20 scrawled names and initials – came about because of the laborious process of dismantling and packing up the three-metre-wide, 641kg (almost 101st) bed, which took around six days, followed by nine days getting it to a newly constructed extension at Ware Museum.

Just getting it out of the V&A was problematic, requiring 10 strapping carriers and an unconventional exit route, avoiding narrow doors and corridors.

Martin Roth, the V&A's director, said the bed was "one of the V&A's most loved exhibits and has never been off display since it was acquired in 1931".

He added: "To remove the bed from the British galleries, transport it and reinstall it in another location is unprecedented, requiring much skill and dedication. We hope that the people of Ware will enjoy visiting this historic bed and that it will bring their local history alive."

The bed was made in the 1590s, probably by German craftsmen in Southwark and presumably for an inn owner in Ware – an hour's ride from London and packed with places to stay – who wanted to make a name for himself.

Its existence was first recorded in 1596 by a travelling German prince staying at the White Hart. The bed obviously achieved fame because five years later Shakespeare has Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night describe a sheet of paper as "big enough for the Bed of Ware". It was referenced in Ben Jonson's 1609 play The Silent Woman and in George Farquhar's 1706 play The Recruiting Officer, in which a bed is "bigger by half than the Great Bed of Ware".

For most of its life the bed has been an attraction rather than a sleeping place – a repeat of the 26 butchers' exploits is not something that would be countenanced these days, the V&A stresses.

The bed was passed around several Ware inns before it moved a pleasure garden in nearby Hoddesdon towards the end of the 19th century, becoming a bank holiday attraction during the boom in rail travel.

The V&A did consider buying the bed in 1860, but its hand was finally forced in 1931 when it looked as though it was heading to an American buyer at auction. The V&A stepped in to buy it for £4,000, which proved good value – the bed has always been high on the list of the museum's most popular objects.

Hay said: "It's such a memorable sight to see a bed this size. It is something that people who don't know an awful lot about the museum have heard of."

The Ware display will be officially opened on Saturday by Lucy Worsley, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces. An award of £229,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund helped the Ware Museum Trust put the bed on display.

"We're just so proud that we've all managed to do it," said Janet Watson, a trustee of the museum for 25 years. "To co-operate with the V&A on such a big project is absolutely amazing. We're still pinching ourselves – we can't believe it's here." © 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

April 03 2012

Ten more UK galleries join Google Art Project's virtual tours

V&A and National Galleries of Scotland join likes of Versailles and the White House as online archive grows to 30,000 objects

Google has added a further 151 galleries and museums to its Art Project, which allows anyone with a computer to consider a virtual wander through the treasures of Versailles, the joys of the National Gallery in London or, if the mood takes them, Brazilian street graffiti in São Paulo.

The expansion of the project, which allows virtual access to artworks in 40 countries, means more than 30,000 objects are available to view, compared with 1,000 in the first version launched last year.

The head of the project, Amit Snood, said: "The Art Project is going global, thanks to our new partners from around the world. It's no longer just about the Indian student wanting to visit Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is also about the American student wanting to visit the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi."

Ten more British galleries are joining the National Gallery and the Tate, which were already in the scheme. In London they include England's first public gallery, the 201-year-old Dulwich Picture Gallery, the V&A, the Serpentine Gallery, the Royal Collection, the Imperial War Museum and the Jewish Museum. Also there are the National Galleries of Scotland and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

A total of 46 museums have been given the 360-degree Google Street View treatment, allowing visitors to wander through crowd-free galleries using only their mouse – from Tate Britain to the White House to the National Gallery of Australia.

For the others, users will be able to browse a vast array of treasures in high resolution, whether paintings, photographs, sculptures or decorative pieces.

The V&A's director of programming and public affairs, Damien Whitmore, said he was delighted to be joining up. He said: "Some of the V&A's greatest treasures will be able to view in extraordinary high resolution for the first time – from the famous Gloucester candlestick, a masterpiece of English metalwork, to the Ardabil carpet, one of the largest examples of Islamic carpets in existence, the wedding suit that the Duke of York wore to his wedding in 1673 to one of the finest examples of Donatello's work in relief."

Google also said it was adding new explore and discover tools allowing users to find artworks by period or type or artist. © 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 31 2012

British Design 1948-2012

V&A, London

Deep in the V&A's tour of modern British design there is a gently patriotic film of 1965, directed by the 29-year-old Hugh Hudson. It shows a day in the life of a middle-class couple, supported and assisted from waking up to bedtime with good-quality British products – alarm clock, toaster, the Jaguar and Moulton bike that take him to work in the Economist building in St James's, London; the coffee-maker, dishwasher, and food blender with which she does her home-making. Also a book on Francis Bacon to distract her, and the calculating machines and typewriters operated by his secretaries in his sub-Mad Men office. And, finally, the manly but tasteful specs he puts on the bedside table before he turns out the light.

"Design and craftsmanship shape our lives for comfort, pleasure and progress," is the text at the film's end, which was commissioned by the Design Council as part of its never-ending attempt to awaken business and the public to the joys and value of good British design.

Hugh Hudson would go on to more flag-waving when he directed Chariots of Fire, using athletes rather than kitchen utensils. Meanwhile the years would pass, factories would close and ever fewer of the artefacts shown would still be designed and built in Britain, by British companies. There are still Jaguar cars, albeit now owned by Indian company Tata, and Moulton bikes. The heirs to the typewriters and calculating machines are designed under the leadership of a Briton, Jonathan Ive, but for Apple Inc of California. Dishwashers and the like are much more likely to be made in Germany.

If there is an obvious narrative to the V&A's exhibition it is the relentless progression from an industrial culture to the post-, ex- or not-very-industrial country we now inhabit, accompanied by what turned out to be elegiac laments, such as Hudson's film. Also by quixotic last stands – above all Concorde, that great socialist project to spend squillions of workers' taxes so that Joan Collins could arrive in New York in time for lunch. The plane was undeniably beautiful and equally undeniably futile, the most spectacular of many doomed attempts to keep up with Americans. (Which, by the way, should be a warning to all those who now say we should imitate the Chinese: we can't and shouldn't.)

There are other trajectories. The exhibition covers the period between the London Olympics of 1948 and 2012, a choice of dates that doubtless earned brownie points and possibly funding but is not especially meaningful in design terms. The "austerity games" of 1948 produced little by way of design except Nissen huts, reused old buildings and creatively recycled tyres. There was, however, quite a nice poster for the Games, with a classical discobolus and Big Ben, which makes an instructive comparison with the flayed-skin ugliness of the 2012 logo. The latter makes no attempt at the former's dignity, but it is horribly memorable, like an advertising tune you can't get out of your head. It belongs to a time when brand effectiveness is everything.

The exhibition really kicks off in 1951, with the Festival of Britain. You are faced on entry with a large fragment of the even larger mural by John Piper, called "The Englishman's Home", which adorned the "Homes and Gardens" pavilion at the festival. In front is spindly metallic furniture by Ernest Race. A little further is the original presentation drawing of the Skylon, the delicate icon of the festival, rendered with graded shadows and reflected light as if it were a classical column.

Together, they display total confidence in the unity of art, architecture and design, and that these disciplines should work together towards collective enlightenment. They also express confidence in the benign power of the state as patron. Even more strikingly there is seen to be no conflict between the Bauhaus ideals and aesthetics of these works and the celebration of British tradition.

Not long after the festival came the coronation, and the same architect, Hugh Casson, designed settings for both. A film clip shows the young Prince Charles gazing from the Buckingham Palace balcony, too young to be outraged by the modernist decorations in front of him.

It wouldn't last, and the exhibition shows the progressive disruption of the festival's cosy unity by the rude boys of 1960s art schools, brutalists, punks and market forces. The celebration of the past also broke away, and the V&A gives space to such things as the films of Merchant Ivory, Brideshead Revisited and Pauline Baines's drawings of Hobbit-populated maps for The Lord of the Rings. In general, things become more raucous and energetic as time progresses, but also more egotistical and less useful. There is a 1950s school in Southwark whose modest concern for the environments of children is heartbreakingly absent from the vast majority of schools built now.

At one point we are treated to another Gesamtkunstwerk, but different from the festival: Damien Hirst's short-lived Pharmacy restaurant in Notting Hill, where art, design and space were fused into something less public-spirited – a fancy eaterie for New Labour poseurs.

Conspicuous by its absence is the Millennium Dome, passed over in silence like private grief. This supposed rerun of the Festival of Britain and billion-pound celebration of British creativity is deemed insufficiently significant to be included here.

In truth, an exhibition like this can't really make any point in particular. It performs the invaluable task of presenting a good sample of artefacts of the past 60 years. It does this better in some disciplines than others – the display of contemporary architecture, for example, relies too heavily on the most polished works of the most established names and so makes the subject less vital than it actually is. At its best it shows things that are just plain beautiful – the obsession with cars that grips many of my gender passes me by, but the outrageousness and grace of the E-type Jaguar makes it the exhibition's best moment.

In the end there is no single story, and the exhibition delivers no more momentous message than that people do stuff, sometimes quite nicely. Its full, waffly title is "British Design from 1948: Innovation in the Modern Age", which is a pleonastic way of saying "here be new things". It would work better as a permanent gallery, where the expectation for coherence is lowered (and, indeed, why does such a gallery not exist?), but it's still an enjoyable romp – sometimes nostalgic, sometimes informative and occasionally provocative – through the delights and follies of the past six decades. It also functions as a celebration of one of the greatest British creations: the network of great art and design schools out of which came most of the designers on show.

Despite its Olympic theme it touches lightly on the Games of 1948 and 2012. While it is nice not to be exposed to more on-message puffery for the latter, it would be great to compare the army-surplus aesthetic of the Austerity Games with the works of what can only be called the Profligacy Games. Another project for another day, perhaps.

Rowan Moore has been named architectural writer of the year at the 2012 LSL Property press awards © 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 30 2012

Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

It was a good week for women architects – except for the most famous one – while the British design exhibition reveals a couple of gems

It's been a good week for women in architecture in general, except for one female architect in particular.

In the first instance, the Architect's Journal announced the finalists for its inaugural Women in Architecture awards. The magazine's recent championing of female architects, and highlighting of inequalities within the profession, is commendable. Among its findings was that the proportion of female architectural staff in the UK has actually declined since 2009, from 28% to 21% – this despite the proportion of female architecture students being roughly 50%. That work-life balance is evidently hard to strike in a profession many say is still inherently masculine, with its long apprenticeship, long working hours, and emphasis on competition rather than collaboration. No wonder they've called it the WAA – it sounds like a cry of despair, doesn't it?

The shortlists aren't too depressing, though. Eight women are up for the award, including Amanda Levete (formerly of Future Systems, doing well on her own), Roisin Peneghan (of Peneghan Heng, designers of the new London Olympics footbridge) and Sarah Wigglesworth (whose fine Sandal Magna primary school gained her a lot of attention last year). There's also an award for emerging woman architect of the year. The prizes are announced on 20 April. There's a nice (if confusingly Anglo-American) infographic on women in architecture here, by the way.

The woman for whom it has not been such a great week is the first female architect most people would name: Zaha Hadid. She's up for the WAA as well, but first she lost out on the competition to design the prestigious new Bauhaus Museum in Weimer, Germany, for which she was the only British architect in contention. Her absence was conspicuous, too, when it came to another architecture award: the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) announced the 23-strong shortlist for its inaugural national awards this week, and Zaha's Glasgow Riverside Museum for Transport isn't on it, despite being surely the highest-profile new building in Scotland of the past year. It wasn't a unanimously popular project, but its omission has baffled even its critics. Was it because Zaha has won the Stirling prize for two years running? Has she just become too big?

Hadid can at least take consolation from her inclusion in the V&A's new exhibition on British design, which opens today. The exhibition's architecture component includes a model of her Aquatics Centre, the only female-designed building in the show, as far as I could see. There are plenty of the usual architectural suspects here: the postwar Festival of Britain generation; Basil Spence; Denys Lasdun; big models of Foster's Gherkin and Rogers's Lloyds building.

One discovery for me was John Prizeman, about whom I'd known very little. He was an accomplished writer, and his work mainly focused on domestic interiors, particularly kitchens. There are illustrations of two small designs by him that caught my eye. One was his "Soft-Tech House for the 1980s" – an evocative, late-70s vision of "the future" that looks like a cross between Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House and a sort of Hobbit-style eco-dwelling. It's somehow simultaneously quaint and ahead of its time.

The other, particularly pertinent in the context of women in architecture, is a cutaway illustration of a neat, compact family home Prizeman designed in 1959. It's bracingly modern, with fitted kitchens, free-flowing living areas and a new Mini in the garage, though its name wasn't exactly progressive: it's called Her House. It says it all that the woman in Prizeman's dream home is depicted bustling around indoors; the man is lounging on the back terrace.

Finally, another new discovery this week was Architects of Invention, a practice that not only has one of the best names in the business but looks to be living up to it. It is headed by Niko Japaridze, a former senior architect at Rem Koolhaas's OMA, who has worked in the UK and also has offices in his native Georgia. Last year, the firm wove a snaking wooden staircase through the new headquarters it designed for Georgia's National Olympic Committee, and has recently finished an imposing new building in Tbilisi with an imposing name: The Prosecutor's Office. It looks like a giant black filing cabinet, with square, glass rooms projecting out like half-opened drawers. Seventy per cent of the building is hung off the ground. The interior is just as startling – its long central staircase with green glass walls looks like something out of The Matrix. Japaridze has a host of other promising-looking buildings going up in Georgia. He also claims to be Tbilisi's one millionth citizen. One to watch. © 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 26 2012

Celebrating in style: British Design at the V&A – in pictures

The V&A's new exhibition tells the story of British post-war design from humble road signs to Jamie Reid's anarchic Sex Pistols artwork

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 23 2012

The best of British design

From the Mini to the iMac, the V&A celebrates six decades of innovation. Fiona MacCarthy, the Guardian's design writer when the country discovered its sense of style, reflects on a long tradition of iconoclasm and inventiveness

This year's V&A blockbuster exhibition focuses on British design and innovation. It should be a great show but they have chosen the wrong starting point in making an embarrassingly opportunistic link back to the 1948 London Olympics. The time line should have started two years earlier with the Britain Can Make It exhibition, which not only gave the public its first sight of postwar modern, setting the style for the Festival of Britain, but was actually held at the V&A itself.

Britain Can Make It was a statement of faith. When the exhibition was planned the war was scarcely over. The museum stood empty and bomb-damaged. Even replacing the windows meant diverting London's next two months' entire supply of glass. The theme was the turning of swords into ploughshares, with ingenious displays of British products evolved from new materials and processes developed in the war. The show was hugely popular. The king and queen made a special journey from Balmoral to marvel at a new type of aluminium saucepan displayed beside the exhaust stub of a wrecked Spitfire, and inflatable reclining chairs lined up with dummy weapons. These were proud design innovations of victory. Oh to have been there!

It was a time of touching certainties. Extraordinary to think that the government-supported Council of Industrial Design (COID) was set up before the war's end to encourage good design in British industry. No one troubled to enquire what constituted good design or indeed, more specifically, good British design. They knew it in their bones. It was William Morris's design view gone modern. Design pundits of the period believed implicitly in old Arts and Crafts values of the measured and the modest. Official thinking was embodied in the tweedy twinkling figure of COID Director Gordon Russell, himself a Cotswold craftsman. Shoddiness and showiness were beyond the pale.

For many people, both designers and the public, the Festival of Britain in 1951 came as a revelation. Memoirs of the time stress the unexpected visual excitement of the South Bank exhibition with its free-flowing piazzas, its cafés and walkways dominated by the early space age structure of the Skylon. The atmosphere is captured in old newsreels of couples dancing out on the Fairway through the summer evenings. The festival was gay in the old sense. People loved the zinging colours: orange, lemon and lime green. Ernest Race's jaunty steel rod chairs gave a new sense of possibility to those who up to now had only known Utility. The craving for British "contemporary" furnishing began.

How British in fact was the Festival of Britain? Analysed strictly the answer is "not very". There was lip service in the South Bank exhibition to the English 18th-century picturesque tradition with its vistas and surprises. But on the whole the style of the architecture, cajolingly co-ordinated by a young Hugh Casson, was a gentle form of European modern. A surprisingly high proportion of the architects, designers and artists employed in the Festival were foreigners by birth and professional training. Many of these – FHK Henrion, George Fejer, Stefan Buzás, Peter Moro, Bronek Katz, architect of the Homes and Gardens Pavilion – had first arrived in Britain as political refugees in the decade before the war.

But what did make the festival so absolutely British was its sense of moral fervour. As Michael Frayn defined it in a wonderful essay "Rainbows over the Thames" (recently republished in Frayn's Travels with a Typewriter) the festival was "herbivore" Britain in action, a project of the left-leaning do-gooders of the period intent on creating improved living conditions for a nation just surfacing from wartime suffering.

Better homes for the people were high on the agenda. Early visitors were transported by river bus to Poplar to marvel at the show houses of the Lansbury Estate, promise of the coming New Towns, such as Harlow. Just along the river bank from the South Bank exhibition rose the purpose-designed people's culture palace of the Royal Festival Hall. The impulse of the time leads us back to William Morris and his radical art-for-the-people politics. The Festival of Britain was a visionary moment when many young British designers and architects discovered their idealistic metier.

In another two years the scene had changed completely. Clement Attlee's Labour government was ousted, the socialist landmarks of the South Bank site demolished. All was pomp and ceremony by 1953, the year in which the young Queen Elizabeth was crowned. The V&A exhibition promises to analyse the rapid shifts of mood, the creative interplay of innovation and tradition in our British design history. It's an interesting idea, though a hard one to bring off. The really fascinating thing about that coronation, watched by so many on their newly bought TVs, was its sheer finesse and professionalism, exploiting the skills of photography, dress design and staging to uphold the status quo of monarchy. Such visual manipulations still continue, as we saw in the beautifully synchronised royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

It was really only in the 1950s that design began to be identified as a profession. The postwar reorganisation of the Royal College of Art under a dynamic new rector, Robin Darwin, meant that students were now being trained specifically to design the products being made by British industry. Designers raised their profile, became recognised and glamorous. Most glamorous of all were the Days, Robin and Lucienne, who were actually featured together in a Smirnoff vodka ad. Both the Days were exceptionally good designers. Robin's furniture and Lucienne's textiles had a freshness and intelligence outstanding in their time. But their fame also arose from the fact that they were married, a designer couple both pursuing their professions, independent though related. The Days exemplified emerging social patterns with which design has been inextricably entwined.

Design had been a quiet thing in this early period. People were still biddable, visiting the Design Centre in Haymarket before they made a purchase, surveying the products selected as good British design by official committees and marked with the black-and-white triangular swing ticket of approval (itself a fine example of the graphics of the time). These official approved products – convertible settees, refrigerators, coffee percolators – had a uniform sedateness. Edward Heath was seen in the Design Centre making earnest notes.

Then all of a sudden earnestness was over. I was the Guardian's design correspondent in the mid-1960s so I had a ringside seat as the primness of Design Centre selectiveness gave way to eclecticism, jollity, pastiche. The swinging sixties ethos took over so quickly. One week I was reporting Design Centre awards; the next I was writing an analysis of London's takeover by gonks. The design hierarchy was faced with a dilemma identified by the then COID director Paul Reilly in an anguished article "The Challenge of Pop".

I saw Habitat open in 1964. This was Terence Conran's first shop for "switched-on people", introducing a new interpretation of the modern which was not clean-lined correctness but comfort and robustness. Conran's word for it was "gutsy". The style espoused by Conran was not strictly British but reflected the exuberant romance of the Mediterranean street market. London was going through a phase of Francophilia. Len Deighton's cookstrip Où est le garlic? was a comparable figment of the time.

There has been much debate recently, with Conran reaching 80, on his real influence on design in Britain. I am in no doubt that his crucial importance has been in giving the British their own confidence in making a personal environment for living. Conran successfully commercialised the concept of "the art that is life" first formulated by John Ruskin. He taught us the putting together of a look.

It is quite feasible to castigate the 60s for its flashiness, its sexism, its irritating silliness. But in the context of design what I most remember was a glorious sense of excitement and relief. After late 50s frumpiness and frowziness there was a kind of heaven in the sheer precision of a geometric Vidal Sassoon haircut and a minimalist Mary Quant striped gym slip. The two-door Mini car designed for BMC by Issigonis; the E-type Jaguar; the "Stowaway" Moulton bicycle. Then there was Concorde. These were beautiful, technically innovative products that became almost the symbols of a modern youthful Britain. It was at this moment that British design acquired the confidence and daring other nations still attempt to emulate.

They were hippy times too. Alongside the hard-edged modern, the zippiness and cheek was the return to droopiness, Pre-Raphaelite soulfulness and the renewed quest for spiritual values and perfection of making. There was an enormous resurgence in the crafts together with a yearning for the simple, more contemplative life away from London. In the 1970s the Guardian valiantly published my four-part survey of far-flung British craft workshops, featuring dedicated furniture-makers, jewellers and weavers, wood turners, basket makers and the multitude of potters working in the mystical tradition of Bernard Leach. British design has been closely allied to the process of making and it could be said that this is still its strength.

But sheer anarchic vigour has also been a factor. The V&A curators, Christopher Breward and Ghislaine Wood, set out to tell a tale in which the straight up-and-down values of old time "good design" were gradually subverted, transformed, re-energised to the point at which British imaginative wildness became one of the wonders of the world. They're certainly right to have fixed the starting point for the invention of anarchy at the famous Independent Group exhibition This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956.

They are also correct to relate the growing mania for cocking a snook at the establishment to the "impulsive radicalism" of the British art school scene. A cult of student disrespect was burgeoning within the art school system, which had much expanded by the later 60s. This hatred of authority became a prime artistic motif in that period of creative provocation. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren opened their first shop, Let it Rock, in 1971, drawing on the stylistic chaos of British teenage fashion, mixing media, mixing messages, with the proviso that all of them were rude.

Six years later the artist Jamie Reid designed his Never Mind the Bollocks album cover for the Sex Pistols. There were consciously startling realignments of street culture, fashion, art, graphics and punk music, reflected in the magazines i-D and the Face, directed by the brilliantly anarchic graphic designer Neville Brody from 1981. Though to some the cult of disrespect was hideously shocking, in fact it is endemic to the national character. We have only to think of Gillray's 18th-century anti-monarchical cartoons to see it as a healthy and indeed a necessary part of Britishness.

British design had been born out of a hope of improving design standards in industry. By the mid 80s such simple good intentions were evaporating fast. Living as I was in Sheffield, I was well aware of the rapid decline of the manufacturing that had once sustained that city of the metal trades. Huge warehouses stood empty, factories closed down. It was a scene of desolation repeated right through Britain as other towns and cities wedded to manufacturing lost their raison d'être.

But design in Britain has had a great resilience. This became a period of creative nihilism, of art out of the debris. Tom Dixon's Creative Salvage exhibition featured furniture welded from rusting scrap metal. Ben Kelly's transformation of an abandoned warehouse in Manchester into the now legendary Hacienda club closely linked to the rise of acid house and rave music, helped to resurrect the city, managing to rebrand Manchester as the epitome of cool.

The Thatcher years have been viewed by design purists as an abysmal period of decline. Certainly the so-called "creative industries", with their attendant large corporate design teams, tended to deal more in image than in substance. We do not need to ask what Ruskin would have thought of them. But the 80s were not wholly bland. Young British fashion designers were in demand, acclaimed for their originality and strangeness. It was back in 1984 that John Galliano was recruited by Givenchy on the strength of his Central St Martin's student show based on a French revolutionary street scene. When he moved to Dior, Galliano was succeeded by another recent British fashion graduate, Alexander McQueen. The leading French couture houses became dependent on romantically fervid British fantasies and dreams.

We need to recognise how much British design has been done for foreign companies. The veteran industrial designer Kenneth Grange, a star of the period covered by the exhibition at the V&A, appears at first sight the epitome of Britishness, son of an East End policeman, designer of the High-Speed Train (the InterCity 125) and London taxi. Yet much of his best work was manufactured in Japan.

With British designers wanted by foreign companies and foreign design students flocking to our art schools, nationalistic distinctions are eroded. Zaha Hadid's sinuous Aquatics Centre is the most spectacular of the London Olympic buildings. Hadid, born and trained in Iran, now works in London. But her style of architecture is intrinsically global. The question the V&A show poses is whether in a world of fast-moving visual communication British design has qualities that make it recognisably British anymore.

What we do have in this country is a long tradition of dogged inventiveness, going as far back as Brunel and the great Victorian engineer-constructors. British design history is full of brilliant boffins, manic problem-solvers working for that great eureka moment. Think of Barnes Wallis and those bouncing bombs in wartime, James Dyson developing the bagless vacuum cleaner that revolutionised the species. From the Sinclair ZX80 home computer of 1980 to Jonathan Ive's iMac for Apple, British design has had a constant fascination with exploring the far reaches of possibility.

Recent large-scale exhibitions at the V&A have been analyses of styles from Arts and Crafts and art deco to postmodernism. Enjoyable and expert as these were, British Design is a great deal more ambitious and potentially important. Our proven prowess in design has become a crucial factor in our hopes for economic recovery. Meanwhile, enticingly, the exhibition offers a colossal panorama of our collective visual memories. © 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 18 2012

My favourite British design

In pictures: As the V&A launches a retrospective on great British design, six of Britain's most creative minds choose their favourite object

March 05 2012

Eve Arnold's Brides of Christ finds new home at V&A

Late photographer's shot of women on their way to become nuns bequeathed by former chief curator of National Portrait Gallery

A photograph by Eve Arnold of young women in wedding dresses and elaborate veils on their way to become brides of Christ as nuns has been bequeathed to the V&A.

It is the first acquisition by the museum of a work by the photographer who died in January just short of her 100th birthday.

The signed and inscribed gelatin silver print was given by Arnold to the late Robin Warwick Gibson, a former chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery where he worked on establishing the photography collection and mounted a major exhibition of Arnold's work in 1991. He died in 2010 and left the print to the V&A through the Art Fund.

Arnold was renowned for winning the trust of her subjects and capturing them in intimate moments, whether celebrities, such as Marilyn Monroe, or the women the photographer captured in a pool of light from a cloister window. The photograph is one of a series on the lives of nuns that Arnold took during the mid-1960s, which included images of women in different convents at work and prayer. The full title of the V&A's new addition is A Meeting of the Brides of Christ on their Wedding Day to their Lord at the Nunnery in Godalming, Surrey.

Martin Roth, director of the museum, said the V&A was thrilled to add the image to its vast photography collections, and described the image as "a splendid example of the work of Eve Arnold, one of the finest photojournalists of our time".

There are plans for a future display of the print in the V&A's photography gallery. © 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

February 23 2012

Tate's national photographic archive rescued from skip after internal tipoff

An art charity saved the crucial collection after employee's call, but was too late to save another archive dumped by the V&A

Art historians have been disturbed by allegations that the Tate was about to dump its invaluable photographic archive in a skip when another institution realised its importance and rescued it, and that the Victoria & Albert Museum has already destroyed its own thematic archive. Curators, who consider such resources vital, were not consulted.

The archives were full of photographs of artworks from their collections and beyond – crucial visual histories, invaluable for comparative research and for studying any deterioration as a result of time or restoration.

Brian Allen, director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, a UK educational charity with links to Yale University, expressed disbelief that the Tate, as the holder of a national collection of British art from the Tudors onwards, did not treasure its archive.

Allen says he received a call out of the blue from a "low-ranking" Tate employee, who told him: "Someone said … you might like the curatorial photo archive because we're about to throw it on to a skip."

Allen says he immediately dispatched a van to salvage the hundreds of boxes, and was taken aback to discover that they included confidential material – so confidential that he asked the Tate to take items back. These included sensitive documents relating to government committees and export applications.

Tate confirmed its archive is now with the Mellon Centre but a spokeswoman denied it had been destined for a skip.

"In 2008, Tate decided it would be more useful for scholars if this photographic research material on British art, which had not been augmented since the 1980s and much of which is available online, were to be located with equivalent material at Paul Mellon Centre."

At the V&A, a source lamented the loss of its archive of black and white photographs of almost every item in the museum's collection grouped by subject.

He said: "Because the picture library had to move to a smaller room, the man in charge of it, off his own bat, skipped the lot, without telling any of the curatorial departments … I was so angry I could hardly speak. I did think of writing a note to the director. But what's the point? It was too late."

The V&A admitted dumping archival material using "a secure data disposal service". A spokeswoman denied the decision was a mistake, explaining that in removing the picture archive in 2007 to make way for new gallery space, it believed that a thematic archive "wasn't a method of classification that was really necessary any longer", as it had duplicates of photographs and digital files.

The Tate's archive, some items nearly a century old, was amassed by generations of curators, allowing them to trace changes of attribution, ownership and condition. The images came from scholars, conservators, government departments, dealers, auctioneers and owners.

Some photographs were of otherwise unrecorded works, and were the only image in existence. Others were shots of important pictures taken by different cameras, in different lights and from different angles over many years, often showing dramatic changes, one source said.

One old photograph enabled the Tate to turn down a painting offered to the gallery because it showed how much of its original paint surface had at one point peeled off.

Although the archives' disposal occurred within the past five years, the news has only now emerged.

Christopher Wright, an art historian, said: "The scandal lies in the clandestine manner with which these disposals have been made … the Mellon is to be congratulated [for saving the archive]." He recalled the furore in 2009 that prevented the Courtauld Institute closing its photographic library.

Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, the restoration watchdog, condemned the archives' disposal as "scandalous".

He drew parallels with the "dreadful" destruction by art schools in the 60s of 19th-century plaster casts and copies of classical sculpture: "The new iconoclasts wanted to get rid of history … more forgivable for artists in the postwar flush of excitement about new possibilities in art. For historians to destroy archives, it should be inconceivable. It's just unforgivable."

He said scholars can never guess the significance they may find in photographic records. It may be 50 years before something suddenly resonates with some other evidence.

"Photo archives are almost more important than documentary records because photos are taken by machines without motive or vested interests."

The V&A spokeswoman added: "As a system for finding and accessing images, these thematically arranged black and white prints no longer served the needs of most researchers."

But art historians dismissed the defence, saying many items were not online and it would take years to achieve the same grouped classifications of the database the archive once provided.

Wright added: "What people don't understand is that multiple comparisons cannot be made and really studied simultaneously onscreen." © 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

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