Cheryl Buckley. Designing Modern Britain. London: Reaktion, 2007. 256 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-86189-322-2.
Reviewed by Gerry Beegan
Published on H-Albion (September, 2008)
Commissioned by Mark Hampton
Locating Britain's Contradictory Modernisms
Cheryl Buckley’s study, Designing Modern Britain, takes none of the three terms in its title for granted. For Buckley, "designing" is a complex activity that involves the interactions of consumers, retailers, and manufacturers and is not something created in a vacuum by an individual designer. The word "modern" is also usefully broadened; indeed Buckley speaks of a range of modernities and notes that “modernist practices in Britain were subtle and complex” (p. 85), an expansive conception that allows her to challenge the received wisdom that modernism never took hold in the United Kingdom. If we understand design as the objects and buildings produced by professional designers and architects, that clearly is the case with an embattled modernism represented by a handful of Modern Movement buildings mainly in the South of England. In Buckley’s more inclusive theorization modernism encompasses much of the daily life of twentieth-century Britain. The book investigates not only the mutability and fragility of the modern but also of Britain itself. Buckley usefully complicates and expands "Britain" by paying a great deal of attention to developments outside London and the South.
While not attempting to provide an exhaustive survey, Buckley employs a diverse and eclectic range of sources including business archives, magazines, and interviews. Chronologically organized, the book’s six chapters begin in the 1890s and take the reader through to the present day. In a number of chapters this results in a somewhat fragmented structure as we move back and forward thematically within periods. Each chapter sketches the economic and political changes in that time frame, with the focus on consumption and the domestic sphere rather than technologies in the workplace or the production of design. There are roll calls of designers’ names but comparatively little detail on individual designers, their ideas, or their work.
As might be expected, Buckley draws on her considerable knowledge of design in the home and of fashion. She looks at the project of modern Britain through clothing, hair and makeup, textiles, and furnishings. She also focuses on crafts and frequently cites developments in ceramics to illustrate her arguments. Using these arenas she is able to usefully deepen the narrative of modernity. For instance, she notes that home decoration and furnishings were often eclectic and nostalgic at the same time that modern technologies of heating, lighting, cleaning, and food preparation were being enthusiastically embraced within the domestic sphere. Buckley examines the design of the home by its residents themselves, noting the transformation of the kitchen from a clean and functional site for food preparation in the early part of the twentieth century to a welcoming center for family life from the 1960s onward.
Threaded through the book is an examination of the changing ideas of “Britishness”: Buckley describes the constant struggle over a national identity that was often framed in terms of an imagined English past, noting, for example, the reactionary Englishness of the Thatcherite 1980s. A more nuanced understanding of the nation, she argues, must take into account the contradictions between rural and urban, modern and traditional, metropolitan and provincial that are at the heart of Britishness. Adopting this approach, the book acknowledges the importance of London as the site for exhibitions and events that attempted to define both modernity and the nation, but also highlights other venues, particularly in the North East and Scotland, as locations of Britishness. For instance, Buckley points out that the Festival of Britain (1951), which promoted a less English Britain, extended beyond well London’s South Bank with many events elsewhere in the capital and the United Kingdom.
Throughout the country the Modern Movement’s most visible legacies were in public housing and planning and the encouragement of “good taste” in the consumption of design. Buckley traces the narrow paternalism and orthodoxy of the Council on Industrial Design and its successors in their didactic attempts to improve the public’s taste. She shows how, at various points, the publications and exhibitions that promoted these ideas associated them with historically rooted narratives of English pragmatism and simplicity, for example Georgian architecture. The book traces the promotion of modernist principles in town planning and public housing projects and the failure of these over-ambitious attempts at social engineering. This officially sanctioned modernism was challenged from the late 1950s onwards by the Independent Group and others who looked to American popular culture as an alternative to this constrictive middle-class modernity.
The book draws attention to a wide range of popular sites--from the Ideal Home Exhibition to the Sunday Times Magazine--that debated modern design. Moreover, Buckley locates modernity in the products and practices of well-organized national businesses such as Marks and Spencer, Mary Quant, Laura Ashley, Habitat, the Body Shop, and Next. She shows the importance of department stores in the 1900s and out-of-town shopping centers of the 1980s to new forms of consumption and leisure. These icons of modernity and postmodernity are familiar and important elements in the history of design, yet I think few design histories would consider the significance of Traidcraft, a very successful company that promotes Fair Trade practices with developing nations.
Throughout the book Buckley plays close attention to northern England and to Newcastle in particular. While the book’s index has six entries for London there are over twice that number for Newcastle. Her firsthand knowledge of the latter city gives the reader an in-depth look at the specific factors that shaped local variations of modernism. For instance, close transportation links between Newcastle and Denmark influenced Callers, the most innovative furniture retailer in the region, whose owners could readily visit the famous Copenhagen furniture store, Illums, on which they modeled their own enterprise. Buckley devotes a good deal of space to Callers, with lavish color images of the store’s displays, and she makes the important point that this kind of commercial enterprise had to appeal to an assortment of public tastes by offering a range of styles rather than didactically espousing a hard-line modernist aesthetic. In discussing town planning Buckley again focuses on the North East, with an analysis of the roles of the politician T. Dan Smith in Newcastle and the artist Victor Pasmore in the initial planning of Peterlee New Town. The critical responses to modernist planning and architecture are demonstrated via a discussion of Newcastle’s Byker Wall (1969-82), which, rather than treating a redevelopment area as a blank slate, sought to involve existing residents in shaping a large public housing scheme. This process, and the bricolage of local and vernacular styles that was its outcome are cited as indicative of a postmodern challenge to monolithic official modernism.
What emerges from the book is a strange but at the same time familiar representation of modern design in Britain, strange in that the iconic objects and celebrated individuals that might form the backbone of a conventional account are largely absent. In their place Cheryl Buckley focuses on less well-known or overlooked figures, such as the feminist architectural cooperative Matrix. In any case, there are few pioneering individuals in this study as the axis on which the story turns is not the individual designer but the social, cultural, and economic forces that shaped both the designed environment and the sense of Britishness. The modern Britain that comes to light in the book consists of the familiar but usually overlooked designs of the high street, the shopping center, and the home.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Gerry Beegan. Review of Buckley, Cheryl, Designing Modern Britain.
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