While the 2012 London Olympics were reaching their inevitable conclusion, I managed to pry myself away from the TV long enough to trek to the V&A to catch their British Design: Innovation In The Modern Age exhibit before it closed its doors. I’m a big fan of the V&A, and their design-focussed exhibitions are always of a very high standard. Their Cold War Modern show still ranks as one of my all time favourite design retrospectives they staged in recent years, so I was equally looking forward to what was surely a brilliant stroll through the history of Modern British Design.
What I found instead was what felt like a very one-sided and heavily editorialised version of British design history. While almost every piece on show belonged there without any doubt there were at least 5 pieces missing that I think should have been there, especially when it came to graphic and digital design. I completely understand that limited floor space dictates what gets shown, and what gets relegated to the exhibition catalogue, but the exhibit seemed oddly lacking in places, opting to go for big generalisations and objects that most people would be familiar with. While I enjoyed seeing a print proof of Peter Saville’s design of New Order’s Blue Monday sleeve, and seeing a few seminal Beatles album covers, I missed Barney Bubble or even Storm Thorgerson.
Equally, digital and web design was strangely absent from the exhibition (while Tim Berners-Lee was immortalised during the Olympics opening ceremony), focussing on British hardware (Spectrum, Amstrad, Apple) design and video games legacy — showing Tomb Raider, WipeOut and Little Big Planet. Surely a screen or two could have been devoted to UK digital design when there is more than enough great material to choose from.
Similarly, the rich history Great Britain has when it comes to branding design was relegated to a few decal logos near the exit of the show, the majority being designed by Wolff Olins and Pentagram. And while those works certainly earned their place in the grand scheme, its an understatement to say a few more brand marks were missing — and yes, I’m aware the Rolling Stones logo was on show, as was Design Research Unit’s work for National Rail. Somehow though, it felt like those were side notes. Of course, this is what comes with curating an exhibit that aims to encapsulate over 60 years of design across many disciplines and industries — you’re bound to prioritise certain things. If you have to choose between a massive scale model of the Concorde or a few logos to move ticket sales the choice is easy.