Design Council Slide Collection: an online guide to the resource

Dr Simon Ford and John Davis - Manchester Metropolitan University

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Britain Can Make It

The first major project undertaken by the newly-formed CoID was the organisation of an exhibition entitled Britain Can Make It. The exhibition's subtitle, 'Good design - and good business', encapsulated the CoID's role, at least in its early years. The aim was to display the latest consumer goods and promote the best of British design and industrial production. The exhibition occupied some 90,000 square feet of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and attracted 1,432,546 visitors. It contained over 5000 items produced by British manufacturers and encompassed most types of consumer goods including furniture, tableware, domestic appliances, household equipment, carpets, wallpapers, clothing and toys.

The bookshop at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946The bookshop at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946

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Display of sports and leisure equipment, in the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946Display of sports and leisure equipment, in the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946

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Display of dress fabrics at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946Display of dress fabrics at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946

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Dining table and chairs designed by Christopher Heal and exhibited at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946Dining table and chairs designed by Christopher Heal and exhibited at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946

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One of the aims of Britain Can Make It was to attract overseas visitors and trade buyers. However, in addition to serving an economic purpose, it also performed an important propaganda function by demonstrating the ability of British industry to make a swift and successful transition from meeting the challenges of war to responding to the demands of peacetime commerce. In particular, the exhibition was intended to boost national morale by holding out the promise of improved living standards to a population that, having endured the privations of war, was still subject to rationing and other severe austerity measures. After years of shortages and the need to 'make do and mend', the spectacle offered by the exhibition's large display of new consumer goods guaranteed its popularity - even though many of the goods displayed were not yet available in the shops and the exhibition became popularly known as 'Britain Can't Have It'!

Three kettles included in the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946Three kettles included in the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946

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Prototype electric bicycle displayed at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946Prototype electric bicycle displayed at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946

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Furnished bedroom setting at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946Furnished bedroom setting at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946

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Furnished living room at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946Furnished living room at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946

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The Britain Can Make It exhibition provided the CoID with an opportunity to raise awareness of design in general, and to stake a claim for its importance in post-war reconstruction. Indeed, as well as the large number of products on show, the exhibition also included a number of educational displays aimed at informing visitors about the role of design in industry and explaining the economic, technical and aesthetic considerations implicit in the design process. Furthermore, Britain Can Make It did not adopt the traditional format of a trade exhibition, in which companies bought space to display whatever they wished. Instead, the CoID itself selected all the items that were displayed, and in doing so it used the exhibition to promote its own particular notion of 'good design'. The CoID's view of what constituted 'good design' had much in common with the position adopted by the Design and Industries Association (DIA), a design reform pressure group that had been founded in 1915. Like the DIA, the CoID rejected redundant ornament and the superficial 'styling' of objects in favour of plain, ostensibly functional forms that embodied an efficient use of appropriate materials. Although its stance was essentially modernist, the CoID's brand of modernism was a distinctively British one that retained an enduring attachment to craft values.

Furnished bedroom setting at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946Furnished bedroom setting at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946

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Living room setting at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946Living room setting at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946

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Display from the 'What industrial design means' section at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946. Designed by Misha BlackDisplay from the 'What industrial design means' section at the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition, 1946. Designed by Misha Black

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Over two-thirds of the products submitted for inclusion in Britain Can Make It were rejected, and the principle of selection that was initiated at the exhibition remained central to many of the CoID's activities throughout the 1950s and 1960s. However, its self-appointed role as an arbiter of 'good' and 'bad' design (and, by extension, 'good' and 'bad' taste) provoked a great deal of suspicion and hostility on the part of many manufacturers and retailers, who naturally considered their most popular and profitable designs to be the best. It was apparent that a gulf existed between the preferences of the CoID and those of the majority of the public. Considerable emphasis was placed on the need to democratise 'good design' by making it available to all and, whilst this fitted with the progressive political mood of the immediate post-war period, it can also be seen as an attempt to impose the tastes and values of a metropolitan cultural elite upon the rest of the population. It is significant that many of the items chosen for Britain Can Make It were arranged in a series of room settings that purported to represent the homes of a number of imaginary families from a range of different social classes and occupational groups. Furthermore, the educational displays were intended to influence the purchasing choices of consumers so that they would buy the type of products approved of by the CoID.

 

 

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