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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > Exhibiting Britain > Britain Can Make It > BCMI Response & Critique
 
BCMI RESPONSE AND CRITIQUE
 
Sincere congratulations on superb showmanship, excellent designs, stupendous feat of organisation
Telegram from John Gloag to S.C.Leslie, the COID’s Chair, September 1946
 
This comment by the design critic John Gloag typifies those to be found in the COID file of letters received in response to the opening of BCMI. Written by the design cognoscenti and manufacturers, the majority of the letters are positive and many make particular reference to the effectiveness of the displays. A rather different set of responses to the exhibitions may be found from the members of the general public who visited BCMI. The Council, which had made much effort to convince the public of the need for design, recruited the social survey organisation Mass-Observation to find out how it responded to the displays. M-O’s report perhaps made rather disappointing reading, especially for the designers under discussion here.

Those from a design background, however, thought BCMI a wonderful achievement. They were impressed both by the exhibition’s overall design and for its advocacy of modernist values in design. Gloag, for example, a member of the Design and Industries Association (DIA) and a tireless campaigner for ‘good design’ since the 1920s, first telegrammed his appreciation and then sent a letter:
 
It is without exception the finest Exhibition that has ever been put on in this country or ever been put on by British interests in any foreign country ... With this we finally get rid of the Victorian hang-over in design.
Gloag to Leslie, 24.9.46.
 
Another DIA member was equally vociferous. Christian Barman’s perceptive comment alludes to Cripps’ concern when the exhibition was first mooted that its décor should be outstanding in case the goods were not available to fill the space:
 
There is no question about it. It’s terrific…In any case, the décor is so good that it puts the goods to shame, like a wonderfully staged opera in which everything is right except the tenor chap can’t sing…I bow down in praise!
Barman to Leslie, 23.9.46.
 
And the designers received praise from an advertising man who would have been sensitive to the importance of display:
 
I feel that Gardner and his team of designers and architects deserve very high praise…
R.A.Bevan of S.H.Benson Ltd Advertisers to Leslie, 24.9.46.
 
Manufacturers were more ambivalent in their response, whilst some thought it outstanding, such as the potter Josiah Wedgwood:
 
Your gate money and the fainting queues of colour starved millions are more that proof of the success of your own organisation, timing and publicity and of your colleagues’ showmanship.
Wedgwood to Leslie, 25.9.46.
 
Others, such as the Sales Manager of the General Electric Company commented:
 
…the general arrangement is reasonably good although the approach, though possibly symbolically accurate, through a comparatively dark entrance to lighter displays is somewhat gloomy and may have a bad psychological effect.
ID/910: "BCMI" Letters of Appreciation
 
Whilst those in the hat trade felt particularly aggrieved. Sir Charles Tennyson, chair of the Industrial Art Designers National Register and someone who had served on the Utility Furniture Committee during the war, felt moved to complain, having conducted a colleague in the trade around the Exhibition. He wrote to the Council:
 
…this exhibit is still considered by the trade to be unworthy, and moreover the display is considered to be bad as the hats are arranged at too high a level.
Tennyson to Leslie, 29.10.46.
 
Manufacturers’ disappointment in the 'Men’s Wear' section was reflected in Mass-Observation’s findings. Its fifty-page report contained statistics, descriptions and excerpts of interviews with some of the 1, 432, 369 visitors to the Exhibition. In a rather complicated chart detailing the time spent in each section, the Report’s authors showed that visitors – if equal emphasis had been given to each display – should have spent four percent of their time in Men’s Wear. They actually spent two (this compared to the sixteen percent of time spent in rest rooms, toilets and the restaurant and tea room). This lack of time, however, was less to do with its design than with its content.

M-O’s report clearly showed a discrepancy between the motivations for attending BCMI by the general public and those of its organisers, the COID. Whilst the COID viewed the exhibition as an opportunity to display equally the transition from wartime to peacetime manufacturing and the significant role design would play in this, those M-O interviewed seemed less concerned by such lofty motives. Their interest, and reason for attending, was much more personal. They wanted to see the type of goods with which they could furnish their homes and, perhaps, get some idea about the overall design of interiors within their future homes.

The most popular exhibits, M-O recorded, were 'Shopwindow Street', the 'Children’s' section and the 'Furnished Rooms'. Women, (who were the majority of visitors by fifteen percent), stated that they wanted to see kitchens, kitchen equipment, fashion fabrics, household goods and labour-saving devices. Men wanted to see mechanical and electrical goods. Both sexes wanted equally to look at the furniture displays.

This interest in matters relating to the furnishing of homes was reflected in visitors’ almost complete indifference to the displays which were specifically about design. M-O’s chart shows that visitors spent much less time than expected in Black’s ’What Industrial Design Means’ section. This was one of those selected for more detailed study by M-O; its findings reflected positively on Black’s design though less well on the content.

As the report’s author commented, the public’s reaction was partly to do with fatigue. All the design-focused sections were near the end (as was Men’s Wear) and all had low time figures. ‘What Industrial Design Means’ was, in this context, a notable exception for ‘The eggcup exhibit manages to hold interest…but on the whole most people walk through these later sections, only stopping to glance at an occasional article’.

Black’s choice of storyline had clearly been effective in drawing attention but M-O’s report showed that the display’s message about Industrial Design was largely lost on the audience. Most people were distracted by the eggcup display and particularly the plastic press but failed to absorb the significant role played by the industrial designer:
 
It seems fairly clear that people were not interested in the press as one aspect of the bigger processes of industrial design
Mass-Observation, Report on BCMI, 1946, p.49
 
As one visitor, described by M-O as a 30 year old artisan male, put it:
 
It’s [the working model] very interesting, though I’m not mechanically minded myself. All these blueprints mean very little to me…
Mass-Observation, Report on BCMI, 1946
 
A middle-aged man commented, tellingly:
 
I like to see a working model in an exhibition which is otherwise static…It makes me wish there were more things like that – your mind gets sleepy looking at no moving things
Mass-Observation, Report on BCMI, 1946, p. 47
 
Others were more scathing. A M-O observer who went to the exhibition with an East End family recorded their comments:
 
'Industrial design – silly all this fuss about designing an egg-cup…’. She noted ‘We went through this part quickly’.
Mass-Observation, Report on BCMI, 1946
 
Text from Mass-Observation survey ESD00998 Text from Mass-Observation survey

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Table 13 of M-O report which shows time spent in each section of the  exhibition ESD00983 Table 13 of M-O report which shows time spent in each section of the exhibition

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Interviewers at the exhibition ESD00160 Interviewers at the exhibition

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Letters of appreciation / criticism
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Letters of appreciation / criticism
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ESD00996 & ESD00997 Letters of appreciation / criticism
 
See next section - Conclusion.
 
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