Book Review: Britain Can Make It

Diane Bilbey (eds), Britain Can Make It: The 1946 Exhibition of Modern Design (London: Paul Holberton, 2019) 

Zachary Hope, University of Chicago

The social, cultural, and historical tensions presented by the 1946 Britain Can Make It (BCMI) exhibition, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, are apparent in the many turnings of its name. Appropriating the mutual (and usefully mythic) resilience demonstrated by ‘Britain can take it,’ a ubiquitous wartime refrain itself taken from the title of a state-sponsored documentary, BCMI attempts to turn recent wartime experience on the Home Front into grounds for a postwar, market-based consensus that could accomplish the transition from wartime to peacetime. Yet a new book on BCMI, titled Britain Can Make It: The 1946 Exhibition of Modern Design (2019), edited by Diane Bilbey, also provides evidence of occasions when public response to the popular exhibition, which averaged a remarkable 20,000 visitors each day, took exception to the all-consensualising national capability proclaimed by its given name. Descriptive and pictorial reconstructions and analyses of the spaces within the exhibition give specific examples of a more general dissensus by paying consistent attention to the different ways in which individual displays were received by the visiting public. Again, however, one of Bilbey’s own contributions, on ‘Naming the Exhibition,’ aptly summarises these responses in the subsequent corruptions of BCMI’s name (p. 39). If Britain can make it, which is itself contested—‘Can Britain Make It?’ asks Leslie Illingworth in a cartoon for Punch—it is also the case that ‘Britain Can’t Have It’ because, citing the Evening Standard, ‘Britons can’t buy it’ (p. 42). Taking the force of its persuasion from prior solidarities, BCMI turns toward a post-austerity future that remains frustrated by the continuing austerity of the postwar present. Indeed, this dissatisfaction is revealed within the very marketplace of a consumer culture that should be the means of refashioning a solidarity previously ensured by imperatives of national wartime production. For Britons, continues the Evening Standard, ‘Britain Can Make It is the most frustrating show on earth’ (p. 43). 

Likely due to its format, the book is not as openly tendentious as my above reading suggests. Pieced together by Bilbey from contributions by fourteen writers, the book begins by providing social and historical contexts for the exhibition, before working through the twenty-two sections that composed the exhibit in the order in which a visitor would have encountered them. Sections devoted to individual fields of design, including furniture, men’s and women’s fashions, silverware, jewellery, wallpaper, pottery, and children’s toys, amongst others, were each curated, their products selected from manufacturer submissions, by an area-specific committee.  Reproducing this process, contributions for the chapters on each of these display sections are written by current experts in these object-fields. This allows for each chapter to focus succinctly upon the material and cultural histories that condition the presentation of products as they would appear to would-be consumers in the time and place of their exhibition. The design and organisation of the book, then, has an interesting, almost isomorphic relationship to the exhibition it represents. The reader, situated by introductory chapters within the headspace of a London ‘at its lowest […] bomb damaged, grey and weary of austerity,’ is then made to follow the route of the exhibition path as each object is meticulously restored to its proper place, within each display and in the sequence of displays, as well as within nascent forms of midcentury British material culture, by display-specific and therefore necessarily restricted analysis (p. 6). While this format precludes more intensive and cumulative argumentation within and between chapters, which I initially felt was to the book’s detriment, a cumulative effect is nevertheless produced in undertaking this process. Putting these objects, display spaces, and persons back into their postwar places, rather than synthesising them in arguing for what it means for these things to have been placed together, Britain Can Make It reopens the exhibition space as a way of comprehending (by not at all resolving) the complexities and contradictions of a cultural-historical moment that is itself resistant to retrospective synthesis.

Floor plan of the Britain Can Make It exhibition. Image courtesy of the Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.

This trouble about synthesis, however, is only a means of registering at the level of textual interpretation what is, for the book, as for the exhibition before it, the trouble with design. What should tie the whole book together is what would have tied the many rooms of the exhibition together in tying together, for the benefit of the public, a new sense of their place within the postwar nation. An education in good design as a way of improving the masses, ‘a firm belief in [design’s] civilising effect,’ was primary among the purposes and commitments of the exhibition (p. 206). In addition to presenting the most comprehensive resource for understanding the planning, staging, and legacy of BCMI, then, the book makes a more general contribution to the history and politics of design. Rather than an incidental surplus to the discourse of reconstruction, a way of rearranging the furniture after new houses have been built, design here becomes the means toward realising this utopian work. For a moment, good design seems capable of repairing the interrelated tensions between wartime production and postwar consumption, Arts and Crafts heritage and machine manufacturing, utility and luxury. And, most importantly, the potential for good design to remediate these fractures also testifies to its capacity to address prewar problems of class difference, wealth disparity, gender trouble, and waning Empire. Operating independently of prior distributions of cultural and economic capital, it was hoped that design literacy could catalyse an emergent form of democratic consumerism that would recast the public square in the more equitable model of the ‘Shopwindow Street’ that occupied the Main Hall of the BCMI exhibition (p. 76). Good design, reports an article in the Sunderland Daily Echo, must be ‘bought within the level of the poor man’s purse,’ because ‘taste has nothing to do with money,’ nor is it the exclusive domain of any one class (p. 111). Affordable, reproducible, durable, attractive, and exportable, the social function of the well-designed consumer product, surplus to the function for which it is designed, is to reduce (or at least conceal) economic and class disparities, to save labour at home, lessening the disproportionate burden of domestic work on women, and to allow Britain to continue ‘furnishing the world’ when it is no longer able to actively colonise it (p. 209).

The book’s achievement, then, is to show how much depends on design in postwar Britain, or at least how much the Council of Industrial Design would like Britons to depend on design, while also using the range of visitor responses to question the extent to which the design of the exhibition in fact met its purpose of teaching good design. By representing this tension, Britain Can Make It reopens a critical space for understanding this moment in the history of the relationship between exhibition and audience.

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