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Tales of our Time: A renewed celebration of British design

Michael Hayman | 7 September 2022

Michael Hayman calls for a new celebration of British design, in his column for Country & Town House.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 described itself as ‘one united act of national reassessment, and… reaffirmation of faith in the nation’s future.’

Positivity was not something much in evidence in the months running up to the opening of the festival. Its shiny new installations were to stand on the Southbank, amid the wreckage of bomb- damaged London, and austerity was the tide that would not turn. Sound familiar? But the festival did put the spring back into Britain’s step, and it was design and its possibilities that became the means to pop the national cork.

On one level, the festival was a national theme park reminding some of its 8.5 million visitors that the best really was yet to come. But, according to the V&A, it also provided ‘a catalyst for a new design aesthetic, launching the career of noted British designers working in the fields of textiles, furniture and graphic design.’

Confidence is at the heart of how great cultures flourish; an intangible X-factor that provides nations with a spring in their step. And design offers a way to build self-belief in tough times.

The 2012 Olympics, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, is another powerful example of this. A tour de force for our nation’s sports stars, no doubt. But it was British design and culture that also took to the global stage, with Thomas Heatherwick, Stella McCartney and Danny Boyle at the vanguard.

As in 1951, 2012 also offered a legacy to build on. I work with Here East, once the site of the Olympics’ media centre and now a burgeoning innovation and technology campus. It has been described as ‘the most successful post-Olympic regeneration project in the world’.

Fast forward to today and the need to harness the drive that design and creativity create seems more pressing than ever. In short, 1951 and 2012 stand out because we dared to think big and create moments that live on in the national imagination.

Which makes me think: isn’t it time for a new initiative to reaffirm the nation’s faith in its future? Our designers are admired around the world. They can give us the edge to create impact on planet, people and place. Because now more than ever we need the opportunity to put our own mark on the design of our times.

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