Towards A Post-War Aesthetic: The Design Research Unit and This Is Tomorrow (NVA, 2011)

This Is Tomorrow (1956)

“In other words, what is required as a preliminary to any practical solution of the division existing between art and industry is a clear understanding, not only of the processes of modern production, but also of the nature of art. Not until we have reduced the work of art to its essentials, stripped it of all the irrelevancies imposed on it by a particular culture or civilisation, can we see any solution of the problem. The first step, therefore, is to define art; the second is to estimate the capacity of the machine to produce works of art.”

Herbert Read: Art & Industry (Faber, 1934)

When Herbert Read published Art & Industry in 1934, his thinking on the role of art was still in flux, and the text was written in close proximity to his sole novel, The Green Child (1935), a study in utopian philosophy and speculative fantasy that remains impossible to categorise; an early popular defence of modernism, Art Now (1933), which championed the geometric currents of constructivist abstraction alongside their organic-irrational opposites; and Surrealism (1936), an anthology published on the occasion of the First International Surrealist Exhibition in London. The latter’s selected and newly commissioned texts by Andre Breton, Georges Hugnet, Hugh Sykes Davies and Paul Eluard collectively positioned the new movement as a live extension of European Romantic currents into the twentieth century (Breton had earlier described the movement, in his 1934 update of the Surrealist manifesto, as their “excessively prehensile tail”).

By the end of the Second World War, Read’s ideas had crystallised further: he was by then a confirmed anarchist, an advocate of new forms of art education, a co-founder, with the British Surrealist Roland Penrose, of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and he had, in 1942, played a leading role in establishing the Design Research Unit, a practice involving designers, artists, architects and writers that had initially shared its London office with another influential offshoot of British Surrealism, Mass Observation, founded in 1937 by Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings.

Read Art & Industry (1934)

In Read’s case, these apparently disparate interests hinged on a relatively few central ideas, not least among them a sense that the traditional divisions, hierarchies and categories within art (avant-garde and technical, individualist and collectively responsive, Romantic and Classical, formalist and practical, to name a few) had long been acting as obstructions to art’s potential for becoming a more effective means of transforming both ideas about the world and, through those ideas, the world itself, for the better.

In Art & Industry, Read had already floated and begun to explore the idea that the artificial but – in his day, still sacrosanct – traditions established at the Renaissance were actually far less traditional than they appeared to be. Arguing that both the Ancient Greek and Medieval worlds had more fluid notions of how fine and applied arts might coincide and combine, much of Art & Industry set out to reconcile the engineer with the fine artist, the streamlined aircraft and London Underground carriages of the industrial designer with the works of László Moholy-Nagy, Barbara Hepworth and Piet Mondrian.

In this sense, then, while the formation of the Design Research Unit might be seen as something of a sideline for Read, it also became one of his most successful interventions. From the early core grouping of Read himself, Misha Black, Milner Gray and Marcus Brumwell, the Unit built a broad front of expertise, enabling it to cover architecture, interiors, fabrics, corporate branding, graphics and broader strategic ideas. Over the next few decades it would go on, in a series of ambitious projects commissioned by both State agencies and commercial concerns, to transform much of the visual fabric of post-war Britain, realising its promise in a 1946 promotional statement to replace the drabness of austerity with design that was “contemporary in spirit and progressive in outlook”.

Design Research Unit Exhibition

Last year’s Cubitt Gallery touring show, curated by Michelle Cotton, recently made a brief stop-over at Bonington Gallery, and its display cases of designs for Government exhibitions, British Rail, Ilford photography, Watney’s brewery and central London street signs were all in evidence. Although some of the more adventurous proposals – including vehicle designs for Jowett by the expatriate constructivist and former Bauhaus tutor Naum Gabo and a hyper-futuristic pavilion design for the Festival of Britain by Misha Black – were not realised, enough of the Design Research Unit’s theory found practical applications to ensure Read’s initial ideas on the unity of fine and industrial applied arts were borne out in its practice.

Alongside the practical achievements of the Design Research Unit itself, it’s also worth noting the way its ideas spread, and there’s plenty of evidence, both direct and circumstantial, to suggest that without it the Independent Group might never have come into existence in the way it did. The Independent Group had begun to coalesce in embryonic form at the Slade School of Art in the late 1940s and held its first formal meeting in 1952 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (then only recently established, at the instigation of Read and Penrose). The Independent Group was a similarly disparate group with its own shared influences from Dada, Art Brut and British Surrealism.

Independent Group (1956)

Initially comprising the artists Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, John McHale, Magda Cordell and William Turnbull, magazine art director Tony del Renzio, the writer Lawrence Alloway, ‘Brutalist’ architects Alison and Peter Smithson and the photographer Nigel Henderson, the Independent Group’s thinking shared much with Read, even as its ethos marked a development that more fully embraced mass communications and popular culture than Read’s more paternalistic instincts had sometimes allowed.

Although often presented as a ‘break’, primarily with Read’s continuing advocacy of artists like Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson, the Independent Group’s enthusiasm for a levelled cultural field, on which science fiction films and popular music, industrial design and women’s magazines, advertising and architecture might all co-exist as currents within art, the Independent Group emerged more from a nuanced evolution of the ideas outlined in Art & Industry than a significant rupture. It’s certainly hard to read such key Independent Group texts as Lawrence Alloway’s The Long Front of Culture (1959), John McHale’s The Plastic Parthenon (1967) or Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) without acknowledging Read’s role in clearing the way for their concerns.

With the Design Research Unit itself, it can be argued that Read was already realising many of the Independent Group’s own ambitions to place art into a wider environment and culture. By the mid-1960s, a painting based on consumer packaging by a Pop-influenced abstract artist like Richard Smith was likely – whether knowingly or not – to be quoting directly from the Design Research Group’s own output, and their designs for Ilford, for example, often drew on the approaches of constructivism and the Bauhaus.

DRU Ilford Photo Film

Perhaps it’s in the realm of exhibition design that the two aesthetics collide most visibly. Documentary records of the Design Research Unit’s temporary exhibition stands for the Army and other official agencies have a similar look to installation photographs taken at the Independent Group’s most innovative curatorial interventions, Man Machine & Motion at Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery and the ICA in 1955 and This Is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956. The latter – commemorated with an archival display at the Whitechapel Gallery last year – drew heavily on Surrealist techniques to construct a disorientating environment in which discrete artworks were embedded in non-functional architectural features alongside advertising imagery and material drawn directly from the mass media.

A review published in The Listener on August 23 1956 by Alan Clutton-Brock notes the presence of “a vast robot with flashing lights for eyes who holds in his arms an unconscious and scantily clad film star […] pictures that look vaguely like illustrations from a scientific textbook and a few revolving discs on which are painted circles and spirals of different colours, presumably driven by electricity”. He notes how Paolozzi’s sculptures are displayed among bicycle wheels and other detritus and (missing the now self-evident allusions to Duchamp) compares the general effect to “a funfair in which the machinery has been disorganised by disgruntled employees.”

This Is Tomorrow at Whitechapel Gallery (1956)

Clutton-Brock’s review is interesting for many reasons, not least because he offers a strong description of how the exhibition looked to those attending it, and while he tries to be sympathetic to its aims, his general view – that the artworks are the real attractions and these are somehow ‘lost in the funhouse’ – leads to regret over “such conspicuous waste of valuable exhibition space” and a slightly grudging acknowledgement of Victor Pasmore’s abstract constructions as flawed but refreshing contrasts to “much that is gimcrack or, as it seems, deliberately silly in the exhibition.”

Since Clutton-Brock isn’t by any measure overtly hostile, and appears in many ways open to the experience on offer even as he misreads its intentions, the review suggests a contemporary view of This Is Tomorrow that is slightly at odds with its present status as one of the landmark events of its moment. As an exhibition that decisively changed the game by incorporating some of the tenets of the trade fair, motor show, science display and advertising hoarding – the natural territory of the Design Research Unit – into the narrowly humanities-based art context of its time, the reception of This Is Tomorrow may well beg the question of how far any of us is equipped to recognise the future we’re seeking when we do stumble through it, with all our preconceptions of what the new ought to look like intact.

This Is Tomorrow: Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (9 Sept 2010 – 6 Mar 2011)

Design Research Unit (1942 – 1972): Bonington Gallery (15 Apr – 13 May 2011)

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