Covid-19 has claimed many casualties over 2020, none more so than the visual arts. Galleries quickly closed their doors at the beginning of lockdown and are only now beginning to reopen them, but for how long? Most have limited access with booked time slots, few have new exhibitions. Imagine then my excitement when a new exhibition called Mid-Century Modern was showing at the Dovecot Gallery in Edinburgh. Whist visiting, taking extra precaution to stay socially distanced, wearing a face mask and applying a frequent splash of the obligatory hand sanitiser.
The Dovecot Gallery is tucked away on Infirmary Street, nestled in between University of Edinburgh buildings. It is a working tapestry studio housed in a renovated former Victorian swimming baths, with many of the original features, including signage still present reminding us of the building intended purpose. The building also acts as a gallery space for exhibitions, which, prior to the pandemic, included such names as Orla Kiely and Grayson Perry. The Mid-Century Modern exhibition was housed on the ground floor. Stairs led up to the tapestry studios, situated where the pool had previously been. Above this was a mezzanine observation deck where previously onlookers could have observed the bathers, but now housed a photographic exhibition of Scottish arts and crafts buildings.
The exhibition titled Mid-Century modern covers the post-war period from the 1950s up until the 1970s, during which time there was an explosion of creativity not only in design but also in popular culture in the UK. The exhibition focuses on two leading lights of Post-Modern design, those of Sir Terence Conran and Mary Quant, with a passing nod to the fabric design duo of Bernard and Laura Ashley. It was timely that I visited the gallery on the week that Sir Terence sadly passed away at the age of 88. Conran was born in Kingston in west London and following on from his school years studied textiles at the Central School of Arts and Design in London. The exhibition included textiles designed by Conran dating back to this period. It also included furniture, fabrics and crockery all designed by Conran in those early years. It was easy to see the influence of the Scottish sculptor and artist Eduardo Paolozzi, his former teacher and friend on Conran’s work. A number of the designs had a very Italian feel and both designers acknowledge the influence of Piero Fornasetti the Italian surrealist artist on their work. The exhibition also included several original works by Bernard Schottlander, the German born light designer, whose lighting designs were both minimalist and functional. Conran is probably best known for the shopping chain he founded in 1964, Habitat, which revolutionised the way people furnished their homes, the exhibition replicated one of these early stores giving a flavour of what items might have been sold. It was easy to see the influence that these original stores have on today’s retail outlets. For me particular standout pieces produced by Conran included the room divider that he designed for London County Council and the Chequers crockery set that he designed for midwinter. I was struck with how fresh they felt despite being from the middle of the last century. What I found most impressive was that Conran was designing and producing furniture and fabrics despite only being 20 years of age.
The second part of the exhibition focused on the fashion designer Mary Quant, with a large number of her garments on display. The exhibition explained how Quant’s designs for the American retail giant J.C Penney brought her designs to a wider audience and how her continued work with the pattern giants Butterick meant that her designs became available to the masses, in a time when the clothing market was not flooded with cheap imitations produced in sweat shops in the far east. Many girls in the post-war period left education with the ability to sew and make clothes and were therefore able to produce versions of Quant’s clothes at a fraction of the cost of buying them in stores. Included in the exhibition was Quant’s signature Daisy motif included on her clothing as well as the makeup she designed. Similar to Terence Conran’s designs, many of Mary Quant’s garments would not look out of place on today’s high streets. Quant also took inspiration from designers such as Pierre Cardin, Military styles as seen on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album by the Beatles and pieces inspired by the Space race.
What struck me about the exhibition was, with the odd exception, how modern the designs appeared and how a number of the items of furniture would not look out of place in our modern-day homes. It was also very easy to see the influence that this period has on our lives today; how clearly Habitat was the forerunner of shops such as IKEA; how the daisy motif of Mary Quant bears more than a passing resemblance to the Golf le Fleur Motif of the musician and clothes designer, Tyler the Creator.
My only criticism of the exhibition was that it was small, with only 3 medium sized rooms to browse. That being said, I thought it shed light on a fascinating period of British design and has demonstrated how the influence of these designers has resonated through the subsequent 70 years. This fascinating exhibition has inspired me to look more closely at this important period of design in the context of the art, music and culture of the time.
By Fergus Broomfield