Inside the Mid-Century Pamphlets Celebrating the Best of British Design

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1948 Design FolioCouncil of Industrial Design, Courtesy of Margaret Howell

From Ercol chairs to motorway signposts, the Council of Industrial Design’s 1948 folios are the subject of a new exhibition at Margaret Howell’s flagship store

Photographs of aeroplane meal trays, Ercol chairs and pleated ceiling lamps are the unlikely subjects of Design Folios, an exhibition currently on display at Margaret Howell’s flagship London store. The prints – which depict an expansive range of commonplace objects including milk bottles, tennis rackets and signposts – are outtakes from the pages of the 1948 Design Folios printed by the Council of Industrial Design in order to improve Britain’s post-war design education. Decades on, the monochrome images are testament to the timelessness of thoughtful and intelligent product design.

On show in tandem with the launch of Margaret Howell’s 2019 calendar, the exhibition stands as a way of introducing a golden era of British design to a new generation – the folios have, after all, played an integral role in the evolution of the country’s design aesthetics. Born out of a series of educational initiatives put in place after the second world war, the Design Folios were originally available by subscription only. The idea was that these pamphlets would provide subscribers – mainly schools and universities – with a comprehensive, up-to-date overview of design colleges across the country. The emphasis on visuals also offered readers a glimpse into the fads and fashions of the contemporary art world.

“These evocative images are from another era but their message is clear and modern in outlook,” Howell says. “They recall a time when a devastated post-war Britain had to be rebuilt and it was thought important enough to promote the public awareness of design for its own sake.” The celebration of art and design as a source of public good feels particularly urgent in the context of Brexit; the UK is set to leave the EU on 29 March 2019, and many have questioned the potentially damaging impact this will have on British arts and culture. Creativity, after all, relies on the free movement of ideas and talent.

Design Folios, then, is a necessary reminder of the power of artistic productivity. Each photograph, whether it be of ordinary tableware or of an unassuming door handle, elevates the mundane, the objects we would otherwise take for granted, as the pinnacle of good design. Art is not necessarily a luxury. It is also a valuable, even indispensable part of our day-to-day lives.

Design Folios is on at Margaret Howell, 34 Wigmore Street until November 4, 2018.