Democratisation of Design in Northern Europe

The 1950s-70s was a time of unparalleled creativity in Northern Europe. The war was over and there was an understandable sense of relief that turned into optimism and hope for a better future.

There was an urgent requirement for many parts of Europe to undertake a huge re-building programme with whole cities turned to rubble, and this was part-funded by the Marshall Plan. Often this led to speedily, cheaply constructed buildings that lacked aesthetic appeal. But as necessity is the mother of invention, it also led to new construction techniques and design ideas with the aim of not just rebuilding cities but of improving them. Where bombs had flattened old, sometimes medieval, areas that lacked modern amenities, the new buildings would provide inhabitants with 'all mod cons'.

But it wasn't just the bricks and mortar and physical appearance of towns and cities that was changing.

Necessity had also led women into vital roles during the war such as the women who flew Spitfires from the factory to the Battle of Britain airfields, there just weren't enough male pilots at the time to undertake this key task. There were women involved in war-planning, in transport, in agriculture, in resistance movements, and of course in maintaining the 'home front' in difficult circumstances. And many enjoyed that little glimpse of equality and didn't want it to disappear when peace returned.  

The 1950s saw the rise of rock and roll and the teenager, which was particularly influenced by affluent America which had escaped the devastation of war on its own soil. Young people increasingly wanted to express their own identities and wanted their own music and fashions.

Into the 1960s and rock and roll led to the emergence of the Beatles et al. There was student rebellion in Europe, anti-Vietnam protests and racial equality movements in the USA. The women's rights agenda progressed, backed by the freedoms that technological advances such as the domestic washing machine and the pill facilitated. The hippie and peace movement spread from San Francisco around the western world, peaking at the Woodstock festival of 1969. And, talking of hippies, we shouldn't forget the increase in consumption of recreational drugs. 

All these huge social developments were taking place against the backdrop of the cold war (Cuba, Berlin) and the momentous technological advances of the space race culminating with the US sending men to the moon.

These were unprecedented times and they led to a surge of artistic creativity that, unlike previous times, was not restricted to the privileged classes or luxury and heirloom items (often received by a couple at their wedding) reserved for 'best' (special occasions).

During this period there was still a mass manufacturing industry in Northern Europe and the latest cutting edge designs, often by graduates of the region's most prestigious art & design schools, began to be incorporated into everyday household goods. To use a wonderful phrase that completely captures this trend, there was a democratisation of design

Take the example of J&G Meakin and Midwinter, who merged in 1968. They were ceramics manufacturers in the area of central England still known as 'The Potteries' to this day because of its specialism in ceramic production dating back to Josiah Wedgwood in 1759.

During the 1960s and 1970s they recruited already recognised young art school graduates, as well as rewarding talent from within their own ranks, to design a prolific and fast moving range of ceramics that captured modern fashions and trends. The design process moved quickly from the initial inspiration (whether from Mary Quant/Carnaby Street, traditional English country gardens or the space race 'atomic era') to products available on every high street in the UK. They must have been a little like the Zara model of fashion clothing is today. 

Meakin Midwinter manufactured in stoneware, a durable product that was much cheaper to produce than bone china or porcelain. It was a little 'rough around the edges' but was perfect for their product that was designed to be fashionable and used everyday. They used the same product shapes and simply stamped different designs on those, again keeping costs down. They were so prolific that no one knows exactly how many different designs were produced in Meakin's stylish 'Studio' shape, but it's probably over a 100 in a ten year period.

The UK also had a steel industry centred on Sheffield, Sweden and Finland were prolific manufacturers of glass, the Norwegians made enamel goods, glass and ceramics, and the Danes turned their hands to most homewares especially teak and steel.

The surge in creative design and the demands of the increasingly wealthy consumer (both for quality and quantity) led to a period when young talented designers were given access to mass manufacturing like never before, and possibly never again. This led to a vast array of homeware designs, from the outstanding to the outrageous, being cheaply available on high streets around the western world.