The Lecture series: How the 1951 Festival of Britain Shaped the Modern Age

England. 1951. Fashion models performing in the Festival of Britain's Travelling Exhibition are pictured outside the venue.
(Fig.1) England, 1951, Fashion models performing in the Festival of Britain’s Travelling Exhibition are pictured outside the venue (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)


A third of our lecture series with Chris Howell, focusing on how another movement began a bid to once again create a new future, and to heal people and the world during and after times of crisis. The Festival of Britain came to life exactly 100 years after the great exhibition, in a bid to show the world that Britain can get up and fight back stronger.

The Festival of Britain was launched after the aftermath of WWII in the summer of 1951, involving the vast majority of the worlds nations. The war involved over 100 million people from  over 30 countries, this was ‘total war’. The total deaths were estimated at 60-85 million, over 2.5% of the worlds population. The main allied leaders during WWII were Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek, whilst axis leaders included  Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini. This can be linked back to Howells’ toilet seat example visited on my Modernism case study, as the war was sprung by much opposition and conflict between right wing and left wing thinkers. The aim of the festival was to give Brits a feeling of recovery and to advocate more enthusiasm in the design of buildings within the reconstruction of Britain.

The festival was an authoritative promoter of the concept of “good design” with an exceptional focus on technical efficiency, aesthetics and fitness for purpose, which can be linked to my ‘what is good design‘ study.

Gerald Barry, festival director, said that the festival was a “tonic to the nation.”

The Marshall Plan or otherwise known as the ERP was a plan by America to give aid to Western Europe after the devastation of World War II. The rescue programme gave the EU $13 billion to mend their countries. The UK received most of this money, receiving about 26% of the total. This was a generous donation from America to rebuild allied countries.

How was Britain before WWII?

Britain was on a good journey post WWII, the labour government had implemented the National Health Service, a free health service for all tax payers in Britain, widely used to this day. Following WWII, Sir Leslie Patrick Abercrombie developed the Greater London Plan, which was a plan to rebuild and reinvent London on  a great scale due to the destruction of the Blitz. The plan would ultimately solve housing, transport and industrial issues in London.

Many great buildings and luxury products came as a result of the Festival of Britain, such as the use of 3D cinemas, and soft toilet paper! Ch-ch-ch-ch-charming. The ‘Living Architecture’ exhibition was held on the Lansbury estate in London, the estate was designed as a model to demonstrate that good planning in buildings and architecture could still be achieved after a destroyed Britain. This was one of the first post-war urban planning projects put forward by the London County Council to transform the mood and appearance of the city. Architects such as YRM, Geoffrey Jellicoe and Sir Frederick Gibberd were responsible for the Lansbury estate, and 50 years on in 2001 the AF and Leaside Regeneration held a day to celebrate 50 years of the Lansbury estate, click here to watch the celebrations.

(Fig.2) The Lansbury Estate today, Tower Hamlets, London

 Classic 50’s Design, was the 50’s the beginning of Post-modernism?

I would agree so, at this point modernism was the way forward for Britain, there was no looking back after the brutality of the war. Reshaping the world into a modern, new world was an appealing motive, it was now that designers began to interpret modernism in their own personal ways and more consumable products started to appear. Christian Dior created a new look in fashion with the production and designs of ‘pencil skirts’ a long, tight, over the knee skirt, moving away from the previous women’s fashion before modernism. Mr Dior said the design of the pencil skirt encouraged women to walk with a ‘wiggle’.

(Fig.3) Christian Dior’s’ Pencil skirt advert, 1950

Household products were designed and sold, such as the Ernest Race Antelope Chair, designed by Ernest Race whom before the war had earned his title for his great textile and interior design work. He was inspired by emerging technologies and materials developed during the war, however the government implemented the ‘utility furniture scheme’ due to shortages of materials after the war, therefor Race was forced to make his first design, the BA3 chair, from aluminium taken from war planes. From 1945 – 1960 the Ernest Race company produced some of the most iconic designs of the post war era.

(Fig.4) The Ernest Race Antelope Chair

Architecture and buildings changed! New designs never seen before started decorating the skies across all nations.

(Fig.5) The Pallezetto della sport, Rome. The structure was Built in 1957 for the summer Olympics, designed by architect Annibale Vitellozzi, An auxiliary example of modernist movements all over the world


The media also took to promoting modernism in our own homes, by showcasing interior design TV adverts on our TV screens, getting people to think about new ways of decorating their own homes, letting go of the previous chaotic  décor.

(Fig.6) A 1956 interior décor advert, promoting modernist designs


  1. Festival of britain, 18.11.15
  2. Lansbury estate 18.11.15
  3. 3. Christian dior pencil skirt, 1950, 18.11.15
  4. Ernest Race antelope chair, 18.11.15
  5. Pallezetto della sport, rome, 18.11.15
  6. House beautiful advert 1956, 18.11.15

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