Furnishing the modern street: the critical reception to street furniture design in postwar Britain
Herring, Eleanor Anna McNiven
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, many of the British government’s attempts to rebuild the social order and improve standards were experienced through design. This was true not only in the home and in the workplace, but also in the everyday civic environment of the street. Ensuring that objects as ubiquitous as lampposts, litterbins and parking meters adopted the visual language of modern design – while at the same time, remaining inconspicuous - was perceived as being vitally important by the authorities concerned. For it was through such objects that Britain’s new social and cultural agenda was given physical expression, and Good Design was deliberately introduced into people’s everyday lives. Yet for a category of object designed to be ignored, postwar street furniture prompted considerable debate. For some members of the public, the new designs were grotesque, and represented a defacement of the country and its landscape’s individual character. While for others, modern street furniture design was a means of civilizing Britain’s streets. The design of these objects also drew strong feelings from the groups involved with its improvement, including central and local government, the Council of Industrial Design and other state-advisory bodies, manufacturers, and civic groups. Sometimes this multi-layered group worked to improve the design of street furniture together, and sometimes in opposition. This thesis is concerned with the critical reception of street furniture design in postwar Britain, and the debate these objects prompted. It emerges out of an interest in the systems and structures underpinning design culture, and a belief that reading the banal built world expands our knowledge of how political power works. Rather than prioritise the designed objects themselves or the intentions of those responsible for producing them – such as the designers and manufacturers – the thesis will expand the debate to include the wide variety of contemporary viewpoints that were expressed, both in public and private, in response to the promotion, dissemination and design of modern street furniture. Extending the discussion beyond the official design narrative to other, equally important voices reflects a more accurate picture of the process through which street furniture was discussed, understood and even determined during this period. Using extensive primary material from archives, contemporary periodicals and newspapers, and interviews with street furniture designers practicing in the postwar period, the five chapters of this thesis address the different arguments employed by the multiplicity of voices active in the debate. While many of these arguments focused on dichotomies - between old and new, local and central, modern and traditional - the thesis contends that postwar dissent over street furniture was informed by wider debates about Good Design, design’s relationship to high and low culture, its social and moral responsibilities, and taste. The dominance of such themes throughout the thesis reflects the wider social context of the period, which witnessed considerable changes to the authority of its institutions and cultural hierarchy, as well as more timely debates about power, influence and class in the shaping of public life.