Art review: Mid-Century Modern, Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh

The spirit of Swinging London comes to Scotland in a stylish new show, writes Susan Mansfield

The new show at Dovecot Studios shows how Mary Quant and Terence Conran led a very British revolution
The new show at Dovecot Studios shows how Mary Quant and Terence Conran led a very British revolution

One could say we are in the midst of a mid-century modern revival. Designers such as Orla Kiely, whose work was featured at Dovecot last year, and a hundred others, have taken the aesthetics of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and given them a new life, brighter, bolder and cleaner than they were in their original form.

This exhibition, an earlier incarnation of which was shown at the Fashion and Textile Museum as Swinging London: A Lifestyle Revolution, attempts to show us what things really looked like in the post-war era. The revolution in question, it suggests, is a quieter one than the more sensational accounts of the time might indicate.

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If “Swinging London” conjures images of rock stars, supermodels and Chelsea intellectuals, this show is more soft furnishings than hard rock. It’s about the chairs people sat on and the clothes they wore, about the deeply radical change which happens incrementally as ordinary people change the way they live.

Two names predominate here: Terence Conran and Mary Quant, near contemporaries who had grown up during the Second World War and were emerging from art college in the early 1950s, when a new generation was looking for more from life than the make-do-and-mend world of their parents.

Conran, who had his first exhibition, Ideas and Objects for the Home, at Simpson’s in Picadilly in 1952, was working out of a basement he rented from Ballet Rambert in Notting Hill, making chairs and selving units with Eric O’Leary, who had worked for Henry Moore.

Quant, with the help of her entrepreneur husband-to-be, Alexander Plunket Greene, opened her first shop, Bazaar, in Chelsea in 1955. Her second, in Knightsbridge, was designed by Conran, and offered him a chance to shake up London’s ideas about what a fashion store should look like.

Artistic influences are touched on. Conran was a graduate of the Central School of Arts & Crafts, where Eduardo Paolozzi had been an influential mentor. Italian designer Piero Fornasetti, who was associated with surrealism, and his mentor, Gio Ponti, were also important. There is not enough work here to tell us much about them, but Fornasetti’s “Roman foot” umbrella stand suggests he knew a thing or two about quirky humour.

The influences which shaped Quant are alluded to even more briefly – we know she admired Coco Chanel – but it is what she did with her designs that mattered. Always looking for ways to take her work to the mass market, she jumped at the chance to work with JC Penney, the largest department store chain in America, in 1961, and designed patterns for Butterick which enabled thousands of women to make her clothes in their own homes.

A larger exhibition devoted to Quant at the V&A Dundee (due to reopen in late August) might offer more insights into her artistic process, but what is most striking about the clothes on show here is the absence of the iconic pieces with which she is associated: mini skirts, hotpants, bright tights.

Instead, there are sac dresses in sensible wool and twill, flapper-style drop waists, knee-length skirts and pinafores in colours like grey, rust and aubergine. These are not clothes to stop traffic, they are elegant, comfortable clothes which real women – our mothers and grandmothers – wore.

Early Conran furniture designs, steel-framed units with wooden drawers and shelves, have the elegance of bespoke pieces. But his thoughts were already on mass-produced modular units. With the development of his Habitat stores in the mid-1960s, he pioneered practical storage solutions – seats which doubled as storage boxes, sofas which turned into beds – and “knock-down” furniture, the forerunner of today’s self-assembly flat-packs.

Alongside the twin giants of Quant and Conran, other great popularisers are introduced. Food writer Elizabeth David published books (beautifully illustrated by the artist John Minton) which challenged British ideas and expectations about food with wisdom from the continent. The writer Evelyn Waugh said she had his vote as the person most responsible for improving British life in the 20th century.

At the same time, another husband-and-wife team, Bernard and Laura Ashley, were printing tea towels, aprons and headscarves (an accessory popularised by Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday) on their kitchen table in Pimlico. For those of us familiar with the florals and ruffles of later decades, these early works, riffing off Edwardian advertisements, and their first clothes – beautifully practical smocks and A-line dresses – are a revelation in themselves.

Elements of Scottishness are elbowed in: Jean Muir is referred to, but without context. The work of Bute fabrics, launched in 1947 to support the Scottish weaving industry, is featured, as is Bernat Klein who, while selling Galashiels tweed to Chanel, was another great populariser, through knitting patterns and affordable clothes in viscose.

Quant experimented relentlessly with the new materials of the day, particularly plastic and PVC, with mixed success. A range of footwear made from moulded plastic was short-lived as it was found to be cold in winter and sweaty in summer. Towards the end of the 1960s she was becoming as interested in make-up as in clothes.

One is left in no doubt that Conran, Quant and their contemporaries changed the expectations of many in Britain with regard to fashion and design. Whether, as the exhibition introduction claims, they invented today’s liberal society, is less clear (if, indeed, we still have a liberal society, but that is a discussion for another time).

What they did invent was affordable design and, while no one can argue this is a bad thing, it has brought consequences no one could have forseen, not least an explosion in budget fashion and home furnishings the cost of which we and the earth are only beginning to calculate.

But this show is not about that. It is about how radical change happens incrementally, and often unsensationally. The fact is, these carefully composed displays of mannequins and furniture are stylish, but dated. The notion of what is “modern”, by definition, will change. And simple, functional, unpretentious design does not make for a sensational exhibition. But perhaps this is where the real revolution happens – ordinary life.

Mid-Century Modern: Art & Design from Conran to Quant runs until January 2021, tickets £9.50 (£8.50), entry is by timed slots, visit to book

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