Cool Britannia

Timeless Design


Whether it’s the competitive nature of being an island nation, or the melting pot of influences that the UK enjoys, the country is responsible for more than its fair share of design inspirations. Millboard’s Caroline Birdsall takes a look at the timeline of British design

From Beau Brummell’s foppery to Thomas Telford’s ingenuity with steel, British creativity and engineering has contributed enormously to aesthetic movements and cultures that have inspired the world.

British style never sits still. Like water, it’s constantly moving, finding new modes of expression, new outlets and forms. The mid-to-late 20th century demonstrates this perfectly with its never-ending flux of styles, textures and colour.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 marked a watershed moment in British design. Prior to this bullet-point in history, Britain still wore the scars and bore the material shortages of two World Wars. The festival – a celebrated exhibition of forward-thinking design – saw downbeat hues and utilitarian function give way to the bright zingy colours that would come to define the 50s and 60s.

Suddenly, Britain was embracing new materials – plastics, steel and blonde woods. The emancipation from staid and traditional opened the floodgates to personal style and with the opening of Habitat in 1964, the UK’s interior design market was changed forever. Sir Terence Conran’s shop offered a ‘gutsy, comfortable and robust’ living experience that had more in common with a Mediterranean ethos than British.

As the decade waxed to its fullness, America’s space explorations began to seep into the DNA of the UK’s futuristic, streamlined interiors. Built-in kitchen appliances and sleeker gadgets were highly sought after, and innovative uses of plastics (e.g. the Panton chair, a cantilevered design moulded from a single piece of plastic) helped homeowners to cultivate the interstellar aesthetic

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as the 70s drew near, Britain’s design bounded in the opposite direction, away from polished metals and egg-shaped chairs, and into the arms of romantic prints, earthy tones and natural materials. Conversely, the 1980s became the era in which plastics became the most used materials in the world. Their multiform development ushered in a new standard of living at an accessible price. 1979 saw the first PVC double-glazed window installations, and by the 1980s, this pliant and strong material was being used on everything from earrings to the newly launched ‘Dyson’ vacuum cleaner.

The 1990s continued this trend. Arguably the most lauded design of the decade was British designer Jony Ive’s iMac G3 – the iconic home computer with colourful, translucent casing. But the 90s also birthed yet another counter-movement, this time towards rustic interiors. Pine kitchens became ubiquitous and greenery reigned supreme from the ivy wall stencils in the living room to the dried flowers on the dining room table.

Post-millennia, we’ve the best of both worlds. The staples of contemporary design are heavily drawn from the natural world but we’ve engineered the trial-and-error materials of our forebears to marry nature to innovation in superior ways. Millboard’s mineral-based decking, for example, adorns many statement builds, from the iconic Trafalgar St James Hotel in London, to the award-winning Floating Pocket Park. It’s a design success of our times and its ascendency attests to the fact that it has combined these two elements so successfully – it beautifully mimics natural timber whilst outperforming it in terms of maintenance, endurance and slip resistance.

As we look forward to the 20s, it’s worth remembering that each decade since the Festival of Britain has visited such strange new creations and visual cultures on the country, that we’ve no real clues as to what’s coming next. Thrilling.

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