Domesticity in post 1945 England and the Role of Sculpture in the Home
Penny Sparke

5 December 2008

Domesticity in post 1945 England and the Role of Sculpture in the Home


The years after 1945 saw a renewed interest in the role of the home. With the cessation of hostilities came a wholesale commitment, on the parts both of governmental bodies and of private individuals, to the creation of a new domesticity and a renewed emphasis on the role of the family. This was the case for a number of reasons: firstly, with people (especially women) returning home after the war effort the family was seen as the base unit of a secure, peacetime society; secondly domesticity played a part in the strategy to increase the birth-rate following wartime losses; and thirdly the home was seen as the destination for the new domestic goods that rolled off the production lines in those years as the factories turned away from manufacture for war to production for peacetime.

As well as being seen as wives and mothers women were also defined as consumers and, as such, played an important part in the need to create a new home market for domestic goods. As a result marketing and advertising were largely targeted at them. Keen to get the post-war economy moving the government saw the development of the home market as a stage in the process of boosting international trade. The home became the container for the new goods, therefore – from furniture to furnishings to domestic electricals etc.

Linked to the renewed interest in familial domesticity was an emphasis upon a concept of post-war modernity that played an important role within everyday life and which expressed itself materially and spatially in the home. In contrast to pre-war English domestic modernism which, based on European ideas developed at the German Bauhaus and elsewhere, had appealed to a predominantly middle-class ‘high brow’ audience, its post-war equivalent was represented by a lighter, more decorative aesthetic that appealed to a much wider sector of society. Importantly, however, it also presented itself as a marker of the future rather than the past and although it drew to some extent on traditional models (the 18th century in particular) it was aggressively ‘of the moment’ – indeed the term widely used at the time was ‘contemporary’. The concept of ‘contemporary design’ was embraced and promulgated by a wide range of interested parties, from the newly-formed Council of Industrial Design (CoID) (1944) to department stores and other retail outlets to women’s magazines, how to do it manuals and radio and TV programmes.

Central to the propagandist efforts to embed a contemporary aesthetic into the homes of post-war British society – a campaign that involved exhorting consumers to throw out their old and inherited possessions and purchase new items – was the work of the CoID. The product first of a coalition government, then from 1945 of a Labour one, and from 1951, of a Tory regime, its main remit was to raise the standards of taste in the British population as part of a larger ambition to improve standards in manufacturing, thereby improving Britain’s place in international trade and enabling it to compete with other countries, such as the USA and Sweden, that had embraced the message of ‘good design’. Led from 1946 onwards by Gordon Russell – an inheritor of the mantle of the 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement that had promoted the principles of ‘truth to materials’ and ‘fitness to purpose’ – it quickly became a powerful agent in the modernisation of Britain in the years after 1945.

Among the many strategies adopted by the CoID was the mounting of public exhibitions. The 1946 Britain Can Make It (BCMI) exhibition, held in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum which had been emptied during the war, was the first major event to attract the post-war British public and to encourage it to address the issue of the design of the objects and interior settings in their homes. At the 1951 Festival of Britain, held on London’s South Bank, the Council followed up their 1946 programme with yet more exhibited domestic interiors that demonstrated the way the contemporary style provided a means of engaging with modernity and of embracing the present and the future.

As already suggested Britain was not the alone in pioneering the link between art and design in the domestic setting. Earlier in the century a precedent for including small sculptural objects in such settings had been established by the French ensembliers who, under the banner of Art Deco, understood the domestic interior as a work of art within which there was no hierarchical distinction between the fine and the applied arts (the Estonian sculptor Dora Gordine, who worked in England from the mid 1930s, and whose work was represented in the early Sculpture in the Home exhibitions, had lived in Paris in the 1920s and was clearly influenced by what she had seen there). Art Deco made its way to Britain through the work of the inter-war interior decorators – Duncan Miller, Arundell Clarke among them – who offered a different model of material and spatial modernity to that of the European modernists, one, arguably, that embraced the idea of sculpture in the home most warmly.