Mrs Thatcher, Postmodernism and the Politics of Design in Britain
Woodham, Jonathan M (2011) Mrs Thatcher, Postmodernism and the Politics of Design in Britain In: Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990. V&A, London. ISBN 1851776591; 9781851776597
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Although there have been a number of accounts which reference Mrs Thatcher’s pronunciations on design, there have been few design historical accounts that have examined her writings, speeches, interviews and seminars in any sustained way. As Margaret Thatcher’s many statements on design have testified, she was committed to the importance of design as key to the future success of British industry throughout her premiership (1979–90), years during which postmodernist design flourished in Britain. The spirit of postmodernism can readily be aligned with the primacy of the individual, deregulation and the values of the ‘enterprise culture’ that gathered pace during the 1980s, as well as its myriad of stylistic guises. Yet Mrs Thatcher was committed to the promotion of a ‘good design’ ethos throughout her career, one largely formulated in the 1950s. Despite the advent of Pop and the emergence of significant youthful and more pluralistic markets in the 1960s, Modernism had remained the dominant design aesthetic, coexisting with the Keynesian economic interdependency of government, public and private sectors over a long period of growth. However, these twin post-war ideals began to fragment in the 1970s and they were to be radically shifted by Mrs Thatcher’s policies of the following decade. ‘Popular capitalism’, or privatization, came to the fore alongside her belief that ‘there is no such thing as society’, only ‘individual men and women’. During the 1980s there was considerable government commitment to the project of design promotion, including Thatcher’s influential No.10 [Downing Street] Design Seminars of 1982 and 1987. However, the extent to which these and other initiatives actually resulted in significant change may be measured against the Design Council chairman’s words in his foreword to the Design Council Annual Report 1986/7: ‘In Britain we have some companies whose design management is as good as any in the world; but they are the exception and mediocrity in design is the rule.’ Design management, an increasingly key part of corporate strategizing in the Thatcher era, did not endorse the complexities and idiosyncrasies of a postmodern aesthetic, any more than the emergence in the early 1990s of the ‘Young British Artists’ was welcomed by the right, even if ‘Thatcher’s Artists’, as critic Andrew Brighton described them, were validated by ‘the market, the selling of their work and exhibitions in commercial galleries that supported and acknowledged them’. Whilst postmodern design may appear to share some attributes with Mrs Thatcher’s political agenda – with its emphasis on deregulation and ‘enterprise culture’, and its commitment to the individual and the private sector – her commitment to technological innovation, funded design consultancy and improved management techniques was far more compatible with the certainties of a Modernist aesthetic than the many unpredictabilities and challenges of postmodern design. Only in the late 1990s, with the rhetoric of a New Labour ‘rebranded’ Britain, did a more open-ended definition of the creative industries actually seem to embrace the fluid languages of postmodernity.
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