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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > From Solving Problems to Selling Product > Context > Cultural Revolution 1950-1970
 
CONTEXT – CULTURAL REVOLUTION 1950-1970

The 1950s can be considered a watershed period for British culture. The period began with Labour’s defeat by the Conservatives at the 1951 General Election. This change in government marked a shift from state control to increased individual freedom – the Conservative election slogan promised to ‘Set the People Free’. Rationing was coming to an end, and commodities that had only been seen from a distance started to become more widely available. Britain was entering a period of increased affluence and freedom, and many of the old social and cultural structures began to be challenged, particularly by the young.
 
Americanisation
 
Balcony area at the Motel de Ville (possibly New Orleans), with car park in the background and modern wicker chairs in the foreground, 1958. DCA2998 Balcony area at the Motel de Ville (possibly New Orleans), with car park in the background and modern wicker chairs in the foreground, 1958.

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By the end of the 1950s, the American way of life had become key to the aspirations of the British public, in terms of both culture and material goods. After the deregulation of broadcasting in 1954, the way was cleared for the introduction of Commercial Television in 1955. This, coupled with the increased availability of cheap colour magazines, such as Life, Colliers and National Geographic, brought a proliferation of advertising for luxury commodities, much of it originating in America. In spite of the protestations of British intellectuals – see for example Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957) and Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society (1958) – who viewed American culture as a symptom of cultural degeneration, Hollywood movies, commercial television, glossy magazines and consumer goods proved an instant hit with British consumers. Films portrayed the colourful lifestyles that Britons had only dreamed about and increased their appetite for a release from drab post-war austerity. One of the most frequently cited films of the period, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), starred James Dean as a bored teenager, leading an affluent middle class lifestyle. Whilst he had access to his own large car, and his family lived in a home filled with luxury consumer goods, Dean’s character is full of angst and frustration. He quickly became a role model, even for British teenagers viewing from their local Odeon cinema.

To the British establishment the American capitalist system that encouraged mass consumption and planned obsolescence was a threat to the old cultural order of stability and permanence. To the average Briton it offered a rich and desirable future.
 
Affluence

The deregulation and commercialisation of society coincided with a steady increase in affluence. Due to post-war regeneration schemes, many of them originating in America, a world wide economic boom came about. Massive increases in the production and availability of consumer goods stimulated mass consumption. People expected to have goods such as televisions, refrigerators, music systems and cars as a basic requirement. Before the war these had been luxury items available only to the most privileged sections of society. Car ownership rose by 250% between 1951 and 1961, and between 1955 and 1960 average weekly earnings rose by 34%, while the cost of most technological consumer items fell in real terms. In the 1950s consumers had more money to spend on goods, and more goods from which to choose.

By the 1960s consumption had become less connected with utilitarian needs, and more to do with status and comfort. The era of the ‘lifestyle’ had begun, and specialist retailers began to spring up, providing outlets where people could buy into a new identity based around design or fashion. Teenagers became a recognised social group, and as they in turn became more affluent, they demanded goods that could differentiate them from the adult world and express their group identity. Manufacturers were only too happy to meet this demand, and ephemeral products, often reflecting an increasing interest in fashion and pop music, began to be developed and sold. As youth culture became more dominant, these attitudes rapidly spread among other social groups, and for many people their consumption choices began to underpin their personal identity.
 
1950s Wurlitzer juke box and Coke drinking teenager. CRD00436 1950s Wurlitzer juke box and Coke drinking teenager.

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Social Mobility

As a result of the state-funded education system, many children from working class families had gone on to study at college and university. By the mid 1950s, only one man in three had the same social status by occupation as his father, and only one son in four of an unskilled labourer remained unskilled. Higher education, together with increased affluence, helped to create an increase in social mobility, and with it a blurring of the old class-based distinctions between High Culture and Mass Culture. Establishment values began to be questioned, and sometimes even ridiculed, in television and radio shows, satirical magazines and films. Many of the cultural conventions that had seemed so enduring only twenty years earlier began to crumble, and new cultural forms such as cinema and pop music began to be treated with the same degree of seriousness as High Culture. Pop design embraced the kitsch and throwaway in attempts to throw-off the worthy restrictions of ‘good design’ and its modernist ideology. Pop Art took mass media and everyday life as its subject matter, while simultaneously fuelling advertising and fashion with its imagery.
 
These clocks were selected as an example of good design by the Council of Industrial Design for the 1946 Britain Can Make It Exhibition. They are a marked contrast to the selection made by the Council in 1970 for the Here Today exhibition at the Design Centre. DCA1244 These clocks were selected as an example of good design by the Council of Industrial Design for the 1946 Britain Can Make It Exhibition. They are a marked contrast to the selection made by the Council in 1970 for the Here Today exhibition at the Design Centre.

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Group of clocks and watches in an image shown in the exhibition 'Here today' at the Design Centre, London, 1970. Intended to illustrate Post-war affluence. More people have more money to spend on things that need not last a lifetime. CRD01008 Group of clocks and watches in an image shown in the exhibition 'Here today' at the Design Centre, London, 1970. Intended to illustrate "Post-war affluence. More people have more money to spend on things that need not last a lifetime."

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Affluence, social mobility and the advent of the mass media, combined with a government that placed individual freedom at the heart of its agenda, had transformed British society. There was general feeling of optimism, but also a sense of uncertainty. New freedoms and liberties had been gained, but as a result society had become more fragmented and less predictable.

To see how these wider social conditions affected the British design industries follow the link to Profession – Emerging Practice. To see how cultural theories responded to these changes read the section Theory – Postmodernism.
 
Mini Assignment

Do manufacturers still cater for ‘youth culture’? Prepare a number of sample boards that illustrate how manufacturers differentiate their product ranges according to the age range of their target markets. You could include products aimed at the elderly, as well as the young.