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Chris Yeo: 1966 and all that

Expert opinion from Chris Yeo, valuer at Clevedon Salerooms, curator of the Ken Stradling Collection in Bristol and expert on BBC Antiques Roadshow

As she embarked on her journey to international stardom, I wonder if it occurred to Diana Ross that she might one day be compared to a fork? In the unlikely event that it did then 1965 would have been an auspicious year for her as that was when Design magazine opined that it would be a ‘great day when British furniture and cutlery learn to swing like the Supremes’.

Of all the decades of the 20th century, the 1960s still exerts the most powerful grip on popular memory. Think of the design of the period, and it’s the usual suspects – minis (cars and skirts), Beatles album covers and psychedelic posters – which hog the limelight. Less well remembered is the impact the decade’s dynamic creativity had on the home – a glaring omission given this was the decade that ‘design’ as we know it arrived in British homes for the first time.

1960s interiors were all about swirling psychedelic colours, bright plastics and inflatable furniture as the whole country turned on to the tune-in drop-out ethos freshly blown in from the hippy communes of San Francisco. Well, that is what any number of ‘retro’ themed magazine articles and the makers of Austin Powers would have you believe. Never normally one to let the facts get in the way of a good story, on this occasion I’m afraid I am going to be a party pooper.

The story of design in Britain in the ’60s was less about groovy colour schemes and hallucinogens and more white-hot creativity. For sheer verve and originality few other decades came close. At its heart was a fertile cross-pollination of ideas and influences from the worlds of art, music, fashion and even science. While this was nothing new, in the ’60s the tempo reached fever pitch – and it was largely due to the young generation and LSD, by which I mean pounds, shillings and pence. With near-enough full employment, young people enjoyed unprecedented levels of disposable income. They had money in their pocket, took their fashion tips from Carnaby Street and the audience on Top of the Pops and, when the time came to set up a home of their own, they had no intention of copying their parents’ Regency stripe wallpaper. British manufacturers quickly realised that if they wanted to get on, they had to get with it.

Long established firms like Poole Pottery and Whitefriars Glass kept their fingers on the pulse, recruiting graduates fresh from art school. They translated the trends of swinging London and the artistic avant-garde into material form with the result that a teapot, vase or table can be as evocative an expression of ’60s style as a Mary Quant mini dress. The changes in design over the course of the period mirrored those being wrought in society during a decade of rapid change – from stylistic conformity and the rule of ‘correct taste’ at the start of it to self-expression and doing your own thing at its end.

My personal favourite piece from the ‘60s? That would have to be the Lumitron lamp of 1966 by the Cotswolds designer Robert Welch. Drawing its inspiration from the global race to put a man on the moon, its smoked acrylic and Perspex shade was inspired by astronauts’ helmets. You could say it’s a case of Chipping Camden, we have lift off!

clevedonsalerooms.com; @chrisyeo_antiques (Instagram)

An exhibition on the design of this period – ‘The Future Is Here: The Swinging Sixties’ – is on show until 25 September at the Stradling Gallery, 48 Park Row, Bristol, BS1 5LH. Details and opening times can be found at stradlingcollection.org/whats-on

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