Loved visiting this exhibition at the Dovecot Studios. Open again after four months of lockdown, the gallery has returned with a real sense of safety and airiness in place. You are advised to book online as they are restricting numbers, but should you turn up as a passer by, you are likely to be given a slot available, very shortly.
The exhibition was a ‘must see’ for me. It highlights the work of Terence Conran and Mary Quant primarily, and reveals the fascinating connection between them. Conran was a school friend of Quant’s husband, Alexander Plunkett Green, who she met studying at Goldsmiths College of Art. They hired Conran to designed the interiors of their shops.
They all shared a mission to modernise people’s lives and homes, Conran took huge inspiration from his travels and the second home in the South of France, that he still owns. You can see it here. He adopted many French attitudes to food and home ware, ultimately bringing them over here to sell when he opened his iconic chain of shops, Habitat in 1964.
Responsible for popularising the idea of ‘open plan living’ here, in Britain, he introduced us to many wonders including the chicken brick, terracotta floor tiles and duvets.
I remember my mum’s dubiousness about duvets saying that they ‘fell off during the night’ and that you were either ‘too hot or too cold’. She seriously felt we were all much more in control of our night time temperature with good old sheets and blankets. I can still remember the arduous task of ‘making my bed’ and the arguments that ensued over the acceptable standard of this activity.
My Hungarian dad was obviously much more open to the idea of duvets, as he had been brought up with them, and he very indulgently bought me one for my thirteenth birthday. We still have it in our TV room – it is wonderfully soft and frayed now – we call it ‘the snuggly duvet’ – there is honestly no better companion for a late night movie!
My husband’s father is exactly the same age as Terence Conran and as a young architect in the 1950s and 60s shared his vision of the future. Douglas’s parents built their open plan home in Morningside in 1963, Douglas was the very first resident and the Habitat catalogue was favourite family reading material.
Swinging London was well under way by now and simply could not have happened without Mary Quant’s fashion and beauty ideas: mini skirts, tights and pull on boots became strict uniform for fans of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, hair and make up followed suit: you could not dance the night away in beautifully coiffed hair and heavy pancake makeup quite so easily.
Suddenly, women were able to wash and go! You could literally step out of the shower, slip on a dress, a wee pop of eyeliner and blusher and go to a party…
Our food attitudes started to change as well. Conran was a supporter and a collaborator with the food writer, Elizabeth David, whose books are also included in the exhibition. Like Conran, David also travelled to France as a young woman, she went to Paris as an au pair to a French family and became bewitched by their ways and habits — shopping in the market daily for fresh food, selecting the produce that looked the absolute best and planning a meal around it. She learnt to cook quickly and simply, letting the natural flavours of the ingredients sing out and then enjoyed the food with delicious complementary wines over long family conversations that would last the whole evening.
Formality was eschewed by these modern ideas, kitchens, dining and living rooms were merged, evening and daywear became much less distinguishable and family meals became, potentially, as important and joyful as meals for entertaining friends and colleagues.
Naturally conflict arose with these new ideas and some were adopted more happily than others. Tragically, modernist architecture was badly translated by British builders and developers: high rise flats were built without insulation and quickly became damp and the families that were housed in them became disillusioned and felt very abandoned.
The women’s movement brought freedoms that no-one wanted to give back, but also choices that gave us a double workload: women’s eagerness to earn money and gain independence was not matched by men’s eagerness to take on housework and childcare and it has taken us a few generations to even that score!
Quant’s simple silhouettes and natural beauty ideals have been challenged at every step of the way. The ideal women’s shape has become narrower with every advance of the women’s movement and now that we are constantly photographing ourselves and each other with added filters that some of us are familiar with and some of us not, Quant’s sincere aspiration that women should be free from anxieties about their appearance seems further away than ever. The body positivity movement is growing of course and is a huge support to women. Models of all shapes and sizes are regularly included in advertising campaigns but the fact is that being happy and relaxed about our appearance is still a challenge for many.