'The designs which shaped our world': Exhibition sheds light on origins of 'ordinary' man-made creations

Chris Parsons
Yahoo! News
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Iconic: Motorway signage features in the collection (Design Museum)

They are the items which we all take for granted - but they helped shaped our world.

From giant motorway signs to tiny ballpoint pens, Tupperware and cutlery, British history is littered with iconic designs which have all made our lives easier in some way.

Now these seemingly 'ordinary' items are being celebrated in a new exhibition which casts light on how they came to have such a big influence on our lives.

Innovations featured in the London Design Museum’s 'Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things' exhibition include the first design of the humble hairdryer in 1946 and the iconic Anglepoise lamp - a design which has since been imitated for decades worldwide.

There are also nods to designs which have shaped British identity, such as the red phone box, British road signs, and even the London 2012 logo.

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Curators told Yahoo! News the exhibition aims to 'inspire designers', as well as tell the story of design, from the biggest to the smallest creations.

Among the objects on show is the Anglepoise Lamp, an iconically-shaped table light originally devised by a car engineer in pre-Second World War Britain.

George Carwardine, whose factory firm specialised in vehicle suspension systems, invented a new type of spring which could move in every direction but also remained rigid when held in place.

After patenting the new creation in 1932, he eventually found a use for the spring by building it in Anglepoise, allowing the lamp to be constantly repositioned to focus in different directions.

Carwardine based its design on the 'constant tension' principle of human limbs, with the Anglepoise featuring similar flexibility and stability as a human arm.

During the war, Carwardine would market the Anglepoise as 'the perfect lamp to use in a blackout' because of the way it can focus a beam of light in one direction.

The collection also celebrates designs which are quintessentially British, summing up our national identity in one iconic creation.

One such example is the motorway signage system - a design made in the 1960s when new road signs were needed to keep up with our continental cousins and replace their outdated predecessors.

The new signs came about thanks to a long journey undertaken by graphic designer Jock Kinneir in the early 1960s.

Appalled at the state of Britain's haphazard roads signs, he drove from central London to Heathrow Airport, photographing the signs along the way.

The signs he snapped were all too small and wordy for drivers to read at high speed without it being dangerous.

The system he came up with, along with colleague Margaret Calvert, featured different typefaces and symbols, along with lower case lettering, and was 'one of the most ambitious design projects ever undertaken in Britain'.

Their system of curvier lettering (demonstrated on the giant 1:1 scale A52 sign at the exhibition), was less harsh than the blunt capitals used in road signs abroad, and has since been copied the world over.

Like the new motorway signage system, the K6 was a nationally-commissioned project - this time in 1935 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V.

Gilbert Scott was given the brief of making the phone box suitable for universal use, eradicating the mistakes made in previous models.

The K6 went on to become the first genuinely standard telephone box to be installed across Britain, and there were over 70,000 in use around the country by the time production halted in 1968.

Iconically British and beloved by foreign tourists, the K6 celebrated 75 years on Britain's streets only last year.

Gemma Curtin, curator of the exhibition, says it is 'the idea of change' which links the items in the collection together.

She told Yahoo! News: "I wanted to show the fact that design is everything - everything around us has been designed, from the smallest item in the collection, the BIC pen, which is still in production, to the motorway sign system.

"The material has really dominated the 20th century, and the collection really shows how designers have used it through to the present.

"Nearly all the exciting designs through history have occurred because there's a need for it, there's a new material that's been invented like plastic, where a design can respond to that, or a development in technology which provides new possibilities for designers."

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