Scientific patterns at the Festival of Britain

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An ashtray designed around the crystal structure of Pentaerythritol

The work of the Festival Pattern Group was one of the most interesting aspects of design and science at the Festival of Britain. This group worked with designs derived from crystals structure diagrams, the maps drawn by scientists when recording the arrangement of atoms in a particular material. The repeats in the diagrams worked in a similar way to those in a fabric or wallpaper pattern and a group of designers worked to adapt these designs to their own particular products.

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The group was the brainchild of Mark Hartland Thomas, Chielf Industrial Officer at the Council of Industrial Design (CoID). Thomas encountered crystallography in May 1949 at a meeting organised by the Society of Industrial Artists. Thomas was put in touch with Dr Helen Megaw of Girton College, Cambridge, who had already seen potential for pattern designs in crystal structure diagrams. He managed to pursued Dr Megaw not to publish a planned paper on these designs, instead she worked with the Pattern Group as a consultant where he promised that her work would receive far greater exposure.

The late 1940’s had seen a growth in the faith in science, new developments and techniques for understanding were providing new knowledge at every corner, knowledge that could only enhance the lives and provide solutions to long extant problems. The belief that this faith could be applied to pattern design is a curious reflection of the period and this overwhelming faith.

The largest gathering of the new designs on the South Bank was at the Regatta Restaurant designed by Misha Black. This was to be a showpiece for the new designs. having secured the support of fourteen different companies the plan was to launch the designs at the restaurant and to introduce ranges for foreign markets at the same time taking advantage of the publicity that the unveiling of the venture was likely to generate.

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Designs from this short lived venture are now rare, the designs for boric acid and insulin were used for wallpaper patterns, a beryl pattern was used on plates by Wedgwood, ties, bridal veils, patterns on furnishings and cutlery were all used.

The excitement that Thomas envisaged never quite materialised. The ambitious claims of uniting science, art and industry in one project were realised to some extent, however it did not proceed beyond the application of decorative patterns to existing products. One of the most interesting products to be produced as part of the furnishings for the restaurant was the glass ashtray by Wood Brothers Glass Company of Barnsley. A pressed glass design based on the diagram for Pentaerythritol, it is one of very few three dimensional design created for the project. Wood Borthers made 700 of these ashtrays for use at the restaurant and other Festival locations, they were so supportive of the project and so convinced of its success that they provided them without charge.

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Items displaying designs by the Festival Pattern Group are rare today, the images from the Crystal designs brochure and the Festival publications are many and varied. I have a couple of other examples that I will write about in the future. It would be great to hear from you if you have any examples.

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