“The inter-relationships between design and science are rich, productive and reciprocal. Designers can draw influence from the world of science, and they themselves can impact on the practice of science.” 1
On 20 February 1946 crystallographer Helen Megaw from Birkbeck College, London, proposed an intriguing suggestion to the director of the Design Research Unit: ‘I should like to ask designers of wallpapers and fabrics to look at the patterns made available by X-ray crystallography. I am constantly being impressed by the beauty of the designs which crop up.’ Her suggestion came to fruition five years later in the Festival of Britain in the work of Festival Pattern Group. (Jackson, 5)
In 1915, due to Sir Lawrence Bragg and his father, Sir William Henry Bragg’s invention of X-ray crystallography, enabled scientists to study structure at a sub-microscopic level and to discover the arrangement of atoms within molecules.(Jackson, 6)
It is interesting that Braggs themselves had used wallpapers as analogy to explain the concepts of crystallography: ‘A crystal structure, like wallpaper, consists of a unit of pattern which repeats itself indefinitely,’(Jackson, 7)
During the 1940s and 1950s, X-ray Crystallography was one of the most vital and intriguing fields in science, and Britain was the cutting edge of the world. Scientists felt a great excitement and optimism with the discoveries that they were making. Another Nobel Prize laureate Dorothy Crow Hodgkin in 1945, figured out the structure of penicillin, vitamin B12, and insulin. Francis Crick and James Watson unraveled the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953 from the X-ray diffraction photograph taken from Rosalind Franklin. John Kendrew discovers the 3d structure of protein for the first time which was myoglobin in 1957. And Megaw was an assistant director of research at this epicenter -the Cavendish Laboratory- of the crystallographic scene. (Jackson, 8)
Chief Industrial Officer from the Council of Industrial Design Hartland Thomas also who was an architect realized the potential of Helen Megaw’s suggestion. Hartland Thomas spearheaded and piloted the Festival Pattern Group making an efficient team with Helen Megaw. Hartland Thomas was already a member of the Festival of Britain Presentation Panel responsible for overseeing buildings and displays on the South Bank, and Helen Megaw was officially invited to act as scientific consultant in August 1949.(Jackson, 9)
Exhibition related to science took in two places in the Festival. One was at the South Bank exhibition inside the dome of discovery, and the other was science exhibition in a science museum in Kensington.
Festival Pattern Group’s works were mainly displayed in the Regatta Restaurant in the South Bank.
Preparation for the exhibition started from gathering crystal structure diagrams that crystallographers drew. Helen Megaw’s connection with Cavendish Laboratory made the gathering easier. Manufacturers would select the diagrams that suited them the most, and through regular meetings with FPG, Helen Megaw and Hartland Thomas gave feedbacks. Helen Megaw was concerned when the product diverged too much from the original diagram superimposed with irregular splotches which are scientifically meaningless while Hartland Thomas was less critical. Throughout the project, scientific accuracy of the interpretations was consistently emphasized and monitored. Modifications were only allowed when thy were legitimate within the framework of scientific knowledge. (Forgan, 229) Since it takes many years -it took 13 years to figure out the structure of insulin- of devotion to work out a particular crystal structure, close attention to detail and strictness towards accuracy seems natural. All the crystallographers were sworn to keep the whole project in secret. One reason was to protect the scientist’s reputations by separating serious academic research from more light-hearted interpretation works of FPG, and the other was to provide a surprise to the people without spoiling them beforehand. (Jackson, 15)
Most of FPG products were two-dimensional decorations, carpets, curtains, wallpapers, lace, dress fabrics, ties, plates and ashtrays, but few three-dimensional items were created. Attempts to produce crystal structure tableware, glassware and cutlery were hindered by shortages in providing material and also a lack of time. (17) Also, architects’ prevalent preconception and distrust against the pattern hindered the development of the FPG’s products.(Jackson, 18)
FPG’s works were mostly scattered across the Festival of Britain which made its impact seem diluted but yet media such as The Times commented on FPG’s work that it is a pleasant change to dissociate the atom from the idea of a destructive bomb and to apply it to the creation of things of beauty. (Jackson, 26)
The raison d’etre of Festival Pattern Group is the integrity and authenticity of the scientific material and the accuracy of which it was interpreted which had ever been attempted in the design history. (Jackson, 16)
Jackson, Lesley. From Atoms to Patterns: Crystal structure designs from the 1951 Festival of Britain. Somerset, UK: Richard Dennis, 2008.
Sophie Forgan, “Festivals of science and the two cultures: science, design, and display in the Festival of Britain, 1951” BJHS, 31(1998):217–240, Print.
“Design | Wellcome Collection — Wellcome Trust.” Wellcome Collection. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2017 <https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/design-0>