PATTERN BENEATH THE SURFACE | THE FESTIVAL PATTERN GROUP
Atoms and molecules in the Abacus Screen, SouthBank Centre by Edward Mills
Apophyllite 8.30 lace Manufactured by A. C. Gill
PATTERNITY’s mission to explore the power of pattern to build bridges between disciplines and industries is often described as pioneering, but the truth is the exploration of pattern to enhance our understanding of the world is far from unprecedented. More than 60 years ago, at 1951’s landmark Festival of Britain, the designers involved turned to the sciences for inspiration – looking through the microscope to the patterns that lie beneath the surface.
Wallpaper design based on the molecular structure of boric acid seen under the electron microscope by William Odell, 1951.
The Festival was intended to restore Britain’s faith in itself as a productive industrial nation after the ravages of World War Two, to promote better and more practical design in the rebuilding of the country’s towns and cities, and to celebrate innovation in British architecture, design, industry and the arts. More than 8.5 million people visited the Festival’s newly developed main site on London’s South Bank – those that came to dine at the event’s Regatta Restaurant would have been exposed to textile and furnishing patterns that came from a hitherto unexplored source: the molecular-scale images of x-ray crystallography.
Right: Cristobalite 8.53 metal sheet, produced by GA Harvey, a large industrial metalworking company. Cristobalite has the same chemical composition as quartz. Left: a high-pressure decorative plastic laminate with Max Perutz’s Haemoglobin 8.26 structure, designed by Martyn Rowlands for Warerite.
This was the the work of the Festival Pattern Group, a collaboration of 28 manufacturers who came together to combine two of Britain’s most exportable commodities: textiles and crystallographic expertise. Instigated by Cambridge University crystallographer Helen Megaw, who first suggested the potential for molecular imagery as a source of surface pattern, the Group created wallpapers, carpets, fabrics, ceramics, clothing and more – all emblazoned with bold crystallographic patterns, ranging from the atomic composition of beryl to the structure of insulin. The suite of products created represented the first time science-inspired pattern had been commissioned on such a scale and exposed to such a wide and varied audience.
Plates based on the crystal structure of beryl. Peter Wall, designer, for Wedgwood, part of the Festival Pattern Group, Festival of Britain, 1951.
This unprecedented collaboration underlined – possibly for the first time – the interplay of science and creativity and highlighted the role pattern plays on both the micro and macro levels. As Megaw wrote, “It is often put forward as a professed aim of science to gain control of the processes of nature … but to most scientists, perhaps, an appreciation, however inarticulate, of the pattern underlying these processes is the driving force of their work.”
The legacy of the Festival Pattern Group continues to this day –PATTERNITY, for one, might not have existed without it.
Images © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London and from The Wellcome Collection