BY Ann Coxon in Reviews | 09 SEP 08
Featured in
Issue 117

From Atoms to Patterns

Wellcome Collection, London, UK

BY Ann Coxon in Reviews | 09 SEP 08

Festival Pattern Group, Souvenir Book of Crystal Designs (1951)

In 1937 Helen Megaw presented her friend Dorothy Hodgkin with a linen cushion as a wedding gift. She had embroidered onto the cushion, in silver, red and blue thread, the pattern of the crystal structure of aluminium hydroxide. Megaw was not an artist or craftsperson, and her seemingly bizarre choice of design was no Conceptual statement or Surrealist strategy. Rather, it was her first attempt to apply to a domestic object the patterns she encountered through her work as a scientific researcher, and it was the starting-point for an idea that was to come to fruition years later at the 1951 Festival of Britain. Megaw’s embroidered cushion was sadly not available for inclusion in ‘From Atoms to Patterns’, an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection exploring the crystal structure designs commissioned by the Festival Pattern Group. Curated by the design historian Lesley Jackson, the exhibition included a range of objects from the collections and archives of the Victoria and Albert and the Science Museum, most of which have not been seen together since 1951. Given the current taste for pattern in interior design and the resurgence of interest in all things ‘mid-century modern’, the exhibition seemed particularly timely, if not overdue.

Famously described by its initiator Herbert Morrison as ‘a tonic for the nation’ after years of make-do and mend, the Festival of Britain celebrated British ingenuity and innovation in art, science, industry and design. In preparation for the festival the newly established Council of Industrial Design sought to establish a unique collaboration between scientists, designers and manufacturers. Megaw, by then a leading Cambridge crystallographer with a passion for pattern, initiated the Festival Pattern Group and kept a close eye on the quality and accuracy of the resulting designs. What is remarkable about all of the material commissioned is both its faithfulness to the original scientific source and the neatness of this collaboration between scientists and designers – ideal material for a Wellcome Collection exhibition given the organisation’s remit to explore the connections between science (medicine in particular), life and art.

Given only a small amount of gallery space, ‘From Atoms to Patterns’ was a densely packed and highly focused presentation. Set against a suitably retro exhibition design (which included funky insulin wallpaper), the majority of the exhibits were created by the participating Festival Pattern Group manufacturers. Scientific drawings sat alongside the designs they inspired. Among the objects included were silk ties woven with ball-and-spoke atomic structures, plastic laminates, wallpapers, dress fabrics, furniture, curtains, window glass and other objects displaying crystal structure designs – and an evening gown made of lace embroidered with the pattern of beryl (emerald) and aluminium hydroxide. Although I remain a little unclear about the scientific process of X-ray crystallography, the exhibition was successful in telling the story of the Group, highlighting its unique and seemingly implausible remit and its peculiar success as a cross-disciplinary venture. Given the luxury of more space, it might have been interesting to broaden the range of objects to show the legacy of the designs, some of which were familiar: the ball-and-spoke or honeycomb structures, for example, which appear to have been incorporated into the language of design ever since.

It is evident that the Festival Pattern Group owed its successes as much to the personalities and enthusiasms of those involved as to the prevalent climate of hope (perhaps partially masking fear) associated with the scientific developments of the atomic age. Reflecting on the curiously artistic nature of the Group’s endeavour – especially in the light of the present appetite for artist-initiated collaborative research – begs the question of whether the results would have been the same if this project had been initiated or led by an artist. The new tools and ‘miracles’ of the scientific study of nature were in fact simultaneously embraced by artists such as Richard Hamilton (whose exhibition ‘Growth and Form’ opened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1951 as an unofficial contribution to the festival) and György Kepes at MIT (who produced a seminal exhibition, ‘The New Landscape in Art and Science’, also in 1951, pairing Modernist art works with scientific images). Hamilton’s show was a key experiment in exhibition design, using the show as a form in its own right. Inspired by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s book on morphology On Growth and Form (1917), the show included a wide range of materials, including scientific models, diagrams, drawings, photographs and films. Crystal structure diagrams were therefore presented in a slightly different context, although with curiously similar motivations. In her essay ‘Pattern in Crystallography’ (1946) 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. For the crystallographer these patterns are ready translatable into visual terms.’