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Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, V&A

The world's first exhibition to chart the golden age of cruising is a stunner.

Being a travel buff, I’ve been itching to get to the V&A’s new exhibition about the glamorous heyday of cruising. Design-loving Muddy Herts editor Sandra beat me to it. Here’s what she thought….

Titanic in dry dock. 1911. Getty Images.

The V&A‘s new exhibition, Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, is the first to explore the design and cultural impact of the ocean liner around the world. It starts with Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s steamship the Great Eastern, and ends with the QE2 and it’s a compelling tale – told at the time of its heyday, through advertising and PR, it’s all about about luxury and glamour, power and speed.

There are stories of the wealthy but the V&A also invites us to reflect upon the thousands of people who dreamt of steerage: the European emigrants who boarded ships to follow big dreams by travelling to America. Below deck travellers were more concerned about an outbreak of typhoid, rather than matching luggage.

The Titanic is here, or at least, a carved panel from it that was found floating in the sea when it sank in 1912. The Lusitania also sank, in 1915, and there’s a Cartier tiara that was recovered from the ship.

The exhibition itself has the heft of an ocean liner: it is huge. There are over 250 objects: fashion, paintings, posters, sculptures, furniture, crockery and cutlery, luggage and ship models. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio even make an appearance on screen. I absolutely loved it and recommend it. Those studying graphic design or product design, will be inspired. It will also appeal to anyone who likes to travel, or who is interested in design history. And of course it will appeal to you if you yearn for an era where people wore Dior to cross the Atlantic.

The power of PR. Advertising and poster design played a big part in brand building and selling of dreams.


The Queen Elizabeth.

The Italian liner companies commissioned top furniture designers and sculptors. Dancer with Three Seagulls below is a bronze sculpture by Marcello Mascherini that belongs to Costa Cruises in Genoa. As for the chairs, who wouldn’t like one of these in their home today? Designed by Nino Zoncada and Pulitzer Finali, they were made by Cassina in the late 50s and early 60s in Italy. Cassina has always worked with and still works with well known designers, from Philippe Stark to Jean Novel and Ron Gilad.

What goes well with interiors? Fashion design. There is lots here. Look out for (and it’s hard to miss) the Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich when she arrived in New York on the Queen Elizabeth in 1950. And feast your eyes on that Cartier tiara recovered from the Lusitania.

Marlene Dietrich wearing a Christian Dior suit onboard the Queen Elizabeth, arriving in New York 21 Dec 1950. Getty Images


Diamond and pearl tiara saved from the Lusitania. Cartier Paris 1909. Previously owned by Lady Marguerite Allan. Marian Garrard Cartier Collection Cartier.

The Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson travelled with 100 pieces of matching luggage from Maison Goyard when they travelled on the liner SS United States. A trimmed down selection is in the exhibition.

Luggage used by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor c.1950 Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum Salem Massachusetts

Recovered from the water in 1912, is this carved panel from Titanic.

Panel from the First Class lounge on Titanic. c.1911 Maritime Museum of the Atlantic Halifax Nova Scotia, Canada


The section of the exhibition with the (dry) swimming pool is a real showstopper. You really do have the sensation of being on board, on deck and crossing the Atlantic at speed.


One thing that is palpable throughout the exhibition is the power and speed of these liners. Fast forward to 1970 and the Boeing 747 suddenly became the most desirable way to travel. Today, however, for most of us more familiar with the dubious glamour of EasyJet, being totally immersed in the V&A for a couple of hours makes you yearn for a more elegant and stylish mode of travel. Just make sure that you buy a First Class ticket.

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