Nearly 60 years ago crystallographic patterns were all the rage

From atoms to patterns: Crystal structure designs from the 1951 Festival of Britain

Lesley Jackson

Shepton Beauchamp, UK: Richard Dennis 2008 | 124 pp | ?20.00 (HB) ISBN 9780955374111Reviewed by Tony Onyett

In 1946, Helen Megaw, a crystallographer from Birkbeck College, London, suggested to Marcus Brumwell, director of the Design Research Unit, that designers of wallpapers and fabrics could find inspiration in the patterns made available by x-ray crystallography, including x-ray diffraction photographs, electron density and Patterson maps and diagrams of atomic structures. Megaw was able to see the design possibilities inherent in the symmetrical, repeating yet almost abstract patterns of crystallography.  

Five years later, at the Festival of Britain in 1951, Megaw’s ideas came to fruition. The Festival Pattern Group, championed by Mark Hartland Thomas of the Council of Industrial Design, used diagrams of atomic structures as patterns for such everyday objects as wallpaper, fabrics, ceramics, upholstery, ties and glassware. 

This beautifully illustrated book was published in conjunction with the recent ’From atoms to patterns’ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, UK. It gives a brief account of the work of the Festival Pattern Group, including a reproduction of the original Souvenir book of crystal designs published in 1951. 

The main part of the book consists of a fully illustrated catalogue of the manufacturers and designs of the Festival Pattern Group, and this is followed by transcripts of Helen Megaw documents on pattern in crystal structure diagrams, and an A to Z of crystal structures including minerals like beryl and china clay and proteins like insulin, myoglobin and haemoglobin. 

Finally there is a collection of brief biographies of the crystallographers behind the designs, including such famous names as J D Bernal, Max Perutz, John Kendrew, W H and W L Bragg and Dorothy Hodgkin, in addition to Helen Megraw herself.