Nick Cross is a man with a vision. He is letting top creative talent loose in one of the country’s most established retailers. Recent Cross recruits include Peter Saville, graphics consultancy North and bright young artist Sam Taylor-Wood – not names which would be immediately associated with Selfridges.
But on the first floor of the London store, North’s classy vertical signage system has already made an appearance. There are plans to roll it out to other floors this spring.
The store’s promotional magazine Yellow has been redesigned by Saville – only the start of his involvement, according to Cross. “I wanted to find a way of Peter being involved in the business. I like the way that he understands the modern idiom, but respects the classic, because the magazine had to reflect the stature and standing of the brand,” he says. Saville has since been appointed as “guru” or “mentor” to the store’s in-house design department. Saville describes Cross’s decision to appoint him as “progressive and brave”.
And in May, XV Seconds, Taylor-Wood’s enormous photographic panorama (it is 274m long and 18m high) will be wrapped around the London store while it is being cleaned.
Other Cross schemes include the introduction of plasma screens on various floors, which will be used “promotionally and creatively” to communicate with customers. “Plasma is the modern medium,” he says, compared with hanging posters, which can look “old hat and are costly”. He is yet to start talking to video artists.
“Stores are a fantastic canvas for artists and architects because they are a great medium to work with. They are in the middle of town, but also have a commercial agenda,” says Cross. “Artists like the fact that it’s not a gallery.”
Cross is confident enough to give these relatively unconventional names their freedom. “We looked at a number of retail designers [for the signage project], but their work wasn’t interesting – they took a standard approach. As soon as a company starts being formulaic it’s bad news for a company like ours… we have to be fresh.”
His approach will soon get a wider airing nationwide. All designs for Oxford Street, the existing Manchester Trafford Centre store and the planned Birmingham site, designed by Future Systems, is directed through the marketing department in London. Interior design comes under the remit of Selfridges’ visionary managing director Vittorio Radice.
Cross is aware of the high expectations of Selfridges’ customers. “We have a very demanding audience here in terms of aesthetics. We have to give them something different and better.” So while other retailers might be paying lip service to “experiential shopping” in the shape of cookery demonstrations, Selfridges hosted a photographic exhibition at London Fashion Week, an example of “creating theatre and experience that you won’t find in your local Tesco. It’s not only about product demonstrations, but providing something,” claims Cross.
As a traditional department store, Selfridges is well versed in the theory behind destination shopping. “Within the store we have got to sell, promote, enthral and entertain. It’s always been important for Selfridges as a destination store; we have to create an atmosphere to get people to shop with us,” he says.
But as well as keeping up with or ahead of customer expectations, the store’s 2000-plus brands must be managed effectively. The plasma screens are an example of this. “We can incorporate brands’ images,” he says. And with the planned redevelopment at the back of the Oxford Street store, 24-hour access to elements of the store is on the agenda. Offices, hotel, retail, a restaurant and well-being environments are under consideration for the space, following preliminary ideas by Lord Foster. “As retailing blurs with leisure and entertainment, that’s the way it’s going,” says Cross.
Meanwhile, Selfridge’s website, designed by Good Technology, will be in operation on 17 April. “We wanted a consultancy of tip-top designers with their heads screwed on,” says Cross, who picked the group from a shortlist. Initially, it will be an information site rather than e-commerce, because, he says, of the economics of selling over the Net. At the heart of the site there will be a brand directory. “It is quite likely that the [then] Newell and Sorrell identity will evolve [for the website],” he says. Interbrand Newell and Sorrell is no longer involved, as its job has been done, he says.
Another consultancy which has benefited from Cross’s approach is Pyott. The consultancy has redesigned a range of goods for the food hall – its first job for the store. “I felt that the food packaging needed to move on,” says Cross. The new look is being rolled out and Pyott is now working on guidelines for the in-house design department. “We are always looking to see how we can improve our packaging,” says Cross, adding: “At first we will look at it internally, and if we need to go outside we will go outside.”
As well as collaborating with outside designers “for inspiration or on bespoke projects”, Cross is also taking the 30-strong in-house graphics, production and artwork team in hand. The department, which is “responsible for churning out ticketing and such like”, is recruiting for the new role of head of graphic design for print, the Internet and plasma.
More courageous is his appointment of Saville as mentor for the team. “I don’t want an in-house creative director because if they are in-house all the time they might not bring in ideas from outside. Peter will give confidence, like a university teacher,” he says.
Saville’s job, which starts this month, will include promoting the design team within the company – increasing its profile and confidence. “Sometimes people need a champion to help a board, or directors, to see their point,” says Saville. “It’s the sort of position I’ve felt for some time I would like doing… but you need some grey hairs to be allowed to do it.” (He is 44.)
He says one of the biggest problems will be reining himself in when he is tempted to become too involved.
Cross’ genuine commitment to creativity, and his vision for the store is well received by designers. “He wants it to be as creative as possible,” says North partner Sean Perkins of the radical new signage system. “It’s a rewarding relationship – you feel as though someone understands. He was a hundred per cent behind us.”
And as a team, Radice and Cross “represent quite a formidable fresh dimension for the big UK department stores”, says Saville. “They know what they are doing and they know what they want.”
Nick Cross biography
1984-93 Board director at research-based management consultancy SRU. Worked on brands such as Wedgwood, Liberty and Alfred Dunhill.
1993-6 Board director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty. International planning director
1996 Joins Selfridges & Co as marketing director
North’s signage systems
Nick Cross brought in North to create two signage systems for the London store – 200 directional signs and up to 700 fire and safety signs.
The consultancy researched store directional signage in Europe and Japan, and then created a “piece of product design that Selfridges could take ownership of”, according to North senior designer Tim Beard. The vertical signs stand on an aluminium core which is bolted to the floor, and two polycarbonate sleeves which are mounted on top of this base. The graphics are slipped between the two sleeves, so they are out of the reach of small fingers tempted to pick off the lettering. On a practical level, they take up a small footprint and also have a kickplate for wayward pushchairs.
These high, narrow translucent structures “take on the light of space around them”, says Beard, and so should be at home on the modern-looking second floor as well as on the more ornate ground floor. They aim to be clear, informative and, at the same time, unobtrusive.
“It was a difficult project,” admits North partner Sean Perkins, “because we want to direct people but don’t want them to get out that easily.”
Meanwhile, the safety signs offered their own creative challenge, as they had to conform to British standards of colour, type size and icon style. “I’m pretty sure it is the nicest safety signage you will see in the UK,” says Beard. Perkins adds: “We pushed the rules to get a nice system sympathetic to the overall system.”