On 15 March 1909, Selfridges opened its doors to the world. In terms of floor area, it was half the size it is now, but at the time it was the largest building ever designed as a single shop. Immediately successful, it soon expanded, gaining a western extension (1924), a car park (1959) and a hotel (1970s). The merchandise also changed, with new departments being added (Miss Selfridge in 1966), old departments being expanded (the Food Hall in the 1970s), and some disappearing altogether.
It became a store of compartments rather than departments, with 50 000m2 of selling space presented in no logical order. The result was a disoriented customer, one who would pop in to one or two departments but was not willing to penetrate through the maze of merchandise to the other levels. By the time Tim Daniels took over the helm in the late Eighties (having worked his way up through the ranks), a major rethink was long overdue. And Daniels rose to the challenge.
The first thing initiated was a market research exercise to monitor customer traffic within the store and carry out performance and sales checks. With the backing of parent company Sears, Selfridges used the results to formulate the Masterplan, a major refurbishment project which will have taken six years to complete. This identified circulation as the major problem, and pinpointed four vertical areas as being key to customer flow throughout the store: the east end, the west end, the central area and the rear extension. The eastern escalator project was the first to be renovated in 1993 and proved to be a test case for the rest of the store. Customer flow to the upper floors increased dramatically, which, coupled with improved sales figures, convinced the board to take the plan further.
In 1994 Daniels brought in US department store specialist FRCH Design Worldwide (formerly SDI/HTI), to reposition the store for growth into the next century by modernising its facilities while preserving its architectural heritage. Merchandising, interior design, planning, visual merchandising and customer service were all areas to be tackled by the store.
In order to improve customer flow, FRCH suggested that a central walkway be created on each floor to connect the east and west escalators; the central escalator atrium should be sited off centre so as not to obstruct the new central walkway; and a bridge link should be constructed over the car park ramp to link the front of the store to the rear extension (then Miss Selfridge). Each floor was to be divided into merchandise spaces, with departments relocated to give a sequence to the goods.
The result has been a rigorous programme of refurbishment carried out over the past three years, much of it involving behind-the-scenes upgrading. This year sees the completion of the structural work, the “cut-through” for the central atrium which, if all goes to plan, will be open to the public in October. Costing a cool 8m, this “grand finale” is only a small portion of the overall cost of the Masterplan (now reputed to be 80m), and even then it won’t be finished. Next year the areas around the central escalator atrium will be tidied up and only then will the public be able to fully appreciate the outcome.
One of the key aims of the Masterplan has been to redefine the store in a more contemporary environment, while paying homage to its architectural history. What FRCH has developed is a footprint designed to take the store into the millennium. So just what has been achieved?
Most evident is the opening up of the store with new glass escalator banks at the east and west ends and in the rear extension. Departments have been moved around (there are now dedicated floors for men’s and ladies fashions) and the rear section opened up and redeveloped to include new departments. And in the spirit of the “Selfridges experience”, each floor now sports a restaurant, cafÃ© or bar to captivate the customer for a few hours more.
The scale of the refurbishment has meant that a number of design consultancies have been involved, either working in isolation or hand-in-hand. They all report to Selfridges development director Brian Marchbank, whose task it has been to commission, control and coordinate the various works. Two groups appear to have had the lion’s share of the work, John Herbert Partnership and Revolution (formerly Ideas), both of which have worked with the store for more than ten years.
The overall design philosophy blends contemporary with traditional, using natural materials such as timber, stone, metal and glass. The heritage is most evident on the ground floor, where stately columns echo the external facade. In the accessories hall, warm timber sets the tone for what are essentially traditional products, with the stone floor delineating the walkways through the merchandise. What the average customer probably won’t notice is the new lower ceiling with recessed lighting, which has been installed to hide the large service ducts still evident on the rest of the ground floor. At the insistence of English Heritage, the ceiling has been cleverly disguised with “new” cornicing installed some two metres down on the columns, leaving the original cornicing hidden in the void – no doubt awaiting the next refurbishment. And when specifying shopfitting for this floor, designers have also had to take into account the 1.2m slope which runs from west to east, in line with Oxford Street.
Also at ground level, and in stark contrast to the rest of the store, is Spirit, an upbeat young fashion department housed in the rear extension and now accessible from the perfumery hall. Here the ceilings have been made higher, services exposed and gantries introduced to support high bay light fittings and lighting projectors with coloured filters. Inset lighting in the natural stone flooring delineates the various concessions. The sales performance in this area has apparently been phenomenal since the redesign, though whether this is due to the quality of the merchandise (Red or Dead, Diesel, French Connection, Swatch and so on) or due to the design has not been determined.
From here, a new escalator takes you up to the fashion floors via Kid’s Universe, a joint design by FRCH and Revolution completed in September 1995. Unusually but sensibly, toys and children’s clothes have been sited next to each other and fittings and finishes reflect a sense of fun. Flooring is a mix of carpeting, timber and vinyl “jigsaw patterns” and the walls are adorned with motifs, the main themes being earth, wind, fire and water. The walkway leads through to the menswear area where, as on all the fashion floors, the merchandise mix includes various strong brand identities, each of which has had to be accommodated within the overall scheme. Etched glass and steel shop fitting has been chosen for the high-design areas such as Armani, while in the Polo Ralph Lauren shop, a more traditional stance has been taken. In this section, the ceiling and “rediscovered” marble columns have been restored to their former glory, Art Deco pendant lights have been installed, and dark timber shopfitting sets the tone. Throughout the fashion floors, much of the old shopfitting has been stripped back, revealing features such as the original timber block flooring which, in places, has been sanded and resealed. And many of the front windows have been unveiled, allowing daylight in and views out to the famous Queen of Time clock.
Away from the fashion areas, Revolution has relocated and redesigned the bookshop at the western end of the basement, and in the rear extension introduced the Sound and Vision department to include photography, opticians and the Leading Edge store. This new high-tech section opened at the end of last year and uses different finishes for each product section – carpeting, light woods and white ceilings for the “browsing” areas (CDs, photography and Leading Edge) and timber floors and black exposed ceiling for the computer and audiovisual sections.
Selfridges is a difficult store to redesign. It is vast and irregularly shaped, with lots of dead ends making circulation difficult. It was in need of a new “walkway” plan to take the shopper easily from one area to another.
It would seem too large a job for one design group to undertake, but the danger of using different designers can be a piecemeal and fragmented scheme lacking any cultural identity and raison d’etre. The redesign of some areas of the store is already complete and it may be unfair to judge the whole Masterplan before the final completion of the space for the new central atrium and the final shopfitting around it.
But what so far? The main thrust of the new store design has been to increase circulation and certainly the new glass-sided escalators at each end of the store do that. The Spirit department that replaced Miss Selfridge is open and airy and its entrance in Duke Street attracts more customers into the whole store than when it was Miss Selfridge, which always seemed like an unconnected, separate entity. Spirit has a desirable mix of young trendy clothing, although the openness of each brand area means you can stray too easily from one area to another.
The Food Hall, with its entrance on Orchard Street, was designed and project-managed by Revolution. It has a great choice of foods cleanly set out in areas that have an appealing market stall feel about them. The size and variety is manageable, but somehow lacking in abundance.
The tidying up of the ground floor seems to have been left to the end. Men’s accessories – shirts, ties and what many young men claim to be the best selection of men’s underpants in London – sit uneasily next to wines, cigars, a breakfast bar and the best salt beef bar in town. Perfumery in the middle is confusing – too harshly lit in places and too shadowy in others. In a department store, fashion accessories including hosiery and jewellery are all important, but a splendid but unimaginatively displayed range of bags, a pharmacy, stationery and gifts are all juxtaposed with no discernible logic. The jewellery department in particular makes me want to weep; lacking any sparkle, the meticulous, uncluttered and careful lighting that makes jewellery irresistible is sadly absent.
However, judgement must be suspended until the ground floor is finally finished, hopefully with the original magnificent columns and the replacement of the beautifully worked gilded bronze lift doors in the atrium complete with a sculpture by Eduardo Paolozzi.
But there are more noticeable signs of change elsewhere in the store. The first floor is now dedicated to menswear and includes a magnificent Ralph Lauren concession. Both merchandise and shopfitting are impressive. It is still lacking in areas off the main walkway; Hugo Boss and other names are very shallow, and Selfridge’s own-brands such as the excellent value Gordon Selfridge suits are not promoted.
Womenswear on the second floor caters from upmarket Ralph Lauren, DKNY, Jasper Conran and Lacroix boutiques to serried ranks of evening wear, but on the whole the floor has retained a unity, despite the number of different concessions. The shoe department is spacious, but millinery is incredibly difficult to find and squashed into far too tiny an area – hats need space around them. Bed and bathroom linens are also inexplicably on this floor, but will presumably benefit from a future move to the fourth floor with furniture. At the moment, this department is bleak and needs much more imaginative accessorising, separation and screening into more inspiring roomsets. Strangely, it is separated from curtain fabrics and the like by a trek through the sports department.
The third floor is labelled “outerwear”, (like many other department stores, Selfridges is prone to use the terminology of Are You Being Served?) which also houses lingerie. Not an exciting lingerie department, but one of the best stocked and with an outstanding fitting service.
The store is now well endowed with food offers – the Oyster and Champagne bar in the food hall, the Garden restaurant with a variety of foods on the fourth floor, various coffee bars, a doughnut bar and pizza restaurant in the basement. The cool and chic Premier Restaurant was designed by CD Partnership, and is well worth a visit, but it is so seriously hidden behind rows of brightly coloured frocks you need an instruction manual to find it.
The basement area is refreshingly well-lit and houses the book department, a new garden and terrace department, china, glass and electrical goods, not to mention pet accessories, and it’s delightfully spacious. There’s also a services arcade – shoe repairs, Thomas Cook, Budget Rentacar and so on, making Selfridges a one-shop destination.
My biggest gripe is the signage which is either too small, inadequate or non-existent. Why are the temporary sign boards which guide you around the store during the works small and not in several languages? In a rambling store bold, prominent and inviting graphics would make such a difference.
Roger Tredre, lifestyle editor of The Observer, sums it up: “I used to think of Selfridges as an old dowager – I always popped in there, never saw anything I wanted to buy, but in the last few years it’s been quietly undergoing a revolution. It has an American flavour – from labels like CK to the new snappy clean classy interiors. I think the menswear floor shows Selfridges at it’s best. It’s a well-managed store, the new escalators are crucial in design terms and it’s altogether more user-friendly.”
Selfridges is almost there but not quite. The vertical circulation is fine, the secondary and horizontal circulation is far less successful. It needs more focus and more theatre. Rumours of a disco, gym and swimming pool in the sub-basement sound exciting, and it’s smart but not too pricey or pretentious. Maybe one day they’ll let me have a Gold Card.