A holistic solution to a problem of split ends

As James Hagger leaves XMPR to set up his own interiors group, he feels he knows what is wrong with retail design – and how to go about setting it right, as Bhavna Mistry reports

Designers – especially in retail – have been kow-towing to clients at the expense of creativity since the early days of recession, according to James Hagger, formerly creative director at XMPR and now founder of his own fledgling interiors firm, Studio Hagger.

It’s Hagger’s belief that the aftermath of the recession, far from producing exceptional design, has produced a splintered industry, where a holistic approach has been overlooked in the name of financial viability.

“Very few people are producing good retail design at the moment,” says Hagger. Having risen through the ranks in a 15-year-long career, you assume the 37-year-old Hagger would know. And while his view about the current state of retail and interior design may seem pompous, his gripes are rooted in a strong belief in the holistic role of design.

“Certainly in terms of retail brands, the whole design process is a hybrid. Architecture, interiors, graphics and advertising are all integrated – and should be – to make the brand work effectively,” says Hagger. “And good, working retail design comes from a holistic, global approach to projects, rather than splitting up each discipline.”

It was partly this feeling that prompted Hagger to leave XMPR, the consultancy he helped found. Former finance director Steve Corbett, project principal Alan Bishop and joint creative director Andy Smith were also in the XMPR starting line, alongside the consultancy’s current managing director Rob Davie.

XMPR was the result of a management buyout when Michael Peters Group was liquidated in 1990. Reports at the time stated that the retail design team was already putting plans for a buyout together, but the imminent liquidation gave Davie and his team just one week to put in their offer.

Along with Davie, Corbett, Bishop and Smith, Hagger was responsible for many high-profile interiors projects at Michael Peters Retail. He started at MPR in 1987 after a bout of freelancing and it was those projects, including work with Top Shop, Alfa Romeo, British Airways, Sony and Bank of Ireland which formed the platform for the management buyout.

Apart from Davie, now the sole founding director left at a beleaguered XMPR, Hagger was the last of the founders to leave. He says he had already resigned by the time XMPR was staving off liquidation with a creditors voluntary arrangement rescue package in January this year. “As a board member and shareholder, I had to give six months notice and I resigned in September,” he says.

The offer from project management company PPM to set up a joint venture where Hagger would have a controlling stake was “too good to refuse”, he says.

At XMPR, Hagger had been dissatisfied with his role. “It had been eight years and I felt I wasn’t seeing things through to the end. I wasn’t focused on projects right through their life span, and I wanted to stay involved,” he says.

Hagger is still working at XMPR on a contractual basis, but his own month-old consultancy Studio Hagger is picking up work apace. Despite the fact that he cannot approach XMPR’s clients for a six-month period, he says he is already developing four new retail brands.

Hagger is looking to recruit two designers in the next three months, and move from PPM’s headquarters in High Wycombe to offices in west London . He is not short on ambition.

And that much-used cliché, a man of quiet confidence, actually fits the bill here. But perhaps it fits too well. A trawl of old Michael Peters Group people – and who of that era didn’t at one point or another in their career work for the group – reveals that many have heard of him, but don’t actually know him. His name certainly rings bells but few have actually come across him. Rather, it is Rob Davie who has held the limelight at XMPR. How Hagger copes with the spotlight on him will be interesting to observe.

Designers leave consultancies to go it alone almost every week. Some of those who set up their own groups are wildly successful, some just manage to plough on, while others bite the dust.

It remains to be seen how Hagger, who has successfully ridden out a debilitating recession and knows more than most about working on the edge, will fare with Studio Hagger.

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