Survival of the fitters

For a good shop interior scheme, says Callum Lumsden, there must be a good relationship between the shopfitter and designer. Design Week shows the results of some successful partnerships. Callum Lumsden is managing director of Lumsden Design Partnership.

Shoplifters, chippies, sparks and decs and subbies. These are some of the “affectionate” names which interior designers use to refer to the shopfitting trade on which they so depend. At least these are the more polite names. But I might get into trouble if I were to put into print some of the names which shopfitters call the design profession.

The relationship between a designer and shopfitter is fundamental to the successful outcome of a project – as far as I am concerned, a designer is only as good as the shopfitter with which he or she works.

It does not matter one rawlplug how fantastically creative the design concept is, if the finished project is not built to a high standard, on time and to budget the client will not be happy. It is essential that the designer and shopfitter understand exactly what each can expect of the relationship at the earliest stage. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

It has been said to me many times, by shopfitters, that they should be involved at the beginning of the concept. This seems perfectly reasonable to me, but the usual tendering process prevents this from happening.

Most design groups have a close relationship with trusted shopfitters which they can confidently use as sounding boards. The relationship is then reinforced by the opportunity of nominating the contractor for the tender list, but this does not allow the shopfitter to have any influence on the construction process until well into the project’s life.

Designer Adam Rawls of Rawls & Company says that his consultancy has developed relations with a number of shopfitting companies with which it can maintain a line of trust. This means that the shopfitters he mainly deals with tend to ask more questions during the tendering process and they will understand where the potential gaps in the information packages may lie.

This attitude is also beginning to become more prevalent on the client side. One of my clients, Habitat, has maintained a roster of shopfitters for a number of years, because each company goes through a learning curve of Habitat’s methodology, which is key to the successful outcome of any project.

However, Neil Hallett, head of property at Habitat, tempers this principle by confirming that he considers the designer to be the central player for all of Habitat’s design schemes. His view is that the shopfitter’s main input is at its most valuable when the shopfitting rods are produced and potential construction glitches in the designs can be eradicated.

Hallett is, however, sceptical about the managerial ability of some shopfitters to filter the correct information through to on-site personnel. He despairs of sub-contractors turning up on site, not clear about what they are doing, and letting the side down. I’m afraid we’ve all been there.

The nature of the shopfitting industry means that the main contractor has to put various trades out to sub-contractors. Each project is wholly reliant on the skills of the site’s project manager and, if he or she does not hold his or her sub-contractors together, the knitting can very quickly unravel.

There are, however, other factors which are important to the shopfitting/designer relationship. Steve Haggarty, senior designer at Fitch, says: “We like to work with shopfitters which have the same kind of spirit and enthusiasm for the client’s proposition as we do. There are a lot of shopfitters who come over as ‘a load of suits’ with a book of AIs under their arms.”

But design groups are far from blameless. Design & Fittings managing director Simon Clark suggests that many in his industry are still hidebound with the old-fashioned ways of dealing with designers and he feels that the companies that are shining through are those which strive towards a more team led process. He pleads for balanced tender lists which put like-for-like shopfitters up against each other, and for designers to encourage their clients to involve shopfitting contractors as early as possible in a project.

The way forward for designers and shop fitters is to build on a partnership principle, made difficult because the retail and leisure sectors are beset by accountancy-led decisions. However, methods such as negotiated tenders are becoming less acceptable to clients because of the strict auditing rules upon which the City insists. The fact that negotiated tenders can be more cost-effective and produce a better service is difficult to justify if the client’s accounts department sticks to its “best price” principle.

Colin Kemp, President of the National Association of Shopfitters, has been trying hard to change perceptions. His view is that tendering costs a lot of money to all concerned and does not always result in the best way forward. “If shopfitters know they have a one-in-five chance of landing a contract then they will not go into the investigation process with as much vigour as everyone would like.” And, he adds, “there is also the problem of the client and the designer giving a two-to-three week allowance for the tender process plus an immovable on-site date some two weeks after that. If the client’s decision is slow the lead-in time shortens and that is where the problems starts to show.”

Designers should be encouraged by Kemp’s aspirations. The programme for his term of office includes the introduction of the Design Partnership Award and opening up membership of the NAS to equipment manufacturers and installers. The association is also producing fact sheets, in conjunction with the Chartered Society of Designers, to illustrate the methodology behind processes such as the production of setting-out drawings.

The basis of good shopfitting is highly dependent on the skill of the shopfitter in the factory and on-site to really understand the vision of the designer. The basis of good designing is understanding the limitations of construction but always pushing for certain barriers to be broken. After all, that is what a client pays the designer for.

I believe that there is a long way to go before the process will be completely satisfactory. For one main reason: money. Designers need a better awareness of realistic schedules and construction requirements. Shopfitters need to become tighter in organisation and show an enthusiasm for design. More clients need to look for ways of instilling ownership of their aspirations into the companies which are building their projects, in the same way that they are instilling ownership of a team spirit with their staff and consultancies.

A marriage of minds

It’s not easy to get designers and shopfitters to acknowledge the importance of each other’s role in interiors projects. Yet when a job is run in the spirit of genuine teamwork and mutual respect, the result can be outstanding.

To encourage this approach, the National Association of Shopfitters has set up a new annual Design Partnership Award, judged on the merits of the input from both parties. The results of the first award, organised in association with Nexus Media, were announced last month. The judging panel was chaired by design consultant Jane Priestman and included Richard Woolf of McDaniel Woolf, Duncan Thomson of Lewis & Hickey, NAS president Colin Kemp, Design Week editor Lynda Relph-Knight and Steve Hardiman of ShopSpec.

Highly commended


Sloane Street, London SWThe judges were impressed by the way a dramatic staircase has been incorporated, as part of the brief to use the ‘signature style’ of fashion designer Valentino. Internal columns are clad in fluted limestone.

Designer: Hosker Moore & Kent

Shopfitter: A Davies & Co

Royal Bank of Scotland,

10 Gordon Street, Glasgow

This complex project involved creating ‘welcoming, user-friendly and impressive’ new facilities in a Grade A listed building. A mezzanine level has been added without encroaching on the original banking hall.

Designer: Percy Johnson-Marshall & Partners

Shopfitter: Morris & Spottiswood

The winner

Metropolitan Hotel,

Park Lane, London WThe conversion of the former Londonderry Hotel into a modern venue uses simple, beautifully crafted materials, such as rich woods, glass and plasterwork. The reception has clever features, such as concealed sliding doors and well-designed shelving. Detailing on all fixtures is impressive, particularly in the bedrooms, where much of the furniture is custom- designed, and the first-floor Nobu restaurant.

Designer: United Designers

Shopfitter: Goodman Hichens


Ruskin Library, Lancaster University, Lancaster

The interior of this stunning rotunda is a prime example of high-class joinery. Though the shelving and walkway submitted form a relatively small part of the overall concept, the design and execution were of an equally high standard. The result shows just what can be achieved when a strong partnership has the confidence and skill to marry traditional craft skills with contemporary design.

Designer: MacCormac Jamieson Prichard

Shopfitter: A Edmonds & Co

Ingredients, 211 Eagle Walk, Central Milton Keynes

Briefed to create an innovative, quality experience for customers of this high street bakery chain, Fitch has created a colourful interior featuring strong graphics. The outlet comprises a bakery counter, a delicatessen, a coffee bar and a café. Imagery includes a sketched flour scoop and slogans relating to the baking process. The strong visual branding is designed to work across a number of sites as the concept is rolled out.

Designer: Fitch

Shopfitter: ECSEC Shopfitters

Horrocks and Boyd Optometrists, 39 Fife Road,

Kingston upon Thames, Surrey

A visit to the small, family-run shop for the judges revealed the quality of this entry. Close scrutiny showed how strong the relationship between designer and shopfitter had been. The concept reflects the proprietor’s shift towards more fashionable frames. It is a low-budget scheme, but the design is highly workable and the standard of shopfitting commendable.

Designer: Caroline Cust

Shopfitter: Teampoint

BHS, Winchester, and BHS, Ipswich (pictured)

These two schemes share a commendation because, though they are by the same design group, they are both quite different, reflecting the architecture of the two sites – Winchester is modern, Ipswich traditional. But both are consistent in their branding and shopfitting quality. The judges were delighted to see a major retailer return to traditional shopfitting using quality finishes.

Designer: Lewis & Hickey

Shopfitters: The Barlow Group (Winchester); and Mills Shopfitting (Ipswich)

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