Remembering John Bampton

Rodney Fitch and others remember John Bampton – a pioneering ‘people person’ in the design industry.

John Bampton – 1939-2014
John Bampton – 1939-2014

John Bampton, JB, or Bammo to his friends, died on 1 April to the strains of the jazz music he always loved. He was for many years a leading figure in UK interior design and architecture: first, at Conran Design Group (CDG), and then for many years at Fitch, where he led design teams in multi-disciplinary projects that included Burton, Top Shop and Peter Robinson in retailing; shopping centres (including the first of the genre, the Doha Centre in the Gulf); and state-of-the-art corporate offices for developer Stanhope at Broadgate, in the City of London. Yet his real specialism lay in the planning and interior design of airport terminals. In that cause he practised throughout the world, with particular success in Madrid, Kuala Lumpur and Dubai, as well as Heathrow and Glasgow.

It is not just true that Bampton’s perfectionist, challenging approach to design work inspired scores of British designers. More than most of his British peers, he also highlighted to the human dimension inherent in the creative process; both in managing and training designers as a proper thing for design firms to be concerned about, and in the integrity and honesty of the design solution itself. For Bampton, good enough was never good enough.

By the mid-1980s, the growth of the UK design business was so rapid that skills in team-building, and in motivating, training and developing employees, were largely improvised. A pioneer in this domain when at Fitch, Bampton became a major force behind the UK design industry’s efforts to make the management of design talent a more professional undertaking. At Fitch in the 1980s, then the largest design firm in the world, Bampton had a fertile landscape in which to develop his HR programmes – he was known as a ‘people person’, which was an innovation. Some 30 years later, many of Bampton’s criteria for successful design management are the blueprint for standard practice today.

As part of his management tasks, Bampton saw himself as the ‘voice of the studio’. In that role he was admired and trusted. He had modesty, dynamism and charisma, and was both a good listener and excellent presenter of complicated design solutions.  He was possessed of a plenitude of plans and was, above all, a great respecter of people and their role in the creative process.

John Richard Bampton was born in 1939 in New Cross, and betrayed an early talent for drawing while at primary school. When just 11 years old, he went to South East London Technical College, moving on to Regent Street Polytechnic to study design and architecture.  By then he was also a good athlete, competing for Deptford Park Athletic Club. A sports enthusiast throughout his life, Bampton was a keen motorcyclist but in later life liked nothing better than to lace up his hiking boots and enjoyed legendary walks and talks with the writer and broadcaster Carl MacDougall.

In 1965, in his late twenties, Bampton joined Terence Conran’s CDG, where he became part of the team designing stores, furniture and housewares products for Habitat. It is right that, at this moment of Habitat’s 50th anniversary, much of Bampton’s contribution to the early success of that enterprise can be recognised.

In 1972, I organised a buy-out of CDG, with JB, myself and other colleagues founding Fitch and Co. From the start, and notwithstanding industrial unrest and a three-day working week, Fitch enjoyed considerable success. As the firm grew it looked overseas – first, to Paris and then to the Gulf region. Bampton quickly spotted the potential in places such as Dubai, Bahrain, Oman and Abu Dhabi. So it was that in the late 1970s he opened a Fitch studio in Dubai. This was pioneering stuff; yet, against many odds, Bampton turned Fitch Dubai into a powerful operation, gaining high-profile projects and clients throughout the region – including projects that comprised the Middle East’s first supermarket, first car showroom, and first airport duty-free.

John returned from his success in Dubai to London in 1981 to immerse himself, together with Peter Crutch, Richard Pullen, George Montague and others, on the interior fit-out of Heathrow’s new Terminal 4 – a project that won the accolade of ‘world’s best airport terminal’. He moved on to other seminal design projects that included Terminal 3, BP’s new London HQ in Finsbury and the design of the Guinness HQ at Park Royal.

Eventually, John left Fitch to form his own design firm, where, among other successes, he worked alongside the director Professor Doug Clelland on the ground-breaking exhibition ‘Glasgow’s Glasgow – The Words and the Stones’, the pivotal event during the city’s role as European Capital of Culture in 1990. A lasting part of this initiative is the refurbished ‘Arches’ – one of the best-loved venues in Glasgow.

After a long and productive career, JB leaves behind an accomplished body of work that gives testimony to his talent.  Equally important is his legacy to a generation of young designers and researchers who remember him as motivational and inspirational. Whether they were in the West End studio of Fitch hungrily hanging off his every word or wide-eyed students in a draughty Glasgow room embarking on the biggest research project of their lives, all knew it was a privilege to work with him and learn from him, testament indeed to his creativity and humanity.

His cousin Ron Coleman describes John Bampton thus: ‘He had library of no fewer than 3000 books. But, also, John always had, in his pocket, a notepad of exquisite drawings of things that had caught his attention – often, architectural details or tableaux.’

John was married to the effervescent Lee for 47 years and what always shone through was his complete devotion to his family. His happy marriage was the foundation upon which everything was built.

He will be remembered with great affection and design is lessened by his passing.

John is survived by his wife Lee, two sons and three grandchildren.

Written by Rodney Fitch, with contributions from James Woudhuysen, Rune Gustafson, Richard Pullen and Sarah Clelland.

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  • Rick Robinson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    John Bampton was an exceptional man and loved by all, especially his clost friends

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