London’s St James’s has traditionally been seen as the stiffer, stuffier, more masculine mirror of its neighbour – the glitzy, ritzy Mayfair. It is home to barbers, gentlemen’s clubs and shirtmakers, and its borders are marked by such storied institutions as The Ritz, Fortnum & Mason, and Clarence House.
Until recently, the area’s eastern edge was little more than a rat run for black cabs, but now it’s playing catch up. Dover Street Market transferred from Mayfair to Haymarket this March, and the area’s newest addition is St James’s Market, incorporating restaurants, retail and offices. A partnership between the Crown Estate and Oxford Properties, the new complex was designed by Make Architects as a set of contemporary, sinuous structures framing a central square.
The Crown Estate also worked with cultural strategists Futurecity to invite artists and designers to participate in the scheme. Among these, London-based practice Studio Swine was tasked with designing outdoors benches and temporary seating for events. ‘We were amazed by how tangible the area’s history is,’ says Alexander Groves, who founded Studio Swine with Azusa Murakami in 2011. ‘You can go to shops like tobacconist JJ Fox and see the armchair that Winston Churchill smoked his cigars in, and at shoemaker John Lobb, they have the wooden lasts of Queen Victoria.’
The designers immersed themselves in the area, talking to the makers that reside here, and exploring the stores and local archives. The result of this research is four bench designs, ‘Shirt’, ‘Shoe’, ‘Pipe’ and ‘Tie’, each dedicated to a different craft rooted and still practised in the area, as well as the colourful ‘St James’s Market’ chairs and stools (which will be used for events), inspired by the looms used to weave silk for shirts.
‘Something that struck us about the local shop interiors was all the mahogany joinery with brass handles and the parquet floors,’ says Murakami. ‘We used this warm, dark palette for the benches to create a sense of place for this new development.’ Taking the wood and the parquet pattern as a starting point, the pair added elements informed by illustrious local traders, such as laser-cut steel legs and bronze inlays shaped after a John Lobb shoe pattern, or a red powder-coated base inspired by Turnbull & Asser’s classic red pinstripe fabric, giving each piece its unique character. ‘In comparison to other European capitals, such as Paris and Rome, London can lack the decoration and sense of refinement in public design,’ says Groves. ‘Our benches bring the workmanship and history of St James’s bespoke craftsmen into the public realm.’
This will be one of the Crown Estate’s main objectives as it continues to redevelop the area. Anthea Harries, who manages the St James’s portfolio, sums it up: ‘We like to think of it as redefining the refined.’
As originally featured in the September 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*210)