We chart John Lewis’ past and present design credentials as the British retail stalwart fetes its 150th anniversary
This week marks the 150th anniversary of British department store chain John Lewis. Opened in 1864 as a draper’s shop on London’s Oxford Street by its eponymous founder, the small shop quickly grew to become one of the most prominent retailers in the country. After taking the helm from his father, John Spedan Lewis made the revolutionary decision to start splitting the revenue from the shop sales with all its workers, which was at the time a very avant-garde way of conducting a business.
The list of achievements that the company has undertaken in its history is impressive, and John Lewis continues to focus on design, architecture and arts. Its constant dedication to a modern aesthetic and its admirable design patronage are evident in the list of collaborations and initiatives of the 20th century and beyond.
In 1937, Spedan Lewis commissioned young English architect William Crabtree to design a modern, spacious department store to substitute the existing Peter Jones building in Chelsea. Its streamlined glass and steel appearance was inspired by German department stores, proving to be shockingly modern for the times and still very much admired today (the company’s architectural history is also explored in writer and critic Jonathan Glancey’s ’A Very British Revolution’, out this month) .
British designers Robin and Lucienne Day were taken on board as design consultants in 1962, bringing their modern taste to the department store through a 25-year-long collaboration, a legacy that is still tangible. They appointed graphic designer Peter Hatch to update the store’s packaging and brand identity, who introduced contemporary touches such as the use of the Helvetica typeface and Op-Art-inspired shopping bags. The 1960s logo of the company was designed by Hans Schleger.
For the 100th anniversary of the company in 1964, British sculptor Barbara Hepworth was commissioned to create a celebratory piece and contributed one of her largest sculptures, ’Winged Figure’, which still sits on one of the flagship’s outer walls off Oxford Street. Hepworth’s creation, two steel wings joined by metal rods, is a symbolic interpretation of the partnership’s union of employees and management.
This year’s celebrations include an in-store exhibition that covers the history of the company and its founders, with an installation by the Royal College of Art exploring the future of shopping. For the first time, the Oxford street store also opens its rooftop to visitors to enjoy expansive views of London and an installation by Tony Wood, Royal Horticultural Society National young Designer of the Year, in collaboration with John Lewis’ own gardening team from the Longstock Estate (a 4,000 acre park owned by the partnership in Hampshire). A collection of celebratory items will also be launched in stores and online, which include special-edition items from the likes of Vitra, Alessi and Ercol.
Nowadays, design is fostered through the Design Collective venture, launched in 2012, where the company takes a roster of international designers under its aegis, putting their pieces into production and offering the chance to reach the broader British public. Over the years, the Collective has presented the pieces of British designer Matthew Hilton, Danish furniture maker Ebbe Gehl and Wallpaper* Handmade contributor Bethan Gray. This year’s addition is a piece by Nottingham-based designer Oliver Hrubiak, a Scandinavian-inspired chair that combines powder coated steel, ash wood and veneer on a light, utilitarian frame (it is also recently scored a Design Guild Mark).
Next on the list of new projects is JLab, an incubator through which the retailer will mentor technology start-ups with a focus on innovations for shopping environments, once again forging a new path for contemporary retail.