Thursday, 26 April 2012

British Design 1948-2012

My daughter Lotte, who works at the V&A in London, took me to the great new exhibition there today - British Design from 1948, etc. I loved it for a number of reasons. First, it covers my lifetime, give or take a year or two and it reminded me of many of the design trends, movements, products, fashion, art and music that have been the context for my lifelong interest in place and how it works or does not as the case may be. Second, it reminded me just how talented Brits were at design and how we seem to have lost a little bit of the design style and verve that we used to have in spades, save a few exceptions such as Zaha Hadid and Will Alsop, and the ever prolific Jonathon Ive. 

My first gasp was reserved for the curator's take on the 1951 Festival of Britain, which I had faint memories of as a child watching a very grainy early BBC transmission.

Amazing to be reminded that some in the Establishment thought that we Brits were not ready for or interested in these new forms of architecture and that it was not a proper use for the South Bank. I've always thought that it was a crime that the Conservative government of the Fifties deliberately demolished a lot of the exhibition spaces and pavilions but thank goodness that some sense prevailed and some elements were left as a faint reminder of the departed glory.

I was also struck by the examples of great design that emanated from government stimuli and intervention, for example the creation of design courses in Art Schools in the late 1960's and the new cultural and health buildings that flowed from increased investment in city regeneration in the late 1990's and the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

A wealth of fifties  and sixties designs for wallpaper, ceramics and furniture reminded me of the places I used to goggle at as a child - duplex flats fitted out with strange wallpaper, like the "Calyx" wallpaper of Lucienne Day, shown below, that I remember thinking looked like cocktail glasses (unusual for a Glaswegian, I know), and the "Homemaker" tableware of Enid Sweeney whose designs featured images of in vogue chairs, tables and lamps.

I've only skimmed the surface of the many delights of this exhibition in this blog and I will be going back. I do recommend you to see it if you have an interest in the design of things and the environment in which they are used. Its Fab! to use an expression of my youth.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Toronto City Centre - A place full of interesting places

I'm just back from a short trip to Toronto to see family and friends and while there was struck by a number of developments that help to define the city centre as a place of many places, very different kinds of places, which, taken together provide its overall character. In a hectic week the highlights were the Distillery District, the Bloor/Yorkville shopping area, the Kensington Market area, and the nearby Art Gallery of Ontario and its surrounding area.

                                        The square in the Distillery District

I'd been told that the Distillery District ( was one of the "gems" of the city as it's a great example of industrial preservation with a new purpose - as a retail, arts and eating place, and it does not disappoint. I had great coffee at Balzac's and great food - pulled pork - at the Pure Spirits Oyster House. And I met up after a too long break with my friends Jeannette and Peter at Trajectory brand consulting ( who have supported the area by moving in to one of the old buildings now converted in to offices. Its not a large area but it is a destination worth a visit as its got a range of shops and galleries that you will not find in any of the modern retail centres in the city and is a great antidote to their bland international brands.

The Kensington Market Area

Bland the Kensington Market a'int. Located just west of the city's China Town this is an area of quirky and characterful clothes, food and art shops and restaurants that was nearly redeveloped some years ago but saved by the kind of determined environmentally aware activism that Toronto is known for. It's also very different to the feel of the Distillery District which is much more ordered. Here you get a sense of regular replacement and adaptation of the retail and food offer, with lots of new businesses trying out their offers; its got a more earthy and authentic feel. And it feels like a real meeting place; for locals and for diverse social groups from across the city.

Yorkville Retail Area

By comparison the Bloor/Yorkville area, much touted as the retail revival area of the city centre, is given over to a mix of up market independent, national and international fashion brands. It is more ordered and more focussed on higher end spenders and fashionistas. It is marketed as Toronto's neighbourhood of style and has a well developed persona ( Founded in 1850 by entrepreneur Joseph Bloor it is a former village that got incorporated in to the city as it expanded and you get a sense of its traditional low density scale and character in the streets behind Bloor street with its high rise and dominant buildings. The "back-streets" accommodate independent retailers and restaurants and provide (expensive looking) homes for city workers. The backstreets offer is also a complement to the expensive international brand stores on Bloor. Much is made on the area's web site of the new landscaping that has been created on Bloor but for me the most imaginative landscaped spaces were in the backstreets like the mini field shown above. And the most imaginative store, in terms of product, display and assistants attitude was Anthropologie.

Frank Ghery's blue facade for the Art Gallery of Ontario 
overlooking Grange Park

The empty space at the Art Galley of Ontario

Completely different in character is the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) on Dundas street and the area which surrounds it which includes the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD). The Museum was given a major make-over a few years ago by Frank Ghery, who remodelled its two main exteriors and its central atrium, to create a place with a very different feel to a traditional gallery. The front elevation on Dundas Street resembles an upturned canoe made out of Douglas Fir and when inside the new internal "corridor" that overlooks the street at first floor level you feel like you are inside the structure of a giant canoe or Viking longboat, one with glass panels to view the active streetscape. This corridor space is sadly wasted with next to no art on display; it would make a great place for light sculptures to be seen from the street. One of the interior highlights for me was the magnificent collection of Canadian art, in particular the work of the Group of Seven and Tom Thompson and many of their contemporaries.

The Sharp Centre for Design at OCAD

Close by on McCaul Street and beside Grange Park (behind the ROM) is the is Sharp Centre for Design building of OCAD. Designed by Will Alsop Associates this building presents a complementary counterpoint to Frank Ghery's ROM extensions and is a great environment for fulfilling OCAD's stated purpose of  education of the imagination, describing itself as a place where great minds meet. The presence of this college feeds the surrounding area with demand for food and beverage, music venues, clothes shops and other goods that contribute to the rich urban experience that this part of central Toronto offers its workers and residents.

The power of retail to change the nature of place

                                         Photograph by George P. Landow from The Victorian Web

I often wander around the West End of central London to keep abreast of the changes in its retail offer, in large part because I used to work as a consultant for the New West End Company and we tracked changes in the retailers and attractions of the area, rents, consumer spend and visitor numbers.

Just recently I became aware that a new record had been set for rental levels in the area, already one of the world's most expensive retail locations. Reports in the UK property press indicate that Italian luxury goods company Salvatore Ferragamo intends to extend its lease in Old Bond Street at a rent the equivalent of £1,000 per square foot, which may well make it the most expensive shop in the UK. Until this development the most expensive rent had been paid by Piaget, the Jewellers, at £965 psqft.

So whats driving this? In effect its a desire by more so called luxury brands to obtain or expand a presence in what must already be one of the world's most concentrated collection of luxury brands. There is a real desire to get a slice of the spend of the super rich. Through their increasing presence and concentration these brands are creating a place and destination characterised by expensive prices, exclusivity, rarity, and aspiration.

As there are very strict planning controls on development in Mayfair which limit new development this incoming wave of luxury brands is gradually extending the offer of the core shopping streets, particularly north along New Bond Street in the direction of Oxford Street where Belstaff will soon be joining the likes of Fendi, Missoni, Coach and Hubot.

And its not without some regrettable consequences related to the traditional character and offer of the area as these new kids on the block buy up or encourage the older established brands of the area to sell out and move on, for example Mallet antiques who sold to Fendi. And I suspect that the remaining galleries and antique dealers are going to be tempted to depart by the minted international retailers who are prospecting in the area.

To me this is another example of the power of retail brands, both singly and in numbers, to alter the offer and experience of streets and areas, to focus their offer on specific markets and price points and to extend their customer base in ways that no amount of detailed retail planning by local authorities or people like me might ever achieve.