JHP Design is one of the world’s most respected retail design firms. Over decades of operation, they’ve created everything from interiors to branding to packaging to staff uniforms to digital ecosystems for clients as diverse as Heathrow Airport, Selfridges, John Lewis, Barclays, Sainsbury’s, Hyundai, and the RNLI.
Curious to hear how such an illustrious agency operates, GDR sat down with Strategic Director Steve Collis to talk Selfridges, experiential retail, and name dropping.
How did you come to work in retail design?
I started out working at the old Property Services Agency, initially on museums and galleries around London. I was eventually transferred to the Department for Special Services, which sounds glamorous, but working on submarine bases isn’t as glamorous as it sounds.
In the mid-Eighties, I met John Herbert – ‘JHP’ stands for ‘John Herbert Partnership’ – and myself and my professional ‘other half’ Raj Wilkinson both came to work for him. John retired in 2000, and we both took over the business in its entirety.
How different was it once you made the move from the public to the private sector?
I was worried I would be well behind the game in terms of technology, but the reverse was the case. Out here in the real world, you don’t have time to understand every specification, you just need to get on with it. In the public sphere you have more time to sit down and look at the latest papers and documents; in the private world you may have more resources, but less time. It was a bit of a surprise, and a real lesson in the differences between the two worlds.
Every project and client is of course different, but could you sum up the approach JHP takes?
There’s a sequence – there’s collecting the brief, there’s distilling it, there’s building a language of design and communication that comes out of the brief that’s relevant to the client, there’s taking that language and making it something more tangible, making it come alive.
That said, it’s not always the same route – sometimes you’re on a rocket, sometimes you’re on a bike. The starting and end points can be similar, but the journey is always entirely different. If they ever got to be the same, I’d be worried, because it would mean I shouldn’t be doing it any more.
Nobody’s every said it, I’m delighted to say, but the worst thing anybody could ever say to me would be, ‘I saw a job the other day, it looked like one of yours.’ That means I’ve failed – we’re all about solving the client’s problems and, let’s be honest, making them money.
One of the clichés of the client/agency relationship is the designer having bold ideas that the more conservative client refines all the edges off – is that your experience?
There are times where clients say an idea is not who they are or not a risk they want to take, but that’s not the same as having a radical idea for the fun of it. We only make suggestions if we’re absolutely convinced it’s right for their business, not to make a statement.
We have a lot of young designers come and work for us, and I say to them, ‘Look, as soon as you drop this idea that you’re refining your vision and think instead about solving the client’s problem, you’ll feel so much better. You’ll feel so liberated, and then be able to do so much better work.’
One of your company’s signature projects has been the ten-year refurbishment of Selfridge’s in London; how did you approach it?
We were part of a big team, and we all look back on that period very fondly.
If we go back to the beginning, Selfridges in the late Eighties was on the verge of being broken up. The belief at the time was that the department store had no future, so they were seriously thinking about selling off the upper floors as offices and turning the ground floor into individual shopping units. It’s incredible to think, now.
The CEO, Tim Daniels, had a vision and he came to see us. He wanted us to help completely resolve the building. It was a mess inside, it had just been built on over 90 years and there were bits sticking out all over the place, big air conditioning units in the food fall and so on. All the escalators ran the wrong way, and they had no space around them, so you didn’t even know there was a fourth and fifth floor – only ten per cent of people made it to the top.
It’s strange to think now about Selfridges being so tired, but at the time it was an aging place, wasn’t it?
The circulation was designed to be dropped off at the front in a horse and carriage. It was a huge architectural project. We built four new atria in the store, put space around them so you could smell the coffee up and down, and so on.
Then we were involved in creating an environment that would attract all the brands, so I had to go with John to meet Ralph [Lauren] and Calvin [Klein] – how’s that for name dropping? Not bad
To get these brands in who’d all left before, it was a domino effect – once one bites, they all want in.
The most exciting part was the brand bit for me – the idea of linking promotions, which I keep trying to get people to do. When we had a Brazil week, say, we could get all the various brands to participate. We sat around brainstorming ideas, and thought we could get drinks going in the bar, get footballers in, get the makeup people to do carnival makeovers – we would just sit around throwing ideas out, then come up with ways to link it all up.
The goal was all part of a unified whole – and Selfridges are doing it right to this day, themed around music, say, or seasonal promotions. It was about consolidating the vision – making sure that every concession was part of a unified whole, making sure everything was there for a reason, and having the ability to be flexible.
Are there any ideas you were particularly happy with?
Sticking the Veuve Clicquot pop-up bar in the lingerie department so the boys can knock some fizz back while the girls are trying stuff on. Three glasses in, they’re buying all kinds of things.
That may sound glib, but we had a huge amount of debates. What’s the psychology of the shopper? Where are the logical opportunities for cross-selling?
A huge thing we did was to put menswear on the first floor, which at the time was very unusual. We put the womenswear above it, so that when the guy – this is being reductive here – is dragged through on a Saturday morning, he feels tempted to get himself a proper shirt.
We hear a lot about experiential retail when we talk to brands and retailers; Selfridges pioneered the modern approach, didn’t it?
The experiential part is a big part, but in many ways it’s reinforcing the vision of the founder – Gordon Selfridge back in the Edwardian period was all about experiential. He has seismic machines in the basement that could tell you when there was an earthquake anywhere in the world, he had Amelia Earhart’s plane in the atrium, he had music recitals – he had the whole lot. Let’s be honest – to go to Selfridges back then, it was a long way from Hampstead on a tram or a horse-drawn carriage. You had to really give people reasons to come. Is that really so different to today?
Do you have a dream client?
If you look at the automotive category, the sales venues are all the same. If you take the logo off the car showrooms, they could be anything – the language of the car design doesn’t come through. We’ve done some theoretical work before, but we never got to bring it to life. I would love to work with a really, really good car brand.. I think it’s a big missed trick.