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Bottled Britishness

Interview with Universal Design Studio

Napoleon called Britain ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ – and 200 years on, London is still living up to that reputation. A perennial claimant to the hotly contested title of shopping capital of the world, London is dotted with world-famous emporiums and household-name markets and streets. With its great shopping history still in evidence, London continues to renew its retail offering for a new generation.

Since Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby founded it in 2001, London-based architecture and interior-design practice Universal Design Studio has been making its mark in retail, thanks to high-profile clients such as Stella McCartney and Mulberry and a series of stunning, high-impact spaces. For “The Merchant”, Grant Gibson met the Studio co-directors Hannah Carter Owers and Jason Holley for an interview.

Grant Gibson: What’s the current situation for retail in London?

Hannah Carter Owers: Retail seems to be booming here. People are still investing. Regarding trends, in the upper and middle parts of the market I’m noticing a push towards lifestyle rather than product-specific ways of retailing.

GG: What does lifestyle retail mean?

HCO: It’s the idea that retail is not just about shopping and maybe a bit of eating, it’s about a total lifestyle. So building in exercise or networking or, even co-working. It’s a wider approach. If you think about online retailing, it’s so reductive in a way. It’s so filtered and algorithmically curated for you and the more you do it the narrower your choices become – you see what you want to see and then a profile is created for you.

These days, bricks-and-mortar retail is an opportunity for real-life and human interaction. We do lots of work around new co-working spaces for entrepreneurs and people are desperate to be around other people. You might be staring at your screen all day, but you want to do it in a buzzy, lively place. The move to lifestyle will grow, but I don’t think that’s London-centric. It’s global. Retail isn’t just transactional. It’s also concerned with cultural placemaking and bringing people together.

GG: So is there a difference between your retail stuff and other work?

Jason Holley: Not so much. There are technical aspects to retail – fitting the product in and displaying it well. But in terms of the overall concepts, the way that we lay out spaces, the kind of challenges that we come across, as well as the way that we think about spaces and people, there’s little difference between the stores we do and the workspaces, hotels or restaurants. Every space needs the same things: wifi, power, somewhere good to sit and something good to look at.

“We occasionally get asked by brands to do a kind of bottled Britishness.”

GG: Does provenance still exist in retail? Is there a particular retail sensibility in London?

HCO: It’s hard to deny the homogenizing effect of globalization. But then I was walking around Shoreditch recently and you do get a real sense of place. I suppose that’s because it’s full of independent businesses and they are responding to the locality. They also relate to each other – there’s more of an idea of a retail community and diversity. Lamb’s Conduit Street is another place that feels very specific to London. I think there is a kind of bravery about British retail.

We occasionally get asked by brands to do a kind of bottled Britishness. The question for us is: how are we going to package it up and make it so British, without putting a Union Jack on it or letting a red bus anywhere near it, that it’s obvious to someone in South Korea? As well as bravery, I think there’s a sense of humour about retail in this country. There’s also an edge and a bit of attitude. It’s about doing things really well and doing them properly, but not taking yourself too seriously. These are intangible qualities that come together to make something feel British.

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Publication Date: 2.3.2017
Author: Grant Gibson conducted this interview for the Vitra publication "The Merchant #02".
Images: Portrait of Hannah Carter Owers and Jason Holley by Anna Huix, store photos by Charles Hosea; all Copyrights with FRAME Publishers.