Friday, April 10, 2015
Formerly, formally: modernist style
In modernist design, we used to be taught, a ‘style’ is not imposed on the building or the object being designed: form follows function. A Brno chair by Mies van der Rohe, a door handle by Walter Gropius, a door by Le Corbusier are the way the are because that’s the way they work best.
Aren’t they? Well, not entirely. That tubular framework on the chair is brightly polished, that door handle aligns precisely with the light switch, that door had a painting on it for goodness sake. They look like that because the architect liked the way they looked. Modernism is a style, just as Gothic or Baroque are styles.
And here’s a funny thing. When it’s the function of a building to be glamorous, to be an upmarket shop in Piccadilly or on Fifth Avenue, which has to look right to attract the right kind of customers, part of the building’s function is to be stylish. So form does follow function after all – but in a stylish sort of way.
The Simpson store in Piccadilly, designed by Joseph Emberton in the mid-1930s, was built in just such a fashion: stone cladding, beautiful detailing, shop windows with gorgeous concave glazing that seems to invite you to fall into the window display and wallow around in it. It’s structurally clever too – the steel frame is constructed so that the shop has vast uninterrupted floors, ideal whether you’re selling men’s clothing....or books. Because it’s a branch of Waterstones [sic] booksellers now, and the current owners have their own annoyingly apostropheless name above the door.
But to one side they have left the old Simpson name, in its special rounded letterform by Ashley Havinden. Different colours of metal are used to differentiate the parts of the name so that we can read the ‘p’ in Simpson as the ‘P’ in Piccadilly. The whole thing is carefully arranged along the horizontal divisions in the wall cladding too. It still looks a class act 80 years on. A stylish piece of work indeed.*
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*No, I’m not very impressed with the recently added ‘formerly’ floating around above the original letters. But I wanted to concentrate on the good things here.