Friday, April 10, 2015

Piccadilly, London

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.


Hels said...

Morris said (something like) do not have anything in your home that you do not KNOW to be useful and do not BELIEVE to be beautiful. And Bauhaus said form FOLLOWS function. So I agree with you. Both are important, but the functional needs to be stylish. And a fashion shop in Piccadilly needs stylishness.

zchug said...

At least they didn't put 'formally'.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Not much time for "form follows function" - more people SEE the exterior of a building than ever make use of its interior. So a main function is to look good, no matter what. Almost any day I stumble over a certain set of "form follows function" concrete steps of a certain vintage: the designer of these obviously didn't measure the average foot: give me a "pastiche" neo-Something Edwardian staircase any day!

Peter Ashley said...

I once cropped that Simpson shop sign to fit on a page and it wasn't until the book was published that I noticed it now said 'Sin'.

Anonymous said...

"formerly" seems to be a run of the mill Helvetica font, found on countless shop signs, while the old sign is quite probably specially designed with great care, as part of the overall original architecture. It just shows the shalowness of our age.