For catchy trends and good-quality classics, look no further than the high-street home collections this autumn. Chains from M&S to John Lewis, French Connection to H&M, as well as Asda and Sainsbury’s, have raised their design game in recent years. Now they are focusing on a new conundrum: how to get us through the door.
The web may be where we make a purchase, but the decision to commit to a new sofa or a set of cast-iron cookware is usually sparked by a real-life encounter. Most interiors acquisitions need to pass the touch test. So the household names are working hard to tempt us back to 20th-century shopping habits.
Last week, John Lewis unveiled its revamped store on the nation’s most famous high street. The woman behind the Oxford Street branch’s makeover, the firm’s buying and brand director, Paula Nickolds, says the partnership spent £14m on the eight-month project, which includes an enlarged interiors department of 94,000 sq ft. It showcases 25 room sets and, with more than 200,000 product lines, has “the largest range of home products of any store in the UK”.
Despite the dizzying figures, Nickolds claims the expansion of interiors is not about cramming in more stock. She says the new-look shop reflects the post-austerity trend for buying less, but better: “Pre-credit crunch, it felt more as though you purchased volume, and ‘new’ was all that mattered. Now the mindset has changed for good. If you’re going to part with your money, you need to imagine that the purchase will bring you pleasure for a long time.”
While some stores try to catch our digital-age attention spans with a packed diary of pop-ups, the key to making John Lewis’s hectic corner of Oxford Street more enticing has been to offer a quiet space, with knowledgeable staff on hand — the 294 partners in the home department have a combined 3,354 years of experience — where unhurried interiors decisions can be made.
Wilderness: this Tan bucket chair, £299, will be available at BHS in mid-September. bhs.co.uk
“What we are trying to create is a bit of an oasis of calm, where you can while away the hours looking through fabric swatches and wallpaper books,” Nickolds says.
A scented candle’s throw down the road, another of Oxford Street’s big beasts, M&S, is also on a mission to strike the best balance between clicks and bricks retail, and to attract interiors customers into the shop. Stephanie Chen, its director of home, says she is taking a cue from the fashion stores on the street. “People are viewing their homes like fashion. They want to refresh a look without spending a fortune.
“If you are a customer who comes in regularly, you are coming in for ideas. I don’t want you to see the same things each week. I want you to be surprised. We’ve got newness all the time — there are deliveries every week.”
Realising that these in-store customers will ultimately want to order online, not least because “they don’t want to lug furniture into the car”, M&S has developed a clever hybrid mode of shopping that makes the most of both channels. “They cancome in to see the product and order it on an iPad in store,” Chen says.
Her secret weapon is a highly competitive “visual merchandising” (VM) team. VM is the arrangement of products on shelves, in windows and in room sets. It can offer inspiration in the same way as an interiors magazine — and turns browsers into on-the-spot buyers.
Green: Multi Painterly Blossom and Hector check bedding, from £15 for a single set, green chenille cushion, £8, and large geometric vase, £15. bhs.co.uk
Chen makes a point of celebrating good VM whenever she sees it, inciting friendly rivalry between stores. “We have this in-house social media called Yammer, where you can post photos and invite everyone to look. When I went to the Glasgow store, I Yammered, ‘These are the best-dressed beds’, and I got an avalanche of responses, as if I’d thrown down the gauntlet.” All the other teams, she says, were posting pictures of their beds in competition.
“It was fabulous to see that talent and creativity. The more you can get your teams excited, the better, so they’ll be genuinely excited about giving advice and showing customers what works.”
Can the nation’s failing high streets — those that are dowdy, dispirited and desperate to lure back the online generation — learn any lessons from developments on Oxford Street? It’s mostly a question of cash, unfortunately. Paul Cook, managing director of Dukelease, the firm behind a £150m regeneration project at the east end of Oxford Street, says revamping and rebuilding is crucial to success.
Cook’s firm developed the site that’s now home to Zara’s flagship store. Far from shrinking in response to the boom in internet shopping, he says, the fashion retailer decided to go big — after all, why would shoppers come if they weren’t going to see comprehensive stock?
He reckons the catalyst for investment was Crossrail. “Infrastructure is the parent of regeneration,” he says. “In an area less than half a kilometre square, if you add the Crossrail above-ground structure and a bit of roadwork, along with seven big projects, then I think you’ve topped the billion pounds mark.”
That’s not a budget available to every high street in the land. Still, it makes anything we spend in an autumn interiors spree sound remarkably modest.
It’s the high-street store that’s turning into a one-brand trend. We can expect ever more adventurous design from Habitat, as the firm’s in-house team takes a step away from its midcentury roots and begins to relish colour and pattern. Look out for its modern Tribal and Memphis/1980s-inspired ranges.
Habitat is growing all the time. By this autumn, it will have 73 shops nationwide (three London flagships and 70 mini branches in Homebases across the UK), as well as an edit of its lines at Argos stores in the UK and Ireland. Gleeful, directional design — coming to a location near you.
Saddle up, partners. Remember last year’s vogue for the log-cabin look? It has returned with some enticing twists, and the best examples are inexpensive designs from two outstanding supermarket home ranges: George Home (Asda’s interiors label) and Sainsbury’s. The latter’s offering is best described as “luxurious lumberjack”, with a mix of Nava jo pattern, metal lighting and chunky plaids. Asda’s wilderness collection, called Tundra , is inspired by “native traditions and the breathtaking wilderness of the Arctic Circle”.
Get the look with heavy knitted throws, wood and leather finishes, outsize hurricane lamps and earthy tableware, with glazes that evoke big skies in cerulean blue or stormy hues.
Some of the catchiest pieces on the AW15 high street are channelling Nordic. House of Fraser has launched Gray & Willow, a retro collection in greys and woods, including tableware, textiles and a lovely leather sofa. Dunelm does cheery, colourful Scandi style brilliantly on a budget.
Stars of the season, though, are Jasper Conran’s table and dining chairs for Debenhams. This is the designer’s first furniture for the store, and mighty fine it is, too. Compare the sublimely simple Farringdon chair to the classic CH47 woven seat by Hans Wegner for Carl Hansen, which must have been one of Conran’s inspirations, then check the prices of each. That, my friends, is why we love the high street.
In times gone by, the vintage look really wasn’t the high street’s strong suit. If you wanted shabby chic, you were better off sourcing it at a real flea market. Lately, however, French Connection has nailed the “rough luxe” vibe — a twist on vintage. It is mixing opulent finishes such as mercurised mirror and turned marble with industrial-style metal, and worn-look rugs and cushions in a subdued palette of blues and greys.
Next, too, deserves a shoutout for its wood furniture. Some pieces have a salvage feel; others, such as the Shoreditch grey triple wardrobe, are more “upcycled Georgian”.
Habitat: Ebbie Neon acrylic side table, £95
The high street is engaging with opulence this autumn. The stores understand it’s something we all want, but few have discovered how to deliver it — and, after all, isn’t luxury by definition scarce? That’s the dilemma furrowing mass-market brows.
Some of the value chains are responding (optimistically) with plastic chandeliers and sparkly cushions. Only John Lewis and M&S, at the high-quality end of the high street, seem to have cracked the conundrum.
M&S’s collection channels art-deco shapes and luxurious finishes, including black lacquer, velvet and warm metal. John Lewis has curated collections of crafted objects from small studios such as Hampson Woods and Dove Street Pottery. A different kind of luxury, but just as indulgent.
If you were longing for the return of chrome this autumn, prepare for disappointment once again. Warm coloured metallics are coming through more strongly than ever in the new collections. And who knew copper finishes could be done so well on a budget?
Now that we’ve got used to golden metal as a default, it’s spreading from luxurious designs to fun accessories, the best example of which is the rocket moneybox at George Home (Asda).
After years of grey being the significant colour trend in AW interiors, green is beginning a subtle takeover. This is long overdue, in my book: we need a bit of outdoorsy freshness in our interiors as the days grow shorter. It’s a vibrant, optimistic hue in its yellower shades, and blends brilliantly with those copper accessories. Tastiest greens this season are Matalan’s astonishingly inexpensive Spinwash tableware and BHS’s Painterly Blossom bed linen, a splotchy watercolour pattern that blends my favourite yellow-green with comfort-zone grey.