The homewares retailer has opened its first store in the South and has made the most of the new building’s heritage.
Furniture and homewares has been one of the more difficult categories of retail in which to operate over the past few
years. Consumers have, by many accounts, eschewed big-ticket items, preferring perhaps the security of money in the bank.
Gone from high streets but not forgotten are players such as Land of Leather, victims of uncertain times.
In their place have come, in many instances, boarded up units on retail parks.
There are of course exceptions and one is Barker & Stonehouse. For those hailing from southern England, it is a name that may be relatively unfamiliar. But head up to the Northeast and the name is almost a talismanic guarantee of homewares quality and better-end furniture retailing.
Now the retailer that was founded in the immediate post-war period is spreading its wings with the opening of a south-of-Watford store. The historic building that houses this 25,000 sq ft shop is in the western reaches of
London’s Battersea and was formerly a candle factory.
James Barker, managing director of Barker & Stonehouse, says the decision to open a store in this location was happenstance. He says: “I sort of fell upon it last summer when I was working for the Olympics. I walked past it, saw the candles in there and thought that’d make a great shop. It just seemed a fantastic industrial building with loads of natural light.”
Barker says the retailing part of the candle factory only occupied about 3,000 sq ft of the total space and that planning was not in place for using the first floor as a shop. “We applied for planning permission upstairs. If we hadn’t managed to get this, I don’t know if I’d have gone for it,” he says.
In the event, planning permission was granted and work started on the project in January, following many of the design leads set by the store that Barker & Stonehouse opened in Knaresborough, Yorks in December.
Stand in the car park outside the Battersea store and the single most obvious point is the warmth of the London brick that was used to build the structure back in the 19th century.
The same warmth is mirrored internally. Claire Hornby, creative and display manager at Barker & Stonehouse, says that in preparation for the opening “we took a lot of the walls back to the original brick”. Practically, this means that the inside of the store fulfils the promise of the exterior.
“I didn’t want to start adding things [structurally] to the interior, it was a matter of taking away when it came to creating the store environment,” says Hornby. She reveals that fashioning a new interior involved rather more than stripping the walls back to the London brick and that a number of the original brick walls were taken down.
The brick was recycled and used to create new internal features, including the lift shaft just inside the entrance, meaning the building’s architectural integrity and heritage were maintained.
For the visitor there is the sense that this is a store that has used the original architecture and worked around it, rather than refashioning the internal shape. Rather more obvious, in terms of how the space has been used, will be the visual merchandising, which is what makes this store interesting and different from a run-of-the-mill furniture retailer, whether it is catering for the well-heeled or those keeping a close eye on the budget.
The first evidence of this is apparent as the shopper enters the store, where a Morris Minor, sourced by Barker and painted by one of the French polishers that worked on the store interior, serves as a vehicular Union flag. Next to it is the lift shaft, built from the recycled brick stock, which has seats attached to its upper reaches and a red, neon sign that invites onlookers to ‘please be seated’. Hornby says this adds a mildly rebellious and glamorous touch to the front of the store.
Move beyond this and, as well as a sea of vintage iron pillars that wouldn’t look out of place in New York’s SoHo, the ground floor has been carved up into a series of roomsets, each with its own character. Care has been taken to emphasise both the Britishness of what is on view and the contemporary nature of the offer when set against the historic backdrop.
And towards the back of the floor, on the left-hand side, there is the ‘by appointment’ candle shop, Farris, which sells merchandise from this location and has done for more than a century. Now, however, it is a candle shop-within-a-shop, rather than a factory - the candles are made off-site but elements of the manufacturing past have been used as visual merchandising props, including an overhead chandelier-style fixture that uses a candle-dipping wheel.
The first floor is more of the same, with roomsets throughout, own-buy and concessions, but it has two features that are different from downstairs. The first is the store management offices, which Hornby says have been created to mimic the kind of glass-sided spaces that used to be found in factories and that allowed management to see what was going on on the shopfloor.
And then there is the cafe. Dubbed Social Fuel, it is at the back of the floor, acting as a magnet to drag visitors through the space and making them inspect the offer as they do so. It is fashionably wood-clad, combining
distressed timber and the almost obligatory shiny cappuccino machine to create the appropriate artisan feel.
Given that this is a first for Barker & Stonehouse and that it is a name that will be unknown to the majority of those who visit, the opening is a bold move by the retailer.
That said, it is immediately a destination that will probably have Battersea’s design-aware consumers beating a path to its door. It is also reassuring to see a building with a very distinct character being given a new lease of life, one that will make it attractive to a wide cross-section of potential shoppers.
Moving into a new market is always a gamble and there are few success stories in the world of home furnishings at present, but there will always be those who are prepared to give something different a go. The new Barker & Stonehouse store in Battersea is a welcome retail addition to the south London landscape.
Barker & Stonehouse, Battersea
Opened July 6
Size 25,000 sq ft
Number of floors Two
Ambience Victorian industrial