Space to Create: Liberty House

As our latest building opens its doors we celebrate the design legacy of our iconic neighbour, Liberty London, whose heritage has inspired our new creative work space

In the pantheon of global department stores, few rival Liberty London with its idiosyncratic Tudor revival building, its heritage as a design house and the thrill of retail theatre decades ahead of its time. Fewer stores yet have had such a charismatic founder at the helm.

From the very outset, Arthur Lasenby Liberty, the son of a draper who hailed from Chesham, Buckinghamshire was intent on doing things differently. The legend recorded in Liberty’s archives proclaims, ‘I was determined not to follow existing fashions but to create new ones’, thereby charting a course and design maxim which the department store has continued to uphold for 146 years and counting.

Executing this maxim relies heavily on printing, innovation in textiles and the confident use of colour. The Office Group’s design team have drawn on these motifs in the scheme for Liberty House, TOG’s newest – and really quite palatial – opening on Regent Street. A former part of Liberty London, still connected to the department store by an imposing stone bridge over Kingly Street, the building’s grand Portland Stone facade is a fitting exterior to some 34,694 square ft of elegant work space set across five floors.

Walk into Liberty House and one of the first things that strikes you is the dexterous use of colour. This is something that TOG worked on closely with architecture studio and regular collaborator SODA. Much of the colour palette was inspired by original Liberty prints and while TOG hasn’t gone quite so far as to decorate the walls with printed wallpaper, the dark and soft green colours running through Liberty House are drawn from Liberty’s iconic 1880s peacock feather print, which is still in use today.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the design of Liberty House is ‘exotic’”, says TOG’s head of design, Nasim Köerting, “but we did work closely with SODA to understand how Liberty was a key player in pioneering new textiles, trends and fashions, in its day. We wanted our building to have a similarly progressive feel. The space is filled with furniture designed around the world and a lot of the fabrics we’ve used come from different European designers too.”

This chimes with Liberty’s place as the first London importer of far-flung luxury goods. Reportedly, Arthur Liberty wanted to create a London emporium laden with luxuries and fabrics from distant lands. His fantasy was to metaphorically dock a ship, rich with treasures on Regent Street. Given that the timber for the present day department store came from two ships, the HMS Impregnable (built from 3,040 100-year-old oaks from the New Forest) and the Hindustan, one might argue he quite literally realised this too. Certainly, Liberty’s passion for textiles and interior design were apparent from the outset.

Dennis Nothdruft, curator for the Fashion & Textile Museum explains Arthur’s approach: “He was importing textiles but they were being dyed to his specification, there was this desire to be innovative in terms of product and design. He also believed that you could marry good design with production to make things accessible – you could make a lot of something, it just had to be done well.” In this respect, Arthur might be compared to a Sir Terence Conran of the 1920s, bringing good design to all. Everyone could benefit from the Liberty experience, no matter their budget. ‘You could buy things for as little a shilling, he tried to cater to that market too,’ adds Nothdruft.

Here too lies another healthy comparison with TOG’s new space, which is true to the design team’s philosophy that a work space should be open and inspiring, designed to promote creativity in all its different forms. “The building’s colour and style encourages creativity,” Köerting continues, “it’s the kind of space that’s perfect for creative meetings. Each space is filled with colour and all the artworks are made from textiles in deference to Liberty – from woven vases to the tapestries in the building’s reception areas. Even the photography we chose is inspired by fashion photography.”

Of course, Liberty’s impact on fashion is also significant. From the off, there was an enormous appeal to actually shopping in Liberty and this is not in any way to be underestimated. The store opened in its present incarnation in 1924 and immediately had an impact on both men’s and women’s style, popularising the kimono and a craze for louche dressing gowns and wraps in the 1920s and 1930s. Sadly, Arthur died seven years before the building by Edwin T. Hall and his son Edwin S. Hall was completed but he’d doubtless have been impressed by its new form. The two Edwins were given a budget of £198,000 and records show more than 24,000 cubic feet of dismantled ships’ timbers were used, including their decks which became the shop flooring.

Somehow, Liberty has maintained its appeal as a genuinely chic destination to spend an afternoon browsing over the course of the 20th and now 21st centuries. ‘I’ve always enjoyed visiting Liberty’, says the Telegraph’s Head of Fashion, Lisa Armstrong. ‘The twists and turns of the building make you feel as if you are on you a voyage of discovery and I like the mix of fashion and designers – it’s like a boutique in a big building.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, TOG has worked hard to imbue Liberty House with this same sense of character. The design team shaped a variety of work space, focus booths and break-out spaces for collaboration throughout, balancing its scale against a sense of intimacy. This feeling is boosted by the warmth of Liberty House’s terracotta accent walls and pastel furnishings. ‘The different textures in the building help too,’ says Köerting, ‘there’s lots of fluted timber and velvet, alongside the building’s original glazing.’

Of course, there’s much more to Liberty’s story than these few short paragraphs can describe. We’ve yet to touch on the store’s crucial role in the Aesthetic movement of the late 19th century, how it was one of the earliest European importers of Japanese art and textiles, or how, just a stone’s throw from Carnaby Street, Liberty found itself at the very heart of swinging 1960s London and the ‘youth quake’ that swept through 20th century Britain.

Today, the store remains at the forefront of contemporary fashion and interior design, seeking out the most promising young designers and independents, alongside global fashion stalwarts. In short, Liberty is nothing if not distinctive – the ideal muse for TOG’s own design philosophy.

To learn more about Liberty House or book a viewing, contact TOG here.

Carolyn Asome is a fashion and interiors writer.