Designing Liberty’s Christmas windows

Department store Liberty unveiled its festive windows yesterday, inspired by Brighton’s Royal Pavilion and Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. Speaking at creative conference Offset in London on Friday, the store’s head of visual creative Liz Silvester discussed how they are made…

Liberty‘s Christmas windows, along with Selfridges’, Harrods’ and the Oxford Street Christmas lights, are a festive attraction in their own right – hundreds turned up to see them revealed yesterday afternoon and catch a glimpse of official guest Kylie Minogue. Displays are stuffed full of Liberty prints, glitter and gifts and as head of visual creative Liz Silvester explained at Offset on Friday, they are the result of months of planning, sketching and prop building…

Silvester studied fine art at the Royal Academy and practiced as a painter and sculptor before moving into visual merchandising (she previously worked at Kurt Geiger before joining Liberty 18 months ago). She now works with a team of 25 people to produce all of the store’s visual creative.

“We have seven graphic designers, and we do everything in-house. We have a prop cupboard on the roof [of Liberty’s] and a workshop in the basement,” explains Silvester. The team works on around 15 projects at once, designing window displays, in-store environments, invites for special events and Liberty’s magazine.

Last year’s festive windows took inspiration from the store itself. A mock Tudor building on London’s Great Malborough Street, it was constructed in 1924 from the timber of two ships, and is built around three light wells surrounded by a series of smaller rooms to create a homely feel. Displays featured wooden ships stuffed with gifts and surrounded by gold glitter and medallions:

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Liberty’s 2014 Christmas windows

This year, the process began with “a very sketchy, research-based brief” says Silvester, inspired by The Grand Budapest Hotel and the lavish interiors of Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, a Regency house built by John Nash as a pleasure palace for King George IV. The concept also draws on Liberty’s house-like structure and presents each window as a different room, from a bedroom to a pantry, dining room and bathroom.

Silvester then devised a colour palette, drawing on the bold Indian and Chinese interiors in Brighton Pavilion, the pink used for props and sets in the Grand Budapest Hotel and the interiors of London restaurant Sketch (pictured below).

“The colour palette is always an important part of helping us edit and there’s always something in a retailer’s palette [at Christmas] that runs out of production,” explains Silvester. “Last year, when we did the giant mast and lots of little boats, our colour was going to be copper… and you know you’re on to something when it runs out. You couldn’t get copper vinyl anywhere in the city, or the country,” she adds.

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Poster and props from Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, designed by Annie Atkins
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Interior, Brighton Royal Pavilion. Image: Jerrye & Roy Klotz (2009)
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Interior of London restaurant Sketch, featuring artwork by David Shrigley

While it starts with a simple concept, Silvester says the theme for windows will then be extended to incorporate lighting, graphics, sound design and interior displays. “It’s not just windows, it’s everything. The language we build transcends through the entire environment,” she explains. “As a retailer, in terms of connecting people, it’s not just about having an amazing visual first-off experience – you have to think about texture, sound, lighting.”

Taking the idea of a giant doll’s house, the team then had to work out how to fit as many products as possible into displays without overstuffing them. Silvester says she is a fan of maximalist store design, preferring a “more is more” environment to anything “polished, edited or over-designed” – but admitted it can be a challenge balancing the commercial aims of Christmas windows with the need to present a carefully curated selection of items.

“It’s the most commercial time for Liberty, and you’ll have the board and chairman saying, ‘make sure you get everything in there’,” she says. “You always have to remember at the heart of the concept, it has to deliver commercially [and] what that means is you have to get product in there.”

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Once the initial sketches are complete, Silvester says visual designers will experiment with sets and props, working out innovative ways to showcase and hang products. This year’s windows feature a fridge stuffed with jewellery and beauty products, shoes stacked on stairs and purple gifts piled up as if hidden under floorboards. Various Liberty prints are also used to cover walls and shelving.

“We have two visual designers at Liberty who aren’t part of the creative team,they’re part of the set building team and they just draw and work it out. Two of them just sit there with no computers, a load of fabric and the brief all over the floor.”

Product display something we are constantly looking at. ‘How can we do it in a way that’s different and new?'” she adds. “We have to get so much in there – Liberty has six floors – so to think of an environment where you can pull that in and make it work is quite a difficult thing to do.”

Displays feature a clever use of graphics to signpost different departments within the store. In the pantry, for example, tins and boxes direct visitors to the store’s shoes and jewellery departments, while a table runner in a dining room-themed window points to accessories.

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The end result has all the key components of a festive window: Christmas trees, fake snow and plenty of product and sparkle. It might lack the immediate visual impact of Selfridges’ windows with its zodiac-themed designs or Harrods’ with its Christmas mice, but displays incorporate some beautiful prints, cleverly arranged products and graphics, and a design that reflects the building’s unique architecture.

“We have a house at Liberty, and for us to represent it in the right way, you have to delve into lots of different things, and pull out all of the creativity that sits within the brand – from the designers drawing the most amazing scarves from scratch every day, to people designing tiles for the floor, to people on the shop floor. We have to absorb the business,” adds Silvester.

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