“I always felt that I had a mission in life to deliver to ordinary people better places to shop”. Rodney Fitch, one of the true greats of British design, has passed away. As a tribute we are republishing this 1996 interview by Richard Williams from our sister title Design Week which caught Fitch at his charming best
Williams interviewed Fitch for a series of articles on the “founding fathers” of the British design industry. At the time, Fitch had recently bounced back from a traumatic break with his original consultancy, to form Rodney Fitch & Company with Richard Branson’s backing.
Half Moon Street is a pretty street in London’s Mayfair where you would expect to find firms of conveyancing solicitors or chartered accountants. Surprisingly, it has offered sanctuary to someone who radically changed the way we shop and whose touch brightened every high street in the UK during the Eighties, namely Rodney Fitch.
Fitch is absolutely captivating, with the skills of a great raconteur and a very open sensitivity. His is an epic story with all the ingredients of a best-seller – with his extraordinary highs and lows, powerful friendships which ran aground irretrievably and an incredible personal inner strength.
The new office is part of a portfolio of properties owned by Richard Branson, equal shareholder in the new Rodney Fitch and Company. A far cry from the huge monument to success that was the centre of the Fitch empire in King’s Cross, it is somewhere to rebuild confidence and start the long climb back.
The link to Branson means that Fitch now has the opportunity to pitch on all Virgin business, although it is not a foregone conclusion that he will win it, as the loss of the Virgin cinema projects to Design Clinic and Watson Design proves.
Fitch explains: “My departure from Fitch plc was horrible, and it was done in such a way that it questioned my self-worth. My personal regard for myself had been systematically destroyed and Richard, by expressing the confidence in me that he did, helped restore that self-respect. He owns 50 per cent of this business and we plan to make it as big and successful as we possibly can. I want to make it as big, if not bigger, than Fitch. This is not a desire for revenge, just that the opportunity is there to be taken advantage of.”
Born in Islington in 1938, an only child of working class parents, his education was “unspectacular”. After technical college he joined a shopfitting company in its design studio, but soon realised that he did not want to work for traditional shopfitters, instead he wanted to work for a small, creative and elite design and architecture group.
“My life was changed by the work of Bronek, Katz and Meir. My Holy Grail was the Richard Shops store the group designed at London’s Marble Arch, with its huge sheets of glass pinned to metal frames. It blew shopfitting completely out of the water. To me this company was doing absolutely state-of-the-art stuff. I was just knocked out by it all.”
He had strong left-wing political views in those days and his involvement with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament almost lost him his first big break. Offered a job as a junior designer with Conran Design Group, the start date was immediately after a CND rally in Ruislip…”Of course, I got arrested. I was bundled off to Ashford Remand Centre where I refused to co-operate. Eventually, I was duped into giving my details and my mother contacted Terence Conran to explain why I hadn’t turned up for work! He paid my 50 fine and I was released. I always felt indebted to Terence for this display of generosity. It was 1963 when I embarked on several very happy, enjoyable and creative years at the Conran Design Group, ending up as managing director there in 1968.”
On Conran’s departure from CDG, he approached Fitch to join him at the new Conran Associates, but Rodney decided instead to buy the former CDG from Burtons. He renamed it Fitch & Company and was on his way.
“I decided there had to be a change in my life,” explains Fitch. This episode marked the well-publicised falling out between the once very close partners. “I knew that I owed Terence not just that crucial 50, but all I had learned from him. When the chips were down and he was starting again he needed me and I wasn’t there. I lived with that guilt for years.” He feels that his recent acrimonious departure from Fitch at the hands of Conran and others has levelled the score.
Conran, Jean FranÃ§ois Bentz and Martin Beck began the financial restructuring of Fitch plc and Rodney realised that he no longer had a place in the business. The parting was sad and acrimonious and there are details he will not divulge. His resentment at his treatment is very clear. The concept of this proud man pushing his bicycle away from the company he loved without even being allowed to pump up the front tyre beggars belief.
“On a personal level, being a public company had very substantial benefits. On paper, it gave an economic value to my life. To be chairman of a public company, which had to be properly run, managed and be accountable to its shareholders, was how I wanted to be judged. It also gave design a legitimacy in a business, capitalist society context,” he explains.
Rodney’s politics and personal fortune took a huge upturn in the Eighties. He was quoted as being worth 40m and one of Britain’s 250 richest people. “Growth was spectacular. Margaret Thatcher engendered a spirit in the country which enabled all sorts of things, good and bad, to grow. I don’t regret the Eighties at all. I think that design came of age. The decline started when we continued to invest in the building in King’s Cross. We should have put a great big tarpaulin over it and stayed where we were until we could get a clearer picture of the depth of the recession. Had I done that I would not be here now and things would be very different.
“Today they want me to be a designer in a garret – small-time, charge small fees, don’t raise my head above the parapet, don’t be flash, because it is not seemly for designers to do that. Designers are modest professionals who should enjoy a modest income and be content with their lot. I hate all that.
“I always felt that I had a mission in life to deliver to ordinary people better places to shop. I have little interest in Issey Miyake or haute couture design. The thing that really turns me on is working for Woolworth’s, Marks and Spencer and Boots stores – which touch everyone’s life.” This is indeed a noble calling.
He thinks the new company has kept him young. “It is a new kind of business – low cost, high technology, high productivity. Virtually everything I do I think of as a brand problem from the inside outwards. It is not enough to simply produce a new design formula without a concomitant commitment to the product.”
He has a joint operation called FMF in the US with a small and very lively modernist architectural practice, FM Associates, whose specialism is retail masterplanning. It designs the kind of huge shopping malls which Rodney has admired for so long. Indeed, it is about to design the biggest mall ever built in the world, some five million square feet – about ten times the size of Brent Cross. Rodney Fitch and Company will design some of the stores within it, create the brand positioning and design its identity.
The project, like much of Fitch’s activity nowadays, will be built in Asia, a region he adores. He operates in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila, and is treated with the respect he feels he deserves. “Often the top people in business there already have my books on their shelves. They respect me and listen to me because of my status in the business.” He regrets that he does a pathetically small amount of work in the UK, hating the current perception “that unless you have green hair you are not a very good designer. If you were around in the Eighties you are somehow sullied or old hat. You don’t get that in Asia. There one is always dealing with the owner, whereas here one is always much lower down the chain”.
He is hugely optimistic about the future of design, if a trifle jaded at the return to poor fees in the UK. He foresees designers being much more “plugged in” to their clients, “becoming a sixth finger of their right hand, where clients come to rely on their consultants utterly”.
Rodney Fitch is living proof that you can’t keep a good man down. He is enjoying his new career and I reckon that Britain’s loss is Asia’s gain. Watch this space.
Richard Williams is founder and chairman of Williams Murray Hamm
Rodney Fitch died on 20 October following a battle with cancer. Most recently, he held a post as a Professor of retail design at TUDelft University in the Netherlands and ran consultancy Rodney Fitch Ltd.
Tim Greenhalgh, chairman and chief creative officer of Fitch, paid tribute to the consultancy’s founder: “Rodney was a truly great man and one whom we in the design community owe a great debt of gratitude. He was a creative visionary and one of the most charming men you could ever wish to meet. He created a culture for designers that has survived over the years – one that celebrates endeavour and the desire to change the world for the better.
“Rodney believed strongly in customer-centric design (a term he never liked using) and hated customers being referred to as ‘punters’. He believed they deserved great respect, and importantly, great design. He saw things in the world of brand and retail that others simply missed and he had ways of expressing his ideas that people fell in love with.
“Rodney was a wonderful man, who was loved and will be greatly missed.”
D&AD, where Fitch served as President in 1984, has a lovely interview from 2011 here
Please use the comments space below to share your memories of Fitch. Tributes can also be left here