No trip to London is complete without a stop at Liberty. Most first-time visitors are already familiar with the department store’s unique architecture; the impressive black-and-white mock Tudor exterior, tall British chimneys, curved, solid wooden staircases, and elaborate interior courtyards has changed little since it was founded in 1875. While it now offers everything from purses to pet accessories, the business originally specialized in selling unusual ornaments, luxurious fabrics, and Indian silk for its own line of clothing.
Striking, ornate design and a commitment to elegance have always been at the crux of Liberty’s enduring reputation. An early patron of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements through its discriminating support of contemporary designers and local craftsmen, shoppers still flock to its globally renowned haberdashery department, which spills over with flamboyant fabric.
Today, in a modern office block attached by an arched corridor to the grand old Liberty store, the in-house graphic design team works to marry its heritage with the company’s continued drive to celebrate the best in contemporary design. “We strive to show that Liberty is more than its prints,” says senior designer Laura Vandenbergh. To start their day, she and the rest of the team take a morning walk through the store, checking to make sure everything is set out according to the meticulous, longstanding brand guidelines. Wandering the space in these quiet, early hours is a constant source of inspiration, too. As well as the architecture, the graphics team has special access to Liberty’s extraordinary archive of 35,000 prints, which they mine daily as they work on new designs.
But just how do they walk that fine line between honoring the past and keeping the visual identity fresh and relevant? For starters, the team loves to play with striking colors, patterns that are familiar yet timeless, and unexpected materials. Case in point: the branding of Liberty Bespoke, the department store’s exclusive member’s club, is rooted in an archival print made modern by cutting the pattern out of brass, a material used throughout the store for its fixtures.
When it came to designing the company’s special VIP boxes, the designers didn’t default to the classic, luxe Liberty purple that adorns its shopping bags. Instead, they pulled the gold from Liberty’s logo, and set it off handsomely by a grey tone from its GF Smith Colorplan. “We want to use our brand colors without being too obvious,” explains senior designer Milly Hill.
Employing exciting new illustrators keen to be part of the Liberty legacy is another way the in-house team has brought the handmade, craft-based roots of the brand up to date. Regular shoppers will be familiar with the ongoing series that commissions illustrators to interpret the architecture of Liberty building itself, with recent sketches coming from buzzy talents like Thomas Danthony, Zoe Barker, and Sarah Maycock.
Liberty’s frequent collaborations with other brands presents an added design challenge for the graphics department. On top of bringing Liberty’s classic look up to date with every new element they create, the designers also have to seamlessly embed a completely different and well-established brand’s visual identity into the mix. For a new candle they created in partnership with Diptyque, the graphics team embraced a playful mashup of references, combining two Liberty prints from the ’60s with two prints from the Diptyque archives to create a smart hybrid that pays homage to both houses.
Like a fashion magazine, the in-house designers have their minds three seasons ahead. “We always have to reinvent how Valentine’s/Easter/Mother’s/Father’s day and Christmas are portrayed,” says Hill. The holidays are an especially intense time of year for them. The Liberty window display is traditionally one of central London’s highlights, lighting up Marlborough Street like a magnificent theater marquee, stopping passersby in their tracks. Even though the most recent Christmas period is over, Hill and Vandenbergh are already working on next year’s campaign.
They’re not ones to repeat themselves, but gifts, as you might expect, are the primary focus. For Holiday 2014 it was “The Store That Launched 1,000 Gifts.” For Holiday 2015 they worked with the visual merchandizing team to translate the winter Liberty Arts Fabric collection into a vibrant Christmas-y collection inspired by a dolls-house print, hence the “The Home of Christmas” theme meant to evoke Liberty’s position as a one-stop shop for gifts. The resulting window displays and packaging were warm and cozy, inspired by Wes Anderson’s meticulous, folksy set pieces.
For the Liberty in-house graphics team, a multidisciplinary approach is vital. They could be designing a VIP shopping experience one day, stationery the next, and a novel brand identity the third, but their most unusual graphics are usually created for the window displays. “Most recently we did a family photo of the mannequins we’re using, all wearing Christmas jumpers,” laughs Hill. Even when they’re delivering high design with a light touch, that archetypal, glittering Liberty style shines through.
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Over the course of its history, America’s oldest department has gone through its fair share of change. Meet the in-house team responsible for its latest redesign.
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