Men’s trousers; not so popular outside the office these days but practically mandatory in the 1930’s. So when Alexander Simpson successfully launched his ready-to-wear self-suspending trouser range ‘DAKS’ in 1934 he soon wanted a store near Savile Row to capitalise on the huge new market. It would need to be bright, it would need to be ‘manly’ and more importantly it would need to be modern! Simpsons of Piccadilly was born and first opened it doors in April 1936.
Simpsons of Piccadilly is one of the stars of Modernist Architecture in Britain. The building was designed by Joseph Emberton and many of its interior displays were designed by former Bauhaus man László Moholy-Nagy. [London was briefly enjoying the presence of several ex-Bauhaus Masters, including Gropius, Breuer and Moholy-Nagy, all three of whom were holed up in Wells Coates‘ Isokon building]. On top of this Simpson and Maholy-Nagy brought in British graphic designer Ashley Havinden (an enthusiastic Modernist and member of the MARS Group) who had previously worked with Simpson to produce advertising material for the DAKS range. Project Engineer was Felix Samuely who used the same welded steel frame he had pioneered at the De Le Warr Pavilion the year before.
Simpson was well versed in Modernist principles and knew he wanted a building which hid neither its function nor its structure, and made use of only the latest technology and the finest materials. He was aware this wasn’t going to come cheap but was convinced it was essential for him to build in the Modern style. Such was his zeal for the project that he even warned his shareholders they were unlikely to receive dividends for the next few years, a stance which is even more remarkable given the economic climate of the 1930’s.
Joseph Emberton was one of the few British-born members of the British Modernist movement. His previous work included the Empire Hall at Olympia and the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club at Burnham-on-Crouch. This latter work had represented Britain in 1932 at the International Exhibition of Modern Architecture held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and secured Emberton’s reputation as a leading Modernist in the UK.
Emberton’s building was innovative in many ways, particularly in his use of light. By day the specially designed ducts and light wells admitted sunlight deep into the store, and by night concealed neon strips illuminated the broad frontage. Light from inside was able to spill out onto Piccadilly (and vice versa) through the large expanse of steel windows, including stylishly curved windows at street level. Also ground-breaking was his use of sliding fire doors, to open-up much wider shop floors, and the installation of a built-in vacuum cleaning system. Emberton also designed many of the light fixtures, the most spectacular of which are the chrome and glass orbs of the main stairwell which run the height of the building. It is interesting to compare these with those created by Mendelsohn and Chermayeff for the De La Warr Pavilion (1935).
László Moholy-Nagy designed many of the displays for the store, which given their size gave him plenty of scope for experiment. He also installed an aircraft on the fifth floor for the building’s opening, which although certainly ‘modern’ may seem a tad gimmicky. It does however make perfect sense within the context of Simpson’s plan to draw middle-class men inside and give them some ‘manly’ things to look at. And while it may seem strange in the 21st century that a man should need distractions around him in order to feel comfortable purchasing clothes from the high street, the idea of a men’s fashion store was still very novel in the 1930’s. For much the same reason Simpson also included a barber shop, a tobacconist, a theatre agent and a club room replete with liveried attendants and a machine displaying the latest stock market prices.
Ashley Havinden was a dapper and successful society man and Director of Crawford’s Advertising Agency. He had first been introduced to London interior designers John and Madeleine Duncan-Miller, with whom he worked on several projects, and through them had met Wells Coates who had himself started out as an interior designer. Eventually this led to Havinden’s membership of the MARS group and an introduction to Gropius, Breuer and Maholy-Nagy. Incidentally from 1938-1949 Havinden and his wife leased a superb flat in Highpoint II (the ex-show flat decorated by Lubetkin) which must surely have ranked alongside 2 Willow Road as being one of the Modernist places to be seen. For Simpsons of Piccadilly he was contracted to produce the store’s logo, advertising material, and twenty new rug designs (see contemporary photo above). His original store sign (itself now listed) which incorporates the word Piccadilly into the letter ‘P’ of Simpsons can be seen below, the larger illuminated version now being in storage.
The building was a great success but sadly Alexander Simpson died only a year after it was completed, aged 34. Fashions in men’s tailoring may have moved on since the 1930’s but the Grade I listed building he commissioned remains as a permanent monument to his belief in Modernism.
© Modernist Tourists 2016