Architecture and design practice Make has given the top people’s store a new and contemporary suite of escalators while restoring the historic staircases
Conservation architect: Hilary Bell
Specialist lighting design: Paul Nulty Lighting Design
Duration: 13 months
'All things for all people everywhere' is the translation of the Latin motto carried by one of the most luxurious brands in the world. Harrods, bought by the Qatari royal family's Qatar Holdings group in 2010, set about a major investment programme, which has already seen a spend of more than £200m on the distinguished store.
The new escalators feature fluted bronze cladding, in a reference to the store's original facade.
Yet defining 'distinguished' couldn't be more contrasted between new and former owners. The latter, Mohamed Al-Fayed, had some exceptional changes made to the store during his 25 years of ownership, not least the 'Egyptian Escalator' created by Harrods director of design William Mitchell.
Architecture and design practice Make, commissioned by Harrods, has been brought in to redesign the store's escalators, stairs and restore the grand hall to meet the new owner's brand vision for the store. 'Apparently the inspiration for the previous ones was described as "Egyptian Hollywood" when Harrods commissioned the redesign back in the Eighties,' says Ian Lomas, Make partner and lead architect.
Interestingly, research reveals Harrods debuting England's first 'moving staircase' in November 1898. Fashioned as a woven leather conveyor belt, accompanied by a mahogany and silver plate-glass balustrade, it was so exciting to many that Harrods' 19th-century customer service extended to a glass of brandy at the top of the stairs to help 'revive users after their ordeal'. And it's stories like this that the new concept aims to celebrate, by stripping back the extravagance of the Eighties' effort and returning the store's rich heritage and architectural alignment through the careful selection of finishes that Make says 'creates a unique sense of place with handcrafted materials'.
New escalators meet newly restored staircase. Below, the grand hall's ceiling has been opened out with a new roof light
'The building and its history inspired this project,' says Tracy Wiles, Make partner. 'After seeing old photographs of what the space used to look like, and looking at the staircase as it had become, it didn't take too much deciding over what to do. We took into consideration the client brief and the brand itself, which is an iconic international retail destination, and between these three factors - the building history, client brief and brand - it almost resolved itself.
Neverthless we did have to adhere to a lot of guidelines being as it is a grade II* listed building.' Make reintroduced cast metal newel lights, after old photographs revealed them on an earlier art deco staircase that had been removed later in the 20th century. The project also required an international search to try and source the last remaining blocks of the original Slovenian marble, to restore staircase. Eventually enough was discovered, in a stone masonry yard in the Czech Republic, to complete the necessary restoration works.
Conservation architect Hilary Bell was brought on board to aid with some of the sensitive conservation work was needed, alongside Harrods' Martin Illingworth, director of store development. He played a key role ensuring that architectural 'preservation' was handled and executed correctly.
'Why would anybody take off the stair lights is beyond me!' Illingworth says of earlier iterations. 'Nevertheless, we had a lot of support form English Heritage, as we have to get approval on everything we do.' The renovation of the staircase also provided the perfect opportunity to address omissions to the store's Great War memorial, listing the names of Harrods' employees killed in the 1914-18 war, which previously had 21 names missing from it.
The store's staircase has been restored with lamps and a clever lighting scheme
Make also installed a completely new suite of escalators. Featuring British-made fluted bronze cladding, drawn from the details and proportion of the historic external facade on to Basil Street, where previously covered-over windows were revealed. The hall was extended to roof level with an elegant new roof light, which Lomas says provides a visual reference to Harrods' former winter gardens by mimicking a palm leaf lying on the roof light. Visual merchandising screens, framed with polished black granite, have also been integrated into the scheme at the grand hall's ground-floor entrance. The hall features a custom-designed, 6m-long, hand-blown glass chandelier by Dale Chihuly. Called Amber and Gold, the chandelier was installed in February of this year, marking the completion of the project.
Wiles says: 'We like to explain the Harrods' design concept as a historical time line. From the oldest piece of the architecture through to the contemporary nature of the visual merchandising screens the design solution really gives the feeling of space and transition throughout.'
The new escalators are topped with Amber and Gold, a chandelier created for the space by American glass artist Dale Chihuly.
Yet it's the careful, unspoken - and unseen - details that marks out Make's careful work. Lomas explains: 'Modern buildings and interiors use a plethora of services within a scheme, but how do you integrate them discreetly, out of sight? We looked at many stores and saw a scattergun of speakers, sprinklers and AV systems advertising various bits and bobs. However, we managed to integrate this into the ceiling coffers, therefore eliminating the need for any extra access panels from the scheme and avoiding an acne of services in it.'
Lomas speaks of the design team's biggest challenge, which was the inclusion of the escalators into the scheme. Describing them as a 'sculptural insertion', they have become a key feature within the space rather than being just a functional requirement. 'It was a chance for us, and the manufacturers, to work on something that was a bit different and help create a thing of beauty,' he says. 'A lot of the bronze elements had to be hand formed, and at times it was fraught.'
With a variety of materials and textures featured within the space and a combination of natural and featured lighting, such as the Chihuly chandelier and the reintroduction of lamps to the staircase, lighting the space needed careful consideration in order to discourage glare and undue shadows, ensuring that the surfaces worked seamlessly.
Make sought lighting design expertise, from Paul Nulty Lighting Design, which selected a theatre-style lighting approach by running concealed light strips down the escalators to create a 'sheen' on the bronze fluting, yet without shoppers being detracted by the source.
Preference was given to materials that not only adhered to heritage of the building, but also ensured a practical element. The issue of longevity was also carefully considered through the use of bronze, viewed by Make as a material that 'gets better' over time as well as creating a 'timeless' space to remain in situ for years to come.
'There's fashion, and fashion changes,' says Wiles. 'Fashion should only be changing on the merchandising floors, whereas this is a permanent installation and should feel like a solid part of Harrods.'
Words by Emily Martin