Soon after opening in 1875, Liberty established itself as the most fashionable and influential shop in London: the Arts & Crafts style furniture which it produced was snapped up by both private buyers and museums around the world. This century it has enjoyed a reputation for being one of the capital's best showcases for new design. Selling exhibitions were staged regularly throughout the 1970s and 1980s, some curated by artists and designers, others tied-in with major exhibitions, such as "Memphis meets Liberty", which featured the entire contents of the V&A's show dedicated to Memphis, the Italian design group; every item was sold within days of arrival in store.
Despite this long and largely happy association with contemporary furniture design, the department hit trouble in the early 1990s, and not even the decision to reinstate own-label collections, which had ceased production 80 years earlier, could revive it. In 1993, after just three new collections, the department closed. It had begun to alienate rather than excite people, and the recession further hampered its fortunes.
Sophie Holloway, Liberty's new modern furniture buyer, is the woman charged with making the department pay its way, and she is confident it can hold its own once more. "Attitudes towards design have changed in the last five years, and contemporary design now has a broader appeal," she says, pointing to the proliferation of interiors magazines and TV programmes as proof.
To celebrate the opening of the new furniture galleries, a selection of prototypes for Liberty's next furniture collection, Liberty IV, designed by Christopher Healey, are currently on display. Although Healey, who studied cabinet-making at Parnham House in Dorset, had been producing pieces for Liberty ever since he wandered into the store with a backpack full of candlesticks five years ago, he had never before undertaken a commission of this scale. The brief was to create timeless pieces which are "modern and classic, sensual and reflective of [Liberty's] history".
The collection, which comprises a sideboard, dining table, chairs, cabinets and a desk, all of which will be made to order from September, is extremely beautiful, but it does not at first appear particularly modern. Rather the pieces echo the look and feel of the furniture produced by Liberty throughout the 1890s when the fashion for Arts & Crafts was at its peak. This is intentional and the result of a clever piece of commissioning. Healey's fascination with archaeology, organic form and occult ideas, evident in his early work, made him a natural candidate for the Liberty IV project. Although these influences are now more subtly expressed in his work, there is a clear link to the two aesthetics with which Liberty is closely associated: Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts.
Already, Liberty IV has attracted considerable attention, and "been picked up on by people who have come to Liberty for antiques; it has also appealed to customers who are interested in modern design, clean lines and simplicity. It does not demand to be placed only in a modern home and neither is it reproduction," says Holloway. Healey's work acts as a bridge between what customers expect from Liberty and what the modern furniture department wants to show.
"People come here to buy Liberty fabrics, oriental furniture and Arts & Crafts pieces," explains Holloway. "Equally, when they go to The Conran Shop or Purves & Purves they know what they are getting - cutting-edge, contemporary design - that is what these shops specialise in. But with Liberty I can't just pursue the same agenda. The person who is familiar with Bradley Narduzzi, Matthew Hilton and Philippe Starck is not necessarily our only customer." She is keen to cater for the knowledgeable customer too, but she knows that Liberty is not their only source. "The connoisseur already knows where to find these designers - the Milan furniture fair, Viaduct and so on. This gallery is about selling excellent modern furniture to the widest possible clientele, which means luring customers in with things they will find familiar."
If Holloway sounds as though she is pandering to the limited tastes of the masses, she is not too concerned: her aim is to make the department financially viable as well as being serious about modern design. She not only wants to attract customers who wouldn't normally be interested in modern furniture, she needs to as well. To this end, she has written up mini biographies of all the designers represented. "I give as much information as I can so that customers can familiarise themselves with what they are looking at and who it is by." This slightly didactic approach has also informed her selection of furniture. "I'm not sure it's so important to concentrate solely on the new and never-been-seen. Take Matthew Hilton's Balzac chair in leather for example: it may be well known, but it's not to be missed. Neither is the chaise longue by Le Corbusier or Eileen Grey's side tables. They are functional, beautiful pieces, they have an important place in 20th-century design, and I think our customers are excited to see them here."
Holloway's approach to contemporary design is refreshingly pragmatic. "I look for pieces which are versatile, and this often comes down to the materials a designer has chosen to use," she says, and cites a wenge wood writing desk by Antonio Citterio as an example, because the design is both modern and timeless: the dark, satin-smooth wood perfectly complements the strong, simple contours, and although clearly contemporary it would work as well in the sitting room of an Edwardian semi as in a state-of- the-art penthouse. Matthew Hilton's choice of Bute Tiree upholstery for his Orwell sofa, and the soft, durable leather with which he has covered his Balzac armchair, is another case in point. "Finding a plain fabric with a good texture that complements the shape of a piece is hard. Many people associate "modern" furniture with strong flat colours and hard lines. I want people to feel that these pieces will work, and that they can be added to an already established home."
Holloway's approach is already paying off. Where once customers would loiter by the entrance before turning away, there is now a steady stream of visitors working its way through the gallery, stopping here and there to stroke a leather arm or read a biography. And better still, the furniture is selling.
Liberty is at 214 Regent Street, London W1 (0171-734 1234)Reuse content