Thursday, 23 October 2014

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to its father of retail design, Rodney Fitch

We take the look our high streets and shopping centres for granted, but the reason they are what they are, is in no small part due to the life work of Rodney, who has died at the age of 78 and who introduced us to stripped wood, chrome, glass and colour co-ordinates, believing as he did, that shoppers did not want "dull, boring, grey, badly serviced shops."

He once said : "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."

What you possibly didn't know about Rodney, that he was :

 * born in Islington, London in 1938, the only child of working class parents and remembered : "When I was a boy growing up, shopping was a ghastly experience. It was full of mean, nasty suburban shops and if you wanted any kind of excitement or experience, you had to go to London’s West End. I can remember the excitement that I had when my parents would take me on a shopping trip down Oxford Street. It has always been in my blood, and I’ve always loved the idea of the shopping experience."

* at junior school, after the Second World War, failed his 11+ examination and in 1949 and attended Willesden College of Technology in Denzil Road which provided technical courses with its schools of art and building with his walk to school taking him 'past an engineering factory that over the years flourished, but for as long as I can remember, that factory had 'DESIGNERS WANTED' on its vacancies board'

* left school and between 1956 and '58 worked as a trainee designer at Hickman Limited, then in 1958 was 'called up' at the age of 20 to serve two years National Service in the Royal Artillery Pay Corps, then, after being demobbed, became a student at the Central School of Arts and Crafts where he studied interiors, furniture and typography.

* after graduation, joined a design studio, but soon realised that he did not want to work for traditional shopfitters, because, as he later recalled : "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."

* in 1963, at the age of 25, applied for and was offered a job as 'junior designer' with the Conran Design Group at the time when he was an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and attending  rally in Ruislip, the location of a USAF base, missed his start date at work and later recalled : "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."

* made his way up within the Group, closely involved with the extension and refurbishment of Terminal 1 at Heathrow for BAA, created the first Board of Trade/Design Council overseas 'Exhibition on Design' in Moscow and worked closely with Terence (left), on the creation, development and design of Habitat and by 1968, at the age of 30, was Chief Creative Officer and Managing Director.

* on the departure of Terence from the Group, was asked to join him at the new Conran Associates, but declined and instead bought the Group from Burtons and in 1970 set up his own consultancy, 'Fitch and Company' which from its inauguration, with 10 employees in 1972, grew rapidly and by 1990 had 450 employees in offices in Europe, the USA and the Middle East.

* enjoyed success with the creation of the 'Top Shop' chain for the Burton Group, the first 'stand-alone' fashion chain for young people in Britain and in the mid 1980s, rescued the near bankrupt Debenhams Department Store for the Burton Group, creating a flagship which was declared, at the time, the ‘Best Department Store in the World’.

* in the 1980s, was quoted as being worth £40m and one of Britain's 250 richest people and politically, had moved some way from his CND protesting former self  with : "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."

* confessed, however, that his company had over extended itself : "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."

* in 1994, at the age of 56 when Terence, Jean Francois Bentz and Martin Beck began the financial restructuring of his company, realised that he no longer had a place in the business and was forced into resignation and later recalled : "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."

 * set up a smaller consultancy specialising in retail and entertainment interiors and brand communication graphics with the help of Richard Branson who owned 50% of the business and by expressing confidence in him helped restore his self-respect so much so that in 1996 recorded : "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."

* saw the new company prosper with much activity in Asia, which he relished, with operations in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila where he was treated with the respect he felt he deserved saying : "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" and at the same time regretted the small amount of business in Britain with its 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".

* In 2004, after an absence of ten years, at the invitation of Sir Martin Sorrell, returned as Chairman and CEO of Fitch, which had been acquired by WPP with Martin saying :"We are delighted to put the Fitch back into Fitch."  

* in 2008 commenting on the Recession said "I am reminded that 120 years ago during an earlier period of economic and social tension, William Morris, one of Britain’s greatest designers and an important social reformer, delivered a lecture in Birmingham, England, 'Upon the nature of Art and Design'. During questions he was asked, “What is the purpose of design?” to which Morris replied “to give hope, Madam, to give hope” and repeated the comment at Cannes in 2009 :

* by the time he retired from the consultancy at the age of 71 in 2009, had seen it grow to 19 studios in 12 countries the US, Europe, the Middle East and Asia specialising in packaging design, corporate branding, consumer experience in retail environment working with clients : Amazon, HSBC, Vodafone, Nokia, Microsoft, Boeing, Timberland and Harrods

* in the same year, was appointed as Supervising Director of the 'TopTech Program' at Delft University of Technology on ‘Retail Design and Management’, where, according to Professor Henri Christiaans, who worked alongside him : "He did a marvellous job. Even though he was not educated as an academic his way of teaching and supervising students was so inspiring for them and also for staff. You cannot believe how active, vivid, untiringly and inspiring he was. Being a role model for all of us. Many of his students got a job in retail design and have very good memories of their their Professor Rodney Fitch. I will certainly continue what he started in educating retail designers.”

* in 2012 lamented : "The commoditisation, the dumbing down of designing, brought about in part at least by the internet - have a thousand quid, buy a Mac and hey presto you'e a designer, never mind the quality."

* had Tim Greenhalgh, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of Fitch, say of him in tribute :
 “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."

What better epitaph might an old designer have than he endeavoured and desired to change the world for the better ?

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