Displaying dreams: model interiors in the London store, 1890-1914

Lara-Betancourt, Patricia (2014) Displaying dreams: model interiors in the London store, 1890-1914. In: Society of Architectural Historians 67th Annual Conference; 09-13 Apr 2014, Austin, Texas, U.S.. (Unpublished)


Perhaps one of the most remarkable retail developments of the nineteenth century was the emergence of the department store. This type of store not only helped in establishing a solid middle-class based consumer culture but also in shaping the modern world with all that technology and art had to offer. For millions of people department stores represented the best of what progress symbolised, introducing consumers to the latest in design, art, taste and styles. Some stores were so successful that they became economic giants achieving public company status on the same level as heavy industry, transportation and finance. The department store developed into a worldwide phenomenon with spectacular examples appearing first in Paris, London, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York, all industrial cities with their large populations, urbanization, mass transport and large-scale production. Although traditionally department stores are thought of in terms of clothing and fashion, and most of them in Britain started out as draperies, for the period 1890 to 1914 I will be referring particularly to the type of department store that turned their furniture and furnishings departments into their most prominent ones. Departments in this category would include furniture, wallpaper, curtains, carpets, upholstery, lamps and fireplaces among many other articles. In London such stores included Maple, Heal, Shoolbred, Waring & Gillow, John Barker, Hampton & Son, Oetzmann and Whiteley. Their growth and success reflected the dissemination of modern business methods such as applying economies of scale, which allowed them to bring costs down and also gave them increased control over production supplied by cabinet makers and manufacturers. The expansion of this industry was also based on the relentless growth of the urban middle-class, developing with it an inter-dependent relationship that strengthened a culture of consumption targeting the home, and helped in turn shape and define middle-class status. This paper will focus on one type of display architecture that proved very popular and was crucial to the success of the department store at the time; that is, the model interior, or ‘specimen room’ as it was labeled in trade catalogues. It will show that there was a strong link between the growth and expansion of department stores and the refining of modes of display, including model interiors.

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