Wednesday 15 February 2017

Simpson of Piccadilly - a Modernist Masterpiece

Simpson of Piccadilly opened in April 1936 as the largest menswear store in the country. The company had successfully launched its luxury DAKS brand in 1934 and wanted a central London location from which to sell their entire range. The site at 203-6 Piccadilly became available in 1935 when the former Geological Museum premises were offered for sale at auction. Alexander Simpson purchased the site for £11,000 and commissioned architect Joseph Emberton to design a new store.

Simpson of Piccadilly was to be the height of modernity and Emberton did not disappoint. The ground floor concave windows at the front and rear were the first in the country and still surprise passers-by today. A steel frame supports the building and the front is clad in Portland stone, divided by windows that run the full length of the facade. Inside, a Travertine marble staircase is the star of the show, with its low 1930's bannister and glass wall running from top to bottom of the stairs. And as if this wasn't enough the original internal display and storage features - sadly long gone - were designed by none other than Bauhaus hero Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. This included three aircraft being exhibited on the fifth floor, a marketing idea designed purely to bring in more potential customers. The Simpson logo and advertising were also influenced by the Bauhaus School and were designed by Ashley Havinden. The 90 feet long chromium light fitting that still hangs in the stairwell was designed by Emberton. As well as menswear, the store had a restaurant, barbers, dog shop and other retail offers. However, clothing remained the main attraction and customers were able to see tailors at work in a bespoke section.

The high level specification and the size of the site - a total of 11,000 square feet - resulted in a very large bill for the Simpson Company and Alexander Simpson warned that it would take a number of  years before a profit would be made. Sadly he was not to enjoy the building for very long, dying of leukemia in 1937 aged just 34. Emberton had earlier designed the former Austin Reed building in Holborn. Completed in 1925, it too is a striking modernist building but Simpson's was to be his masterpiece. 

The Second World War commenced just three years after the store opened. General retail operations were suspended and replaced by production of uniforms whilst the top floor became a club for off-duty soldiers could sleep, bathe and make telephone calls. Normal service resumed at the end of the war and there are stories of queues stretching the length of Piccadilly and tailors being sent out to measure people in the street in order to have a selection of trousers to offer them once they reached the shop! That's what I call service.

The DAKS company was acquired by a Japanese firm in 1999 and the shop was sold to Waterstones Booksellers who have made to their flagship store. Alexander Simpson's vision and Joseph Emberton's design eventually resulted in their building achieving Grade l listed status - the highest possible. The Simpson store is sadly no more, but it is still possible to enjoy this beautiful building today...and to browse thousands of books at the same time. What a combination.

More London Art Deco items here.


  1. I can't believe this - I was writing a note about Laszlo Moholy-Nagy just an hour ago. If the Travertine marble staircase, low bannister and long glass wall were the soul of the interior decoration and were designed by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, they should have been kept!! Perhaps they are locked away in a warehouse somewhere, or there are contemporary design plans that could be replicated today. _Bauhaus designs were so special_, I would have said the same about the long chromium light fitting that hangs in the stairwell, had it been taken down or damaged. Put it back!

    p.s In Australia daks came into common use as a generic term for trousers from the 1960s onwards. To this day, I always refer to the bottom half of a tracksuit as trackie-daks.

  2. Hello Hels.The staircase, bannister and glass wall were the work of Emberton and have been retained. Moholy-Nagy was responsible for the storage and product display elements. These are long gone. The chromium light fitting is still with us too - the pictures on the post were only taken yesterday! Best wishes.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post about the Simpsons building and the great László Moholy-Nagy (and Ashley Havinden of whose work I am a fan). I'm the current graphic designer for Waterstones, and work on the sixth floor of the building (the posters in the stairwell fittings there are mine). It tickles me to think that my location connects me to these greats.

    In addition to the features you note, you may be gratified to know that the original Simpsons sign from the awning, designed by Eric Gill, survives - it's on the stairwell wall as one comes up to the office level. I do wonder what happened to all the lovely old fixtures and fittings that aren't still in place but suspect they had long since been stripped out by Simpsons/Daks themselves long by the time Waterstones took over in '99. It's a source of pride that my company occupies this building with such respect, whereas places like the Derry and Toms building in Kensington is unidentifiable under all the high-street outlets.

    1. Hello Kata and thanks for your kind comments. It must be a great place to work. I'll look out for the Eric Gill sign next time I am in the shop. Best wishes.