Marks & Spencer did not build shops until 1910, coinciding with Woolworth’s arrival on English soil (if, indeed, this was a coincidence – Woolworth was a direct rival!). The new and more familiar generation of M&S ‘super stores’ erected from the mid-1920s into the 1930s usually adopted a neo-classical style, executed in pale Portland or ‘Empire’ stone. Above the shopfront, these buildings did not follow a proscribed house style, with identifying motifs or logos – except for one thing: the name of the company, which was displayed in a shallow, central parapet. The approach was more akin to that of independent department stores than other multiple retailers.
Many large M&S stores of this period followed the template established by Selfridge’s, with giant classical pilasters or columns rising through the upper storeys, dividing the elevation into vertical window bays or panels.
M&S went upmarket in the 1930s – it developed middle-class, mid-range aspirations. Architecturally, it stuck to a modern rendering of neo-classicism. It dabbled in the red-brick neo-Georgian style, and even attempted ‘streamline modern’ on a couple of occasions, but had no truck whatsoever with the art deco faience fronts favoured by more working-class rivals, Woolworth and Burton. Similarly, M&S avoided the quaint neo-vernacular espoused by the likes of Dunn & Co., W. H. Smith and Boots. The company steered a steady middle course through the gamut of inter-war commercial architectural styles.
Quite a few examples of Marks & Spencer’s bronze-framed pre-war shopfronts, with their grey pearl granite stall-risers and curved corners, survive. They are rarely complete, however. In later years, showcases were removed to enlarge entrances at the expense of display (see Boston, above). New post-war elements, such as doors and columns were of shiny chrome or steel, in sharp contrast to the more subtle bronze finishes of the 1920s and 30s. Originally, the bronze shopfronts closely resembled those of Woolworth, with pelmets at the top to conceal the lights that illuminated window displays.
No pre-war ‘M&S’ floor mosaics or lettered fascias are known to have survived. The signboards were red with gilt lettering until 1924, when the firm decided to distinguish itself from Woolworth by turning green. If any red M&S fascias were ever uncovered, it would be deeply exciting!
Lutyens’s Modular Fronts
As M&S grew, the company struggled to extend its premises without rebuilding the original store. In 1934 it turned for advice to the son of the great architect Sir Edwin Lutyens – Robert Lutyens (1901-71), who had designed several residential interiors for M&S’s managers and directors, and was involved in an extension of the Baker Street headquarters. Lutyens devised a modular grid-like type of frontage which would, in theory, make the extension of M&S stores a simpler process.
Over 40 M&S stores were built with Lutyens’s modular fronts between 1934 and the 1950s. These façades were applied to steel-framed buildings designed by M&S’s regular architects: J. M. Munro & Son and Norman Jones & Rigby in Scotland and northern England; W. A. Lewis & Partners (later Lewis & Hickey) and Albert Batzer in southern England and Wales. In overall control of every project between 1912 and 1942 was M&S’s in-house architect, Ernest Edward Shrewsbury (1880-1966), whilst Bovis always took charge of construction. This standardisation marked a break from M&S’s earlier, more heterogeneous, approach to store design (see above).
A few of Lutyens’s modular façades were built from black granite (see below), but the majority can be recognised by their patchwork facings of grey and pale orange reconstituted Portland stone slabs measuring 10ins square. The patchwork was usually random, rather than being laid in a pattern – Romford being an exception.
Stylistically, Lutyens’s frontages were very austere, but they commonly included touches of classicism: a central arch, shallow rustication, or flat discs – a drastic simplification of the classical motif known as ‘paterae’. Sometimes the bold, blocky results were almost cubist in effect.
Black Granite Fronts
There was a short-lived fashion for dark, highly-polished granite fronts in the 1930s – this material suited the sleek, glamorous art deco aesthetic of the time. Like Burton’s, M&S experimented with this material, notably for The Pantheon on London’s Oxford Street (1934-38) and for the new store on Briggate, Leeds (1934-51). The granite was described as ‘ebony’.
Many large branches of Marks & Spencer sport a clock. This invariably projects from the façade, with a face visible to pedestrians walking past in either direction. Some have elaborate classical cases – usually in M&S green – with scrolls and volutes, while others are more restrained. Likewise, some have Roman numerals, others Arabic.
While some pre-war M&S stores, such as Blackpool, incorporated a clock into the façade, the projecting clocks seem to have been introduced after the war. Those with a curvilinear shape (see Falmouth) appear in store photographs from the late 1950s; those with tapering sides (see St Albans) appeared shortly thereafter. A favoured manufacturer was Synchronome, who specialised in electric clocks.
N. Burton ‘Robert Lutyens and Marks & Spencer’, Thirties Society Journal, 5, 1985, 8-17.
N. Gregory, ‘Monro & Partners: Shopping in Scotland with Marks & Spencer’, Architectural Heritage (Journal of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland), XIV, 2003, 67-85.
K. Morrison, English Shops & Shopping, Yale University Press, 2003.