Early 20th-century Shops
||Gill’s of Crieff blends traditional design with 1930s style, as in its Vitrolite stall-risers.
While we undoubtedly admire the
beauty of Victorian and Georgian
shopfronts, it is some of our 20th
century examples which are architecturally
the most daring and striking. Inter-war
shopfronts offer a particularly rich addition
to our townscapes but are sometimes
unappreciated and their designs and materials
not always understood.
THE 1925 PARIS EXHIBITION
While many Edwardian shopfronts were
beautifully constructed of exotic hardwoods
and polished brass, they remained of an
inherently similar design to their Victorian
cousins. However, the 1925 Paris Exhibition
was to be a watershed for 20th century
The Exposition Internationale des
Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Moderne firmly established the Art Deco movement
while promoting revolutionary styles and
new materials. Designs produced for the
exhibition by French architects such as
Louis-Pierre Sezille and Rene Prou were
breathtaking in their bravery. The angular
windows, daring signage and smooth
frontages left visitors to the exhibition in
no doubt about the radical new direction
which retail architecture would take.
DESIGNS AND DESIGNERS
From this embryonic beginning in
Paris, the style spread rapidly and by the
mid 1930s its use in Art Deco-inspired
shopfronts was widespread throughout
British towns. Undoubtedly the large cities
had the greatest number, with Glasgow
particularly favouring a Moderne style.
Kenna (1985:4) describes this as ‘consumer
Art Deco which did much to brighten up
the Depression-stricken city’. However, the
style is also evident in smaller towns, often
associated with butchers and fishmongers.
||Sunrise motif to shopfront clerestory, Falkirk: The design was popular in the 1930s and was widely used in shopfront design.
||Tooth Factory, Forfar: A traditional shopfront with margin panes to the clerestory glazing, curved glass and black granite
stall-riser (Photo: Historic Scotland)
Leading architects like Joseph Emberton
(1889-1956) were inspired by visiting the
Paris Exhibition and mapped the way forward
with their exciting new designs. Some, like
Erno Goldfinger (1902-1987) took the ideas to
minimalist extremes. Architects recognised
that shops offered a particular opportunity to
bring Art Deco to the very centre of people’s
lives, to the main shopping streets of Europe.
By the end of the 1920s, two main types
of shopfront style had emerged. The first
was a very minimalist, undecorated design
constructed of sleek and shiny materials. The
second was of a more traditional style using
curved glass entrances, leaded glass to the
clerestory and marble or tiled entrance floors.
There was therefore something of a reluctance
to totally abandon the past. The use of stained
glass to create sunrise motifs was popular for both shops and domestic properties. Others
adopted leaded glass, sometimes with mock
bulls-eyes or tracery bars and margin lights to
decorate otherwise plain glazing. Inevitably,
styles merged, changed and adapted to create
a myriad of variations within the streetscape.
Whether Moderne or more traditional
in inspiration, common features included
geometric detailing, integral blinds, decorative
stall-riser vents and window screens. These
screens were timber and glass which focused
the view of the customer on the goods in the
window but still allowed light into the shop.
Although it was architects who
experimented with the first undecorated
shops, it was shopfitters who brought these
new designs to the mass market. Firms
like Frederick Sage, E Pollard & Co and
Harris & Sheldon were leading designers
of exceptional shopfronts which broke
the mould of traditional shop design and construction. They re-fronted shops and
offered specialist services such as showcases
and interior fittings. They paid little heed to
Victorian or Georgian parent buildings and
were sometimes severe in their execution. The
pursuit of a fashionable frontage surpassed
any consideration of the surroundings.
Shopfitters were highly innovative
and developed new products for their ever
increasing client base. E Pollard & Co, for
example, promoted a non-reflective glass in
the 1930s. This was installed in the new black
Vitrolite shopfront of T Fox & Co of London.
Complete with a red neon sign, the shopfront
was the height of fashion for this umbrella
business which was established in 1868.
During the early part of the 20th century the
introduction of new materials like steel began
to influence the construction of shopfronts. Steel allowed even more possibilities than
its 19th century predecessor, cast iron. The
construction of Selfridges in 1909 with
its innovative steel frame and exterior of
Portland stone heralded a new approach to
department store construction.
While structural considerations were
clearly crucial, it was the exterior finishes
which created the necessary look. The last
two decades of the 19th century witnessed
the mass production of decorative tiles
for the first time. While these remained a
popular material for shopfronts into the
20th century, other materials crept into
the market and gradually usurped these
decorative ceramics. Cladding in marble,
terrazzo and Vitrolite became a quick
and easy way to transform a shop from
traditional Victorian to Moderne overnight.
A browse through Perry’s 1933 Modern
Shopfront Construction indicates the great
breadth of materials available to shop
designers in the 1930s. Travertine marble,
black granite, Roman Stone (a form of
artificial stone), bronze, embossed glass,
walnut and stainless steel. Green marble
proved to be particularly fashionable
and was widely used. These materials
were used in endless combinations to
allow either a minimalist, Art Deco-inspired
or more traditional style.
||West Coast Fisheries, Ayr: 1936 black Vitrolite shopfront. Some damage is evident but overall the Vitrolite is in fair condition.
The fascia signs are particularly good examples of their type (Photo: Historic Scotland)
||Former Burton’s store, Dumbarton: The ground floor shops have been altered and although the upper facade of white faience
remains intact, the overall effect is lost (Photo: Historic Scotland)
Of all of these, it was Vitrolite which
became the iconic fashionable material of the
1930s. It is described in Pilkington’s Vitrolite
A Rolled Opal Glass ranging from
semi-opacity to complete opacity.
One surface is usually impressed
with a pattern of narrow parallel ribs
which provide a key for the mastic
or other material with which the
glass is fixed. The glass has a hard,
brilliant, fire-finished surface.
There were 16 colours available, ranging
from the standards of black, white, green
and turquoise to more exotic shell pink and
Although its origins were as a practical
material for use in hospitals and also to clad
the Mersey Tunnel, it was a particularly
versatile material for re-fronting shops.
Available in a range of sizes and thicknesses,
the opportunity to use different colour
combinations and to utilise it with other
materials such as chrome allowed a mass
produced material to offer significant
individuality. While many shop owners opted
for a simple, classy look of black Vitrolite,
others were more daring, creating innovative
and striking designs inspired by the
geometric style of the Art Deco period.
Other fashionable glazing products
included etched or sandblasted glass. The
use of opaque glass was not new. In the
Edwardian period the use of delicately
etched glazing, often for entrance doors,
offered an air of elegance and sophistication
to shops. The name of the shop owner or
their trade reinforced the advertising of
the business. However, during the 1930s
the use of decorative glass was particularly
popular for the clerestory of the shopfront. Geometric designs such as zigzags or
wavy lines became an integral part of the
Faience and terrazzo also rose in
popularity. These modest, unassuming
ceramic materials provided a smooth
finish and clean lines. Some retailers, like
Montague Burton particularly favoured
faience. His tailoring empire used white
faience for its purpose-built inter-war
shops designed by their Leeds architect,
Harry Wilson. The gleaming white ceramic
combined with Art Deco detailing to give
a truly modern look for their shops. Chain
stores like Burton’s made an important
contribution to the promotion of these
new materials and styles and were often
at the cutting edge of shop design.
The great architectural success of these
shopfronts was also perhaps their weakness.
They were so modern and striking that their
fashion was short-lived and by the time
World War II had ended, the desire for this
type of shop was waning. The 1950s saw a
continuation of some of the themes born in
the 1930s, but with less vigour and enthusiasm
for the radical designs. Many shopfronts were
replaced, making way for the designs which
prevailed in the post-war decades including
the rising use of aluminium.
Those which have survived face a
number of issues. First, 1930s shops tend
to be extremely sensitive to inappropriate
alterations. Their minimalist style means
that the overall architectural composition is
surprisingly easily destroyed. Alterations to
signage, entrances and windows can seriously
detract from the designer’s original intention.
In contrast, Victorian shopfronts are often
more robust and seem able to withstand a
greater degree of intervention while retaining
their integrity. For purpose-built shops such
as those erected by Burton’s, although the
upper facades generally remain largely intact,
the ground floor shops rarely survive, losing
the overall design effect of the building.
||Bronze stall-riser vents set in green marble: These small details are important. Bronze
vents varied in style but were always integral to the overall design. Damage to the marble
is also evident.
Secondly, a lack of understanding of the
rarity or significance of these shopfronts
means that they are extremely vulnerable.
Although there is a greater appreciation of
them now and statutory measures offer some
protection, many outstanding examples
have already been lost. In cities like Glasgow,
where the streets were once brimming
with Art Deco shopfronts and gleaming
Vitrolite, finding good surviving examples
is a challenge. Effort needs to be focused on
ensuring that any shopfronts which remain
are suitably protected and conserved.
Undertaking conservation, however, can
be a problem. Some of the materials, once
mass produced and readily available, are no
longer manufactured. Vitrolite has not been
produced since the 1960s and although there
are some limited salvage options it remains a
very rare material. This is a significant issue
when dealing with a product which is subject
to breakages and cracking, particularly at
stall-riser level and around entrances where
impacts can easily damage the glass.
Substitutes are rarely successful as they
lack the depth of colour and distinctive
finish which is characterised by Vitrolite.
Shop owners have tended to resort to a
mixture of unsatisfactory repair options
including painted plywood, painted
Perspex or glass and even polished slate.
Damaged panels can allow water ingress,
which may affect the stability of panels.
Options may include moving surviving
panels to more visible locations and using a
substitute material where the panels are less
obtrusive. However, care needs to be taken in
the removal of the panels to ensure further
damage does not occur and that panels are
made watertight when reinstated.
Other materials like faience and
terrazzo are also subject to cracking and
damage but they can, at least, be repaired
more easily than Vitrolite. Similarly,
matches are possible where marble
cladding has become damaged or lost.
FUTURE CONSERVATION AND REPAIR
It is ironic that some of the more recent
shopfronts cause the greatest conservation
challenges. While repairs to Georgian
joinery or Victorian cast iron shopfronts are
relatively straightforward, the conservation
of inter-war shops presents a much greater
problem. The lack of expertise in dealing
with them, together with the limited
availability of certain materials means that
shops frequently go unrepaired or are poorly
repaired with inappropriate materials.
||Dean of Guild drawing for Dan Taylor’s Hat Shop, Perth, 1932 showing etched glass and
window screens (Photo: Perth & Kinross Council Archives)
Recognising the significance and rarity
of these shopfronts is a vital starting point in
ensuring that their place in the architectural
time-line of shops is secured. Statutory
protection also has a vital role to play.
The simplicity of inter-war shopfront design means
that the special combination of integral blinds, door style,
glazing pattern, stall-riser vents and fascia lettering should
not be underestimated. Where features have been lost,
reinstatement should be considered, where appropriate. Historic
photographs and archive drawings can be particularly helpful
in identifying the original features and design intentions.
Art Deco was a style which transcended localities and retailers.
From tiny market towns to cities and from independents with a
single shop to chain stores with hundreds of sites, the adoption of
Art Deco as a style for shopfronts was unsurpassed. Despite the loss
of many examples, the UK’s high streets remain more interesting
places as a result of the Vitrolite, faience and terrazzo shopfronts
which still survive. Their role in the architectural history of our
towns and cities deserves better recognition and wider appreciation.
- T Draper-Stumm and D Kendall, London’s Shops: The World’s
Emporium, English Heritage, London, 2002
- F Hudd, ‘Issues Surrounding the Conservation of Vitrolite Glass’, Journal of Architectural Conservation, Vol 16, Issue 2, 2010
- R Kenna, Glasgow Art Deco, Richard Drew Publishing, Glasgow, 1985
- R Kenna, Old Glasgow Shops, Glasgow City Archives, Glasgow, 1996
- L Lennie, Scotland’s Shops, Historic Scotland, Edinburgh, 2010
- K Morrison, English Shops and Shopping, Yale University Press,
- T Perry, Modern Shopfront Construction, The Technical Press Ltd,
- Pilkington Brothers Ltd & British Vitrolite Company Ltd, Vitrolite
Specifications, Pilkington Brothers Ltd, London, undated (1930s)
- A Powers, Shop Fronts, Chatto & Windus, London, 1989
- The US National Park Heritage Preservation Services, Preservation
Brief 12: The Preservation of Historic Pigmented Structural Glass
(Vitrolite and Carrara Glass), Technical Preservation Services,
Washington DC, 1984
The Building Conservation Directory, 2012
LINDSAY LENNIE PhD MRICS IHBC is a chartered valuation
surveyor, author and researcher. She has her own consultancy
business, Historic Shop Conservation, which provides advice
on the care and conservation of traditional shopfronts and
Landscape and townscape
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