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VM choice: How We Live Today - John Lewis exhibition at the Design Museum

The distance between visual merchandising and museum display is narrow but significant. While VM supports the sale of merchandise, museum curatorship is for its own sake and to illuminate peoples and their cultures of the past, promoting questions and reflections on current day practices. John Lewis has, all too briefly, brilliantly combined this in its recent exhibition celebrating its 150th anniversary at the Design Museum, which chronologically showcased its past merchandise as design icons.

John Lewis is particularly known for its excellent-value, being ‘never knowingly undersold,’ and for white and brown goods, and the exhibition does not disappoint in showcasing how domestic interiors have changed over the past century. I remember my mother describing her pleasure in purchasing a ribbed glass wash-board like the one in the exhibition (luxury!), shortly after she married in the 1950s, rather than the inferior wooden one she first used. I can only imagine her pleasure in her first washing machine, which we perceive as a basic necessity today.

Similarly, the array of radios moves from varnished pieces of furniture from before the advent of transistors, though to neat white cubes and the ghetto-blaster of the recent past. For anyone who has not seen the original, Dieter Rams' ‘Snow White’s coffin’ record player for Braun is an object to be revered. Streets ahead in terms of design technology at the time and irresistibly beautiful, it was also very expensive, although the companion radio was a more affordable ‘must-have’ from the early 1960s.

Design icons aside, the exhibition makes us question the relationship between the designer, the retailer, and the consumer. Have we become more reliant on machines in order to maintain everyday life? Could we survive without the array of domestic toys with which we surround ourselves? Was the price of a lack of technological assistance, the almost enforced full-time role of women as home-makers and housewives?

Vacuum cleaners created another iconic display. From a carpet sweeper, to a Hoover, which gave its name to the generic, to a Henry, to the Dyson, how could we survive without these ‘must-haves’ today? Do we really need so many methods of making coffee?

In addition, wall panels of furnishing textiles and wallpapers recorded the designers John Lewis has worked with including: William Morris, Lucienne and Robin Day, and the Timorous Beasties. All resonate with the lasting impact that John Spedan Lewis, the son of the original founder, John Lewis, brought to the business, in using design giants of the day.

Lewis’s vision continues today in the form of the unique partnership structure at the heart of a brand beloved by the British capitalist establishment, yet enshrining communist values. Just as physically, with its curved glass façade and its flexible open-plan retail space, the Peter Jones store embodied new notions of domestic change, which we now accept as conventional in retail and domestic interiors, so we expect all retailers to behave in the exemplary manner the John Lewis brand always has.

The exhibition concluded with today’s ‘must-haves’ including a Dyson fan, a Kenwood Chef mixer, a Canon camera, a Le Creuset casserole dish, an Anglepoise lamp, and Converse trainers. I wondered if we might still love these ‘must-haves’ as much as I love John Lewis Partnership’s structure in the future?


Photos by Luke Hayes.