Design showcase: the new store at London's Royal Opera House

When Angela Drinkall first visited her latest project, it was already a building site. Architecture practice Stanton Williams had been transforming the Royal Opera House (ROH) since 2015, and design firm Drinkall Dean was appointed in March 2017. “When I got there the area was stripped out and it was the contractors’ canteen,” she says.

Pictures: Luke Hayes/Royal Opera House
Pictures: Luke Hayes/Royal Opera House

But ROH retail manager Robert Perry, who has been with the business for 16 years, furnished her with a description of the previous shop. “There was a dark, gloomy, dingy corridor that ran from the Covent Garden piazza entrance. The shop was behind a door in the corridor, with light coming in from just one window.”

Drinkall Dean’s new 100 sq m store is part of Stanton Williams’ £50.7m transformation of the ROH, intended to open up the venue to non-performance-goers, and hence increase revenue.

This is the ROH’s biggest building project since Dixon Jones/BDP’s 1990s extension. That scheme didn’t even include a shop in the original design, says Perry. How times have changed. Perry has a turnover target of £1.8m in the first year (up £0.6m on the previous year), a target which climbs over a five-year period.

Now, along with a 30% bigger footprint and smart new fit-out, Emma Matthews from the Whitworth Art Gallery has acted as merchandising consultant to create a new range of specially commissioned items.

The stock has shifted from recordings to include eclectic gifts, many of them specific to the building and its activities. They include Stanton Williams’ design sketches, which are applied to stationery, and a signed print of the new Linbury Theatre and foyer for £125; Aminalesque has made animal-themed headdresses, (a rabbit head comes in at £65); fabric trims and buttons related to previous performances have been created by the ROH’s costume department in Thurrock; there’s a Timorous Beasties illustration applied to bags, cups and tea pots; and Rory Hutton has designed bow ties, silk scarves and socks.

The stock is intended to sit comfortably alongside the ROH’s Covent Garden piazza neighbours, including Mulberry and Rolex. “The piazza is now a brand destination, and we wanted to raise our own product game,” says Perry.

As well as removing the corridor wall, the shop benefits from the increased glazing of the ROH’s Covent Garden piazza entrance, which is the route in for 53% of visitors. “We’ve increased the scale of the entrance to look more like a shop front,” says Rawden Pettitt, associate director at Stanton Williams.

Perry’s point of reference was the shop at Paris’s Musée National Picasso, designed by French architect Jean-François Bodin. “It’s very friendly, a series of rooms full of the most interesting and off-beat things. You sort of feel like you’ve gone into someone’s house.”

According to Perry, Drinkall Dean “was chosen because they had the closest affinity to what the architects were doing.” Their brief, he adds, was to create a light, bright, elegant, modern space that would be inviting and not intimidating.

Drinkall was handed a shell. “We were given a blank canvass – there was always going to be the main perimeter fixture and central parts.” She worked with Stanton Williams to establish the palette was right, “and not out on a limb”. The architects’ materials comprised American walnut, Crema Marfil marble, patinated brass and polished plaster. The shop units are constructed in walnut with antiqued brass with white as a background accent.

The designers drew on the provenance of staging performances for their inspiration. “We were interested in the (musical) instruments and the idea of movement, ballet dancers’ benches, grand pianos on little castors,” she says.

“The big tables feel a little bit special, and look like furniture rather than shop-fitting kit.” Drinkall Dean also designed two circular display units around the columns. “The range of stock is so diverse, from clothing and accessories to homeware, stationery and kids’ items, all in a small space. The units hold it and frame it,” Drinkall adds.

Despite the low ceiling, just 2.2m above the till – housing mechanical duct works where rivers meet – the shop feels light and airy. That feeling is evoked in part by Studio Fractal’s bespoke baffle fittings over the perimeter displays.

Drinkall Dean is now working on London’s Science Museum’s shop, which is due to complete in May 2019. Meanwhile, Perry is setting out to monitor product in his new shop, “and look around the house to see where else we can sell”.

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