Interview: Thomas Aitchison on Bentalls windows

Bentalls, Kingston, Greater London

Thomas Aitchison, the Head of Visual for Bentalls department store group talks to us about the visual language of the Kingston store windows. I love the way the current scheme uses word association to bring different products (such as tea cups and umbrellas) together around the store.

Kaisa Leinonen: I like the way this scheme uses phrases to bring different products together. How did the concept come about?

Thomas Aitchison: Last year we did a scheme called ‘Colour My World’ which merged fashion and home in a quirky way. The mannequins were all renovated in an eighties style. Some were draped over washing machines or leaning on Smeg fridges but the main idea was to show as many departments within the window run. The challenge this year was to try to find another way of anniversarising this. The ‘Play On Words’- scheme  started with the “Let’s raise a toast!” mixing champagne and toasters. From there I walked around the store visiting every department trying to find another phrase that worked with the product.

Combining winter wear and fridges together.


KL: What is the structure of the Bentalls design and visual team?

TA: We are a small team of 6. I have 2 people working on Signage & Graphics and 3 people focus on Display. The display assistants are split between Home, Fashion & Window dressing, whilst the signage team produce all the in-store collateral along with any graphic elements used within the windows. We are very lucky to have a great in-store maintenance team who assist with joinery and electrical work. I look after both of the Bentalls’ stores, Kingston & Bracknell, responsible for all visual merchandising and display from design through to installation.


KL: Bentalls windows often have repetitions of icons etc, is that a conscious visual decision?

TA: The main window run is on the Kingston one-way system so we class these as drive-by windows. I guess I use the repetition so that the main focus becomes the merchandise, and the scheme is just a backdrop.

KL: What other elements are part of Bentalls visual language?

TA: I don’t have any strict guidelines that i have to follow when coming up with schemes however I do try to make every installation completely different to the previous one. In doing this I try to rotate different mannequins and props. When selecting merchandise for the windows we try to choose brands which are new, exclusive to Bentalls or simply complimentary to the theme.

KL:  How do you approach a new window design?

TA: A lot of the time the ideas will come from the merchandise. Following a promotional calendar we know what type of stock we will be displaying, it’s just about finding a new and exciting way of doing it. I find inspiration from shows and competitive shopping around the world. Another key factor to the window design is balancing the workload and the budget. We work to tight budgets so most of our installations are produced in-house.

KL: How far ahead do you plan your seasonal window calendar?

TA: The windows are planned six months ahead, working alongside our marketing department ensuring all promotional activity coincides.

KL: What would you never compromise in a window?

TA: It’s hard to say that you would never compromise on anything. As well as achieving the look you have to be commercial. Sometimes using more support from brands, ie letting them do their own schemes could be seen as a compromise but it does enable you to spread your budget a bit further.

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One response to “Interview: Thomas Aitchison on Bentalls windows

  1. How times have changed! I worked as a display dresser at the Kingston store around 1981/82. At that time we had a team of around 16 plus 3 sign writers and we would often have students from local colleges in the second year of their display diplomas.

    Apart from the windows we had to also look after countless in-store displays, including showcases that were dotted around everywhere. There was also a large, stage like platform on the first floor with an escalator running up each side which would be dressed to coordinate with the main scheme.

    Across the road from the main store was a multilevel car park which also housed a window that needed dressing. So you had to cart everything across the road, merchandise, tools, mannequins, props. In the winter it was a nightmare because there was no heating and you would freeze while dressing the window. When it came to removing the window you would find a lot of the merchandise damaged from damp.

    As the display team we also had to assist as dressers to the I store fashion shows that took place each season and at Christmas we delivered a gift wrapping service!

    Looking back it was one of my most favourite jobs…..if I had the chance to do it again…………!

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