The wonder of Selfridges’ Wonder Room

Elemental Design provides display tips and explains its latest project

Sometimes, it is the outer beauty that counts. Elemental Design founder and chief executive Gary Porter discusses his latest store design project with Chopard and provides tips on how to present jewellery to its best advantage.

“I founded Elemental Design back in 1991. I had just left Harrods, where I worked as a designer and visualiser within the store design team, on projects such as The Fine Jewellery Room.

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When I started at Harrods, I hadn’t long arrived from South Africa and I hadn’t even heard of Theo Fennell, Garrards or Chopard, yet there I was drawing glamorous visuals of lacquered panelling and elegant furniture. I probably knew more about mining than I knew about carats and cuts.

By the time I departed, that had obviously changed and over nearly two decades, my business Elemental Design worked with almost every High Street retailer, building a reputation for artistic displays and environments that expressed the brand and enhanced the product. But, in more recent years, the luxury market has taken over our client list and DeBeers, Asprey, Chopard, Bulgari, Cartier and even Harrods engage our services.

This month, Elemental Design was commissioned to assist Rachel Bingham of Chopard to design displays, around The Wonder Room in Selfridges, to commemorate their 150th anniversary. It was the first time I’d met Rachel and it had been hard to get time in her schedule to show my portfolio. After a quick flick through the Powerpoint presentation, I was quite taken aback when she said she had an imminent project for us. It turned out to be one of my favourite jobs this year and truly an honour to work on.

Rachel knew she wanted to present each jewelled, anniversary edition watch on a blank, white, matte page of an open book. She suggested looking to the current craft-trend for paper sculpture and laser cutting. Best of all, Chopard had designed a range of 14 animal-themed watches (and jewellery), each featuring an iconic little creature; a polar bear, a turtle, a swallow, a seal, a monkey, a flamingo, a carp… and each would need a story written about their adventures. I love entertaining a viewer through ‘storytelling’.

I should immediately tell you that presenting jewels on matte, VS shiny surfaces is always a winning formula. Where the product actually touches the display is the single most important aspect of effectively showing gems. Put a flawless diamond on cheap, sparkly velvet or shiny satin and you will immediately distract from its lustre and natural sparkle.

So, with this in mind, Elemental designer Noriko Kajitani selected materials such as sandblasted acrylic, velvety flocking and crisp matte papers for Chopard’s displays. She brought her distinctive ‘handwriting’ to the 14 showcases, using an illustrative style of layered, two dimensional shapes. In each, she created a focal point, using a beautifully paper-sculpted animal, surrounded by simple environments, in mixed materials.

I got on with the stories and engaged a writer called Carol Noble to help me on the scenarios. Like any window display, one has a very limited time to capture and engage the viewer, so we kept each story short (and sweet). I really wanted to appeal to the potential buyer of the product. So, if you think about who can actually afford a watch costing over £30K, they are pretty much going to have everything they materially need.

I chose themes like finding love, making friends, becoming famous, finding happiness, feeling security; intentionally, knowing that these are the things that money cannot buy. I then included the number 150 into every story – as a nod to the anniversary: “150 days passed… A flock of 150 birds… 150 shades of green…”

Remembering that the potential customer would likely lead a privileged lifestyle, my animals became a jetsetter, a socialite or a pop star, etc. It was also important to satisfy the reader with a conclusive and happy, ever-after. Rachel contributed, giving an exotic name to each of the creatures.

My favourite story that we wrote was about a Monkey, Margaux, who jetted around the world getting up to mischief. She never kept a diary, because when she got home and read her credit card statements, she knew they were the story of her life.

Another story was about Kasia the Koala bear, a young mother who saw the love in her partner’s eyes and knew it wouldn’t be long before there would be another patter of tiny feet. So, it was really quite grown-up stuff – tender, but subtle and sophisticated, like the brand.

Display is very much about entertaining the prospective customer and your goal should be to get an emotional response from them – even if it’s just a smile. Wit is a great tool for display and some of my personal favourites have often made me laugh out loud.

The installation at Selfridges had to happen outside of shopping hours, so our team arrived at 9pm and worked solidly, until around 6am. I had seven assistants, in addition to Rachel from Chopard, all on the task. At a high level, I created a very detailed paper garland border, stretching across all of the showcases and into Chopard’s concession. I felt it was vital to visually draw a customer over by pulling all the showcases together with one strong artistic statement.

But, Chopard is by no means our only jewellery client. Elemental has also worked closely with Swarovski for about two years, developing the visual merchandising formula for its new store concept. I believe we won this pitch based on two main philosophies.

The first was our belief in engaging a large, impactful, visual statement in windows, which causes the passer-by to cross the road to see what it’s about or catches a passing driver’s attention. The second was our practice of keeping the product displays very simple and focused, yet framed. This is due to the smallness of jewellers’ products and how hard it is to ‘call out’ without a life-size mannequin, or large prop and backdrop.

Once you have the customer’s attention, it is then crucial to narrowly focus it on the pieces on offer. My ultimate tip for a display is to keep everything meticulously clean and orderly. Behind the glass should be a world of perfection, a world where everything is meticulous and nothing like our messy lives. This is what creates desire and aspiration.

With Chopard, as it came together, I felt very satisfied and proud of my team’s efforts. The following morning, Rachel forwarded a message from her MD: “I have two words for you, Rachel, b****y brilliant!”

That is why I love my job – from an open brief, to a doodle of a sketch, to physically manifesting a design; then to get thanked, as well.

By chance, one of the first watches bought from our promotion was sold to an exotic princess to wear to her 30th birthday party, a tale which strangely enough sounded somewhat like one of our stories.”