Mark Landini is not a man to mince his words. His relationship with retail design is one of practicality and inventiveness. Because there’s no room for ‘experiential’ and ‘fashionable’ design when you’re faced with fickle consumers and a booming e-retail economy.
August 26th, 2019
You might have a sentimental attachment to the 19th century Paris arcade, but retail design – the mix of interior and graphic design – is, says Mark Landini, a relatively new phenomenon. He should know because he’s been there almost since the beginning. Italian in origin but English by upbringing, Landini became a musician after graduating from Middlesex Polytechnic. But when that “went up in flames” he took a job with Fitch and Co. Rodney Fitch had only recently parted ways with Terence Conran to set up his own business and it was Fitch, says Landini, “who invented retail design as we know it today”.
When Landini joined the company in 1980 at age 22 there were just 15 people. When he left at the end of 1989 he was creative director of retail globally and there were 600 staff with the company, which was on the way to being the biggest design firm in the world. Ironically, Landini then joined Terence Conran. “I admired Conran because he had invented Habitat and he was a lover of simplicity which was my thing as well. He said he would give me the job of creative director which was interesting to me because it meant I could get involved in things beyond retail. At that time they were designing airports, shopping centres, corporate identity, packaging, print, even the product they sold from the shops,” says Landini.
Landini only accepted the job on the basis that he could be a designer and run his own team within the group. The problem, however, was that he found himself working 20-hour days for nearly three years. Then almost overnight the mid-90s economic crash arrived. The company was bleeding money. It was sold twice before Landini was offered, and accepted, the CEO position. He turned the business around, “but what I learned was that I didn’t want to work on a company, just in a company”.
These early influences, including exposure to the Pentagram model, shape Landini’s approach to this day. “I’ve never been interested in having a large business. The lesson I learned was that I don’t want to work 20 hours a day. I want to work eight. So, our business has never grown beyond me being able to work eight hours a day. It has never grown beyond me being able to work on every single project and never being interested in anything other than quality. We’re not interested in turn-over. Turnover is vanity, profit, sanity. We’re not interested in growth for growth’s sake. We reached this size (20-25 people), quite quickly and we’ve never wanted to grow beyond it.”
The legendary Pentagram confirmed Landini’s belief in teams, none bigger than 10 and with a mix of senior and junior staff, retail, interior and graphic designers with each team responsible for projects from the beginning to the end. Senior partners ran the groups supported by a very lean back-of-house. “It meant,” says Landini, “that people in their sixties could still be leading the design. I was impressed by the efficiency with senior people actually running and working in the business as opposed to on the business.” He adds that he has people on his staff now who have been at Landini Associates for over 20 years.
In late 1992, his contract with Conran was coming to an end and he came to Australia looking to buy a design company. This ultimately fell through and one night he found himself waist-deep in the water in front the Bathers Pavilion at Sydney’s Balmoral Beach at 1am in the morning. “I got my brick of a mobile phone,” he says, “and phoned my wife and said I had discovered paradise.”
From convincing Liquorland to re-brand its retail outlets in 1993, creating Vintage Cellars, Landini Associates has built a stunning portfolio “inventing and re-inventing retail brands”; a business which extends beyond Australia to include projects such as the award-winning Loblaws in Toronto, Canada where the brief had been to design the world’s best supermarket. This experience also led to The Kitchens at Robina on the Sunshine Coast, and David Jones’ food hall at Bondi Junction in Sydney, highlighting how food can drive customers to large retail centres.
The internet era has thrown up new challenges. “In the past,” says Landini, “you would look at what had been done and try to improve on it. But the internet has changed everything. There are no rules. You actually have to invent new forms of bricks and mortar retailing that complement what’s happening on the internet.” He cites the recent make-over of mass market women’s clothing retailer, Glassons. People, he says, describe it as very easy to use, very ordered – like being online. “In the age of the internet most designers will talk about pop-up shops and experiential design. I hate anyone who calls themselves an experiential designer – as if the Sistine Chapel isn’t an experience and as if what Mr Selfridge did 100 years ago wasn’t an experience. How did we survive all these years without experiential designers?”
It is, he says, about combining naïveté, information, the ability to think laterally, to be fresh all the time and wanting to do things new. Landini describes the company as being very operationally driven, very practical. “We don’t do stuff that’s fashionable – we hate fashion.” Retail design, he says, is about making things work, a lesson learned from Conran, pointing out that few designers ever actually work in retail as he does.
“If you ever want a fashion shop designed,” he says, “never employ a designer [whose portfolio] has photographs of their work without any clothes in the shop. And why is that? Because the shop they have designed is more important than the merchandise they sell or because it looks [awful] when you put the merchandise in it.
“We’re very practical people. Very brave, I think. We’re logical and we don’t do things that are fashionable – because fashion isn’t a thing we sell. Glassons’ shop isn’t fashionable. It’s a neutral backdrop, but it’s very recognisably neutral.” Final thoughts?
“Too many people take themselves too seriously in design. I take the job of design very seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously. Nor am I scared to ask questions I think may be stupid. I’ve always been intolerant of mediocrity, laziness and lazy thinking.” And keeping the company fresh?
“We have something called the barbecue test: only work with people you would have a barbecue with because the work requires you to open yourself up in the way that you would over a barbecue. So, we only employ people who pass the barbecue test. Often their portfolio [may not be] that great, but their approach is right.”
Mark Landini was featured as an Indesign Luminary in issue #74 of Indesign magazine, the “Design Relish” issue.
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