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Champions of Design: Fortnum & Mason

The high-end Piccadilly store has made a name for itself, as well as forging a distinctive look, over its 306 years.

Founded in 1707, topIn association folks' food shop Fortnum & Mason has a long history serving royalty. Currently the holder of two Royal Warrants, from the Queen and the Prince of Wales, Fortnum's, as it is colloquially known, traces its roots to a lowlier connection.

Legend has it that William Fortnum, footman at the Court of Queen Anne, started in business selling the beeswax candle ends he collected at Court. From there, he teamed up with his landlord, Hugh Mason, to open a small store in Duke Street. This operation expanded into tea, exotic groceries and other luxury items and, in 1756, moved to its present site on Piccadilly

Fortnum's West London location made it an ideal provisions stop for the well-to-do heading to their country estates. It claims to have invented the food hamper in the 1730s and was a pioneer in the development of preserved and pre-cooked foods, including the Scotch egg. The 'F&M' hamper became a symbol of society Christmases and "season" events such as Ascot and Henley.

This recognition of the growing importance of prepared and tinned food led the store to become the first British retailer to stock Heinz beans in 1886. Heinz celebrated Fortnum's 300th anniversary in 2007 with a limited edition of 3,000 tins carrying labels in the store's signature eau de nil colour

As one of the first stores to have plate-glass display windows, Fortnum & Mason helped create shopping as we know it today. By displaying its wares in gas-lit windows, its aristocratic customers were encouraged to visit the store themselves rather than sending their servants.

By 1915, Fortnum's had an Officers' Supply Department, providing for customers in the armed services. In 1922, an Expeditions department supplied Howard Carter's Tutankhamun excavation and an attempt on Mount Everest.

The current neo-Georgian store was built in the 1920s. The following decade, it developed into a department store, with sections for sport and children, among others. In 1951, Canadian businessman W Garfield Weston bought the company and introduced further departments and eating places, such as the Fountain Restaurant. Not surprisingly, afternoon tea is a speciality, given that the store stocks 200 varieties and tea sales account for a big part of turnover.

A £24m makeover by architects Jestico & Whiles coincided with the store's tercentenary in 2007, when its food department was expanded. It has also looked to extend its operations overseas, and has offered online sales since 1999, with wholesale links selling products to stores in other countries. Japan is Fortnum's biggest export market and it now has branches there. Chief executive Beverley Aspinall has spoken of plans to target further markets such as China, the Middle East and India.

At home, the royal link has remained strong. Last year, the Queen paid a visit, accompanied by the Duchesses of Cornwall and Cambridge, to open the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon.


BRAND LESSON

Silas Amos, Creative Strategist, JKR By Silas Amos, Creative Strategist, JKR

The effectiveness of packaging design tends to be measured in the here and now: does it grab attention, get into a basket and get taken home? Good design achieves this, but great design delivers a longer service record. It enters the home as a welcome guest, is proudly displayed and used with pleasure.

Fortnum & Mason packaging passes this test with flying colours; long after the biscuits or tea have been consumed, the packs hang around, reused or refilled. The best are too good to bin.

The plummy provenance of F&M has cachet, but it's the often elegant design that transforms grocery packs into objects of desire. Consider the eccentric and spirited packaging it used to mark the Diamond Jubilee – a lion and a unicorn duff each other up in an illustration that combines flair with fine craftsmanship.

It is "proper posh" – confident enough to play with the royal codes, tastefully irreverent, arch, but in good taste. Like a true gent, its quality is known as much as shown. F&M never tries too hard in design. It doesn't have to, and that gives it true charisma.

And it has invested in the best, knowing it will repay for generations – from its beautiful clock (the bells of which share a foundry with Big Ben) to commissioning luminaries such as Edward Bawden to design its "publicity material".

The lesson we draw is clear: consider life beyond the shelf. Have an eye on legacy and sell things that are attractive enough to hang around a bit longer than the sell-by date.


TIMELINE

1707: Fortnum & Mason was founded.

1794: Store launched its own postal service – it operated until 1839, when the General Post Office was founded.

1846: Richard Fortnum bequeathed £1,500 (equivalent to £500,000 today) to his staff.

1863: Awarded its first Royal Warrant as grocers to the Prince of Wales.

1931: Opened a store in New York. Coinciding with the Depression, it did not succeed.

1951: Fortnum & Mason was bought by Canadian W Garfield Weston.

1964: Clock added to the storefront.

1999: Launched online store.

2004: Fortnum & Mason Japan opened with stores in two cities.

2007: The store was overhauled for its 300th anniversary.

2008: Honey went on sale, gathered from its own hives on the store roof.

2012: The Queen officially opened its Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon.

View more Champions of Design

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