An Enchanting Wonderland – Christmas in the V&A Shop

We have teamed up with the designer Louise Wilkinson to decorate our Christmas display in the V&A Shop. Her creative approach is based on the belief in objects being timeless, beautiful and practical. Our Visual Manager Charlene was inspired by Wilkinson’s approach and began brainstorming for the Christmas display. Both Charlene and Louise love enchanting, story-telling illustrations and the following Q&A explains how they worked together to create a wonderland in the V&A Shop. You can even take away a souvenir of this unique collaboration with Louise in the form of a card or Christmas bauble.

Louise Wilkinson design in the V&A Shop

At what point in the year do you start thinking about planning the Christmas display?

Charlene Betteridge: I find inspiration everywhere so constantly think about ideas for window displays through the year. The actual design process begins anything up to 10 months in advance, when our buying team begin to source products for the season so that I can make sure that our displays fit in with the range and still be commercial. I will also look at what exhibitions will be happening so that we can be sensitive to or work alongside what is happening in the wider museum. I try to book installations 6th months ahead of time so that we can fit work around museum events and we start sampling any graphics or props just as soon as we can.

Where did you first see Louise’s illustrations?

CB: I first saw a cup and saucer by Louise in a presentation by our buying team in the early spring. It was perfect timing. I loved her interpretation of the Willow Pattern and this lead us to use the Romantic Fable story quite extensively in the design.  At the same time, I was shown a plain black shape of a deer which was meant to be a  future Christmas decoration. I sent this shape to Louise with the challenge of making a pattern which might reflect the characteristics of the animal – in her Willow patterned style.  We met every week for quite some time during the design process.

EC: What made you get excited about them and why did you think they would suite the V&A Shop display for 2013?

CB: I had been thinking about a display incorporating a twist on traditional blue and white ceramics for a while, working on either a large scale or using hundreds of tea sets.  With the upcoming exhibitions, Louise’s designs and the colours, everything seemed to fit together well.  I could easily imagine Louise’s designs working on a large scale.  Last year’s installation was an extension of the celebration of V&A pattern which I used for the ‘British Design’ exhibition where I ‘gift-wrapped’ as many surfaces as I could in ‘Haemoglobin’ prints by Bernard Roland and Barlow & Jones for the Festival Pattern group. This year I wanted something  different, more transparent and more related to nature and Chinese painting.  We both enjoy hiding stories in our work and Louise had some lovely ideas which we kept adding and adding.  Those who look carefully will be able to see elements of the story in the designs alongside a few other hidden treasures. You can even see Jigongshan (Cockerel Mountain) in China, serpent lightening and the Owl and the Pussycat sneaking into the story and stealing jewels in their boat.  The large deer in the main window represents Chang who is crying because he cannot be with his love, Koong-se due to her father forbidding them. 

Where do you find the inspiration for your enchanting, story-telling illustrations?

Louise Wilkninson: I’ve always been inspired by the romantic narratives of the Blue Willow pattern. My work is also influenced by my love of the traditional decorative arts, nature and exotic, dreamlike places. I’ve always admired Japanese prints and Chinese paintings, in particular the highly detailed ornamentation. I love to create fantastical animal kingdoms based around the willow pattern story where I re-imagine the stories with my own interpretation. I want the work to be a world you could step into with a harmonious, playful quality – full of witty and surprising details.

Louise Wilkinson design in the V&A Shop

Could you describe the process that you go through in getting the displays ready?

CB: Working in a museum is very different to a typical retail environment, our two largest displays sit within the main entrance of the museum. Louise Wilkinson and I communicated constantly through the design process, she had so many ideas, 24 surfaces carry her designs in some way.

With the shop seeing over 3 million visitors walk through it every year, I need to use hard wearing and washable materials in all of my work.  I love working with different materials, print and application techniques, so I really enjoy the sampling process.  I think I have probably sampled materials to cover most of the museum now and often hide sample patches on surfaces so that I can ensure that when they are removed, they never cause any damage.

Having previously worked on such a small scale with your delicate illustrations was it hard to envisage them blown up so large on perspex screens?

LW: I found the challenge of designing for all the surfaces in the shop came naturally to me. The fantasy world I created kept growing organically from one space to the next….I could keep going! I love the idea of being able to step into the world and be part of the artwork. It was a dream to design the entire Christmas shop Installation and the large shop windows; all artworks are my largest scale to date. I love the V&A and it has always been one of my favourite and most inspiring museums.

How long did the actual installation take?

CB: The installation took a team of 6 people (including 4 professional graphics specialists) 15 hours from the start, when we de-instal the old displays to finish.  We also change all of our shop displays in this time and often re-merchandise the shop.

We find a re-use for our displays where we can. The printed fabric used for the columns in the entrance hall for our ‘British Design’ displays were sent to China for our displays there, and you’ll find some large transparent photographs which I had made for The Cecil Beaton displays decorating the walls of our publishing department. The samples for the Louise Wilkinson display are the office Christmas decorations.

Louise Wilkinson design in the V&A Shop