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Why Laura Ashley fails in modern Furniture Icon creation

June 11, 2012

I have followed Laura Ashley for many years working around the Chelsea scene as interior designer, finisher and project manager, and joined them in 2005, but what amazes me is the lack of will to create a true design statement – finding the icon has alluded LA.

Why is that?  and let’s face it, the problem is not isolated to LA alone… John Lewis could also be accused of falling short on designing the iconic range across key categories, but at least they drive well planned NPD strategies.



Looking at Laura Ashley Plc  it is an organisation based on two strengths:  customer loyalty and … blind customer loyalty.

But faced with the inevitable client lifespan issue what new schema of pure design is pitched at the younger audience (or any audience for that matter)?

LA suffer continual staffing turnover problems and this is driven by many deep rooted issues not least of all a lack of genuine product design initiative and reward.  The major retail leaders still simply survive on doing the rounds of comp shopping and grabbing the nearest  ‘move on’ feature from neighbouring retail competitors – frankly any design light to middle weight can do this!

It’s boring and flagging design regurgitation.



A classic example of this malaise is in their resoundingly predictable bedding ranges, which are utterly stagnant when one considers the scope of opportunity that stands before this particular category.

From a purely superficial design perspective the model above represents a range that continues to do well yet is marginally in decline according to LA HOD Gillian Farr.

”… we are facing an overall gradual decline …we’re trying some upholstered beds… to see how they go”. Gillian Farr LA HO.

The product development on this model amounts to a sideways glance at NEXT plc and a quick half or false step in colour re-treatment.

But what’s wrong with that?  I hear you say… isn’t that smart remodelling?

Not really because it locks them in a market run down.  Yep they’ll ignite some fresh numbers on this twist for one season …  but in a world where design must drive itself vigorously via clear commercial strategy, what evidence is there that moving on and remodelling can ever succeed in establishing first in field and excellence? And what of the crucial spin off aka real design fuelled customer perception… or rather as it stands the constant battle with the lack of it?

Where is the small yet hugely significant step toward practical, beautiful design innovation?

Touching on another range Gillian jumped to the defence of, the Arielle collection, a mirror and rosewood bedroom set which according to staff in the Yeovil shop wasn’t a great performer – but on Gillian’s turf it certainly was…

”Sorry but that range is doing very well I might tell you.. we got it straight off the hook because we were the first to start this line a few years ago and since the opposition are selling it at near cost we needed to get something at a price-point… it’s done very well…!”

Perhaps she hadn’t been to Yeovil recently.

Design Innovation… whattha?

Because Laura Ashley score virtually zero when it comes to innovation over elegance (yet IKEA or HEALS continue to excel at this), the ranges remain short of genuine iconic quality which the drive for innovation always seems to harvest… and what I mean by that is this – they lack the original English design DNA that is needed to generate wider international consumer momentum, recognition and expectation… (and maybe even win a few design awards?)

The design triad should surely follow:  Client expectation – Brand ID – Original Design Innovation

When Laura Ashley set up her work rooms she had a clear vision of motif and market placement.  Undoubtedly that would have needed some skilful design fuelled crafting in order to stay abreast of change… but innovation would certainly have characterised her strategic thinking alongside customer loyalty.

ABOVE Vintage Iconic 1940s Long Tailored Black Wool Crepe Flared Coat UK

Fabulous in every department… a design museum in motion

Today high street retail design swirls 20 year cycles without the fuel of innovative design expectation, the day-to-day tasks of the product design staff  remain mundane and hence, spur loss of innovative zest, while on a further downside spawning high staff turnover and morale malaise.

Going forward is made the more challenging for design heads as they struggle to shape their winning team. Farr stated ”LA don’t pay that well..” The basic reward based motivational impetus needed in any workplace, is virtually stifled at birth and lapping the zero.

This really marks the final nail in LA’s torrid product stagnation, because once you have staff looking at joining John Lewis at the first opportunity, for a range of reasons, your whole process runs on next to empty – the vision and commitment of the designer is lost… and so the energy that infuses Zara for example fizzles among the stack of mundane ‘moving-on’ demands that staff at L A can never escape.

It sounds like stating the obvious but in order to hold on to a team and grow in breadth and depth, healthy remuneration is crucial.

The result is the grabbing at the simplest but worst possible design route… Canton Fair pick-n-twists, and bridging continual staff shortfalls.

Vision at every turn

With the UK and the capital city brimming with young and senior design talent it is astonishing we think far too often of IKEA when it comes to modern retail furniture iconics…

It may be a brave vision but until the Malaysian directors embrace the importance of fully planned brand design strategies, and product design management at LA understand the importance of the long term view, Laura Ashley will wrestle with it’s self made churn, survive only on a starch based design diet and struggle where it could well soar… and for a company born of genuinely fabulous design DNA it is nothing short of a crime.

Nick Garrett

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2012 1:18 pm

    Reblogged this on ArtSite – Nick Garrett.

  2. March 18, 2013 8:57 pm

    First, I must point out that the writing of this article is atrocious. Did you even attend university? Your sentences ramble and often do not make a point. Second, one part of your argument falls flat on its face. All brands rely on customer loyalty, even “blind” customer loyalty. There are many people in the world that will buy a Chanel bag even it if it the most atrocious design ever, simply because it is Chanel (this applies to fashion houses as well as home decor brands). Now, where is your ill-written article on those brands? Another argument you propose that does not make sense is the “regurgitation” of design in Laura Ashley. Do you know anything of fashion and trends? Bell bottom and wide-flared pants were “in” in the 1970’s and “out” in the 1980’s/90’s, made a come back in the early 2000’s, and are currently “out.” Fashions and trends circulate. Houses look to the past and recycle old trends from decades before with new twists, or as you prefer, they “regurgitate” them. Instead of slamming one particular house for attempting to make their stand in the modern market after a decline in business due to Mrs. Ashley’s death, pick on the entire world of fashion and design, since that is where you ill-qualified seems to lie.

    • March 19, 2013 6:25 am

      I love this type of rant!! I have worked in product design since 1991 – for great designers. Recycling of design is not moving on Kate. That is a completely different thing. Moving on is a design cop out. The reason people blindly follow one label is seldom down to great innovative design. Dyson have some great innovative design… Ikea at times and Apple too. Laura Ashley or Next? No way and the main reason is they are run by people who hold back designers. Since when did you hear of a high street retailer creating something iconic and new? Ercol did it… what I am saying, apologies for not coming up to yr high brow but rather baseless level, is that Design UK is found elsewhere so why trundle along behind mediocre design. Laura Ashley would not be so proud as you I dare say.

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