Why Laura Ashley fail in Furniture Icon creation

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 … customer loyalty.

But faced with the inevitable client lifespan issue what new is pitched at the younger audience?

LA suffer a staffing turnover issues and this is driven by many things not least of all a lack of genuine product design initiative.  The leaders simply survive on comp shopping and grabbing the nearest the ‘move on’ feature – frankly any design middle weight can do this!

A classic example is in their bedding ranges which are stagnant when considering the scope of opportunity that stands before this 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… see how they go”.

The product development on this model amounts to a sideways glance at NEXT plc and a quick half or false step.  But what’s wrong with that?  I hear you say… yep they’ll ignite some fresh numbers on this twist…  but in a world where design must drive via clear commercial strategy, what of the crucial spin off aka real design fuelled customer perception… or rather 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 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 excel), the ranges remain short of genuine iconic quality which innovation harvests… and what I mean by that is – they lack the original English design DNA that is needed to generate wider international consumer momentum and expectation… and 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 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 zest while spawning high staff turnover 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 motivational impetus needed is virtually stifled at birth and lapping the zero.

This really marks the final nail 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 because 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’ 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 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 understand the importance of the long term view, Laura Ashley will wrestle with it’s self made churn, survive 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


A Creative Head and facing off design stagnation?

A Creative Head and facing off design stagnation post crunch?

You have a growing opportunity and you feel a sense of confusion as to how to decide on the right product development direction? 

It is hard to keep our teams pumping out great designs when we feel a lack of steady valid input from the market place.  

It can be scary looking at the market and seeing a sea of opportunity on all sides while knowing our competitors are never far behind.  Sometimes we just want to be able to find a range that puts distance between us and our rivals the way we did at start-up.  It felt easy then and is now an increasingly complex uphill struggle.

Finding clear opportunity

There is a way of carving clarity out of the fog.  Firstly you will need fresh input from people who are like you and crucially those who are not:  people who design similar product but yet have a different angle because they are not in your day to day sphere. What these outreach team players do is bring you a sense of freshness and freedom.  Freshness because they have the time and energy to find new angles and freedom because they are… out there to introduce new ideas.

The emergence of the freelance insight designer means they are able to work while your team push out deadline projects… they also work while you and your team finally get some sleep.


When Nick came to us he brought all the new ideas to change our direction… he gave us a new direction using the same skills in a different way’  Billy Cheung says of China Accent Hong Kong.

‘We used the net to download all new trend from him on the road – then he came to the factory and created the prototypes directly – then he went back to UK to continue with the design and promotional material… and of course to find new inspiration’ 

For China Accent the change was dramatic yet manageable because the production teams were drafted in, trained and well bedded in.  The new product went to fairs and the orders came in from new global partners.

‘We could say Nick get us some clients from Germany or Brazil… and he created the psychological colour and motif profile for those regions… by the next Canton Fair they were attracted to the new product and we won new market share… ‘ Billy continues. 

But this is not rocket science for any pro active designer, but it is the perfect example of how inhouse designers need to stay on task while combining with the trend/insight freelancer.   

Mark Homewood of Designers Guild adds an interesting point ‘When you have this level of creativity it affects the other designers… ideas blossom… ‘  For Designers Guild the powerful colour combination of bold painted furniture mirrored the fabric and wallpaper ranges yet ignited something hugely important: the unique design edge.

Mark continues ‘There was really no one in the world doing what we did and we were pricing pieces way beyond our projections… it was incredible… one series for a photo shoot turned into 10 years worth of collections!’ 

What happened with DG was an overnight range success.  A team was formed which coordinated new tabletop publications which continue 20 years on to sell the product ranges way beyond the reach of the web or retail floor.  They sell Designers Guild product during down time, sipping coffee or chatting with friends.

The freelance insight designer enabled a whole new world of opportunity which for you, the driving force of the team, is the perfect foil.
Focus pays

Once you have the correct input of new ideas and new client reach mood boards, work life becomes far easier because it removes stress and targets are frequently exceeded.  

But here we find another rock to avoid:  JD overreach

Stagnation fear is a real sensation that creeps in when inhouse designers attempt to develop trend and fail through lack of linear strategies. 

Cezanne is senior designer for China Accent who went from JD of product design into attempting to source new trend and fell over, losing confidence in his ability:  his product development success stalled and needed careful mentoring before returning, after 2 bleak years, to success. 

Confidence and studio buzz is fuel but when things slide…

The reason for this was fairly simple: he could make linear design decisions and move products from season to season but he had no experience of how to find and  judge new dots that arrived needing to be joined up in a different way.  It is often impossible for production designers to have the regular range of outer world exposure that is necessary in judging new emerging trend, new ideation ‘codes’ and winners or losers – because they normally work on products incrementally further down the retail market chain.

When you brief the freelance designer to go out and find something new you will have to expect to be surprised the moment they come back to you.  They must convince you in seconds that they have it right.  The communication bounce must be as clearly defined by the design head as possible.

When I worked with Nina Campbell I never really knew what she had in mind in the usual sense… she implied it – because we clicked I always read her subtle ideas.  With Tricia Guild it was also very subtle cues and hints… Laura Ashley were far more clear in their brief which took you to the door of NPD success,’ reflects Nick Garrett. 

By delving into each client’s brand, the solutions come to the surface very quickly because the process is a logical path.  If you want results it must be logical.


Method does not suck

The existing client brand is the core theme which sends the insight designer into similar producers for reference. For Jatex International the brand ID was Turkish carpets and metal ware.  To convert this none existent brand into an global mix needed logical trade building decisions.

Secondly the complete retail future story must be clearly confirmed by the FIP and storyboarded into roadmap.  Jatex asked for product sourcing allowing 2 days setting up on site in Pazhou Fair China and full documentation of insight for CEO to assess on arrival. 3 key suppliers were found with both metal and ceramic collections cherry picked.

Thirdly a summary of the process needs to be published to the DH in order that the story can be fully launched and read by all product development and design team members.  This was done with Jatex and gave the project a set of clear benchmarks and targets.

With design insight onboard you move into full light of clarity, grab new product gain momentumn and feel safe. You have control over the budget, the problem and enjoy a new sense of buzz.  Because you have the FIP working from your corp look, the solution is always on ytrack, it can be easily sold to design team at the bench because it is familiar yet new.  And when you sit back to consider the key objective of staying ahead, within budget, this fresh change brings you immediate success across your chief concerns, peers and directors – not only that, the word gets out, web teams pick up the buzz which in turn kickstarts VM ideas.

Success breeds success.

Erkut Aribas, CEO Jatex has a clear final word  ‘We needed a look fast … to challenge our competitor who was growing very quickly… our freelance tie up with Nick gave us a whole new range of contemporary furnishings in 6 months:  Zen reactive glaze ceramics, bold minimalist copper and bronze metal work and global ethnic kilim furniture.  These were an instant fusion of themes.  From just selling Turkish rugs I had the whole roomset … I took on 5 new showrooms and expanded 40% margin increase in the first year. 

If you would like more information about more freelance insight design and project structures email me here at nickgarrett2828@yahoo.co.uk