Biba: Iconic Store of the Swinging Sixties

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Great Britain experienced an explosion of youth culture in the 1960s. The new spirit of consumerism gave rise to specialist shops that expressed their values through design. Boutiques opened up all over London, and Carnaby Street became the centre of this

Keywords: youth culture, 1960s, consumerism, london, carnaby street, biba, barbara hulanicki, swinging london, swinging sixties, fashion

Great Britain experienced an explosion of youth culture in the 1960s. The new spirit of consumerism gave rise to specialist shops that expressed their values through design. Boutiques opened up all over London, and Carnaby Street became the centre of this new scene. One of the most significant shops was Biba, founded by Barbara Hulanicki in 1964, at the height of the Swinging London scene.

Biba began as a small boutique in Abingdon Road, Kensington. The shop interiors were famous and were eclectic in style. They drew on Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Victoriana and the golden age of Hollywood. They referred to this as retrophilia, the love of past forms.

Biba was the ultimate example of consumption being used to construct and display identity. The shop sold clothes, cosmetics, furnishings, food and even pet food. It catered to every aspect of life. Everything was presented in the distinctive Biba packaging. John McConnell created the Biba logo, which uses the whiplash curve of Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau was popular in the 60s because it was compatible with psychedaelia.

The store was remarkable for its interior design. The exotics counter was designed by Whitmore Thomas, as were most of the interiors. There was a strong influence from Art Deco in the modern, geometric shapes on the carpet. They were reminiscent of Cubism, which was a key influence on Art Deco. The counter was abstract and angular with a mirrored surface.

The perfume and cosmetics counter evoked Art Deco and the era of classic Hollywood. It featured a geometricised sunburst, which was pure Art Deco. The counter had sharp angles, as well as metallic and glazed surfaces with an overall crystalline structure.

Listening booths were provided in the record department. These were quite sophisticated for their time. The seats had the same Cubist patterns. The strip-lighting was reminiscent of a 1950s American diner. The fact that booths were provided indicates that you were encouraged to spend time in the store socialising.

The mirrors in the changing room used Ancient Egyptian motifs, but combined them with leopard skin print, which was deliberately tacky.

Whitmore Thomas designed a display of canned food. This was based on the theme of giant cans inspired by Andy Warhol’s work, particularly his Campbell’s soup cans, which are a classic of 60s pop art.

Biba stores became an important arena for the consumption of goods, and also for displaying them. The shop was frequented by people like Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful and Julie Christie, the British film star, but the store wasn’t exclusively for the rich and famous. Prices were kept low, and everyone was encouraged to circulate amid the glamour. This was the democratisation of luxury par excellence. 

For a discussion of 1960s Pop Art, please see:

https://knoji.com/pop-art-turning-trash-into-art/

Further information on consumerism can be found at:

https://knoji.com/britains-first-department-store/

https://knoji.com/life-in-a-victorian-department-store/

2 comments

Charlene Collins
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Posted on Jul 6, 2010
Petal
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Posted on Jul 6, 2010