Obituary: Rodney Fitch, retail designer

Rodney Fitch, retail designer. Born: 19 October, 1938, Islington, London. Died: 20 October, 2014, Aldbourne, Wiltshire, aged 76.

Rodney Fitch was a British design guru whose touch impacted on almost all people’s lives without their knowledge as he carefully crafted the image of stores such as Boots, Debenhams, Ikea, Marks & Spencer, Ryman, Asda and Tesco. A pioneer in his field, he radically changed the way the general public shopped and his touch brightened every high street in the UK during the Eighties and beyond, leaving a legacy that was imitated at home and abroad.

Regarded as a creative visionary, Fitch was once dubbed the “the Pope of retail design” by a Belgian newspaper – a far cry from his humble working class roots in north London.

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His whole raison d’être, he once explained, was “to deliver to ordinary people better places to shop. I have little interest in Issey Miyake or haute couture design. The thing that really turns me on is working for Woolworth’s, M&S and Boots stores, which touch everyone’s life.”

Believing retail was “the only true democracy in the world,” his catchphrase was “Shopping is the purpose of life”. Fitch put the shopper at the heart of everything he did and was the reason why so many high street names beat a path to his door.

Born in Islington in 1938, Rodney Arthur Fitch was the only child of working-class parents. As a boy, he recalled shopping as “a ghastly experience, full of mean, nasty suburban shops and if you wanted any kind of excitement or experience, you had to go to London’s West End.”

Any excitement came when his parents took him to Oxford Street. This is where his “love affair” with shopping and retail design was born. His education was patchy and unspectacular, failing the 11-plus he managed to get a place at Willesden Technical College. While there, he decided on a career as a designer, having seen a factory advert.

Upon leaving in 1956, Fitch worked for two years as a trainee designer before serving two years of National Service in the Royal Artillery Pay Corps. Demobbed, he studied a plethora of subjects including interior and furniture design at the renowned Central School of Arts and Crafts, which had grown directly from the Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris and John Ruskin.

His first job was with a “horrid” shopfitting company in Bloomsbury which he later described as “pompous, patronising architects, pretending to be clever”. The disdain was mutual and Fitch was gone after three months. In addition, he had seen the Richard Shops store at London’s Marble Arch, designed by Bronek, Katz and Meir, and realised he did not want to work for traditional shopfitters. This store became his “Holy Grail” with its huge sheets of glass pinned to metal frames. He recalled: “It blew shopfitting completely out of the water.”

In 1963, Fitch applied for and was offered a job as junior designer with the Conran Design Group but he almost blew the opportunity before even starting. As an active member of CND, he attended a rally in Ruislip, West London, the location of a USAF base, and missed his start date because he was arrested. Refusing to give his name, Fitch was eventually duped into giving his details and his mother was contacted. She then contacted Terence Conran to explain the absence of his employee from his first day at work, and surprisingly, Conran paid the £50 fine.

Fitch rapidly rose up through the group, and worked closely with Conran on the creation, development and design of Habitat. By 1968, at the age of 30, he was chief creative officer and MD.

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When Conran left the Group in 1972, to set up Conran Associates, he asked Fitch to join him but he declined and instead, persuaded the Burton Group to sell the design business to him for £180,000, borrowing from a wealthy friend and stumping up £25,000 himself, equivalent to over £500,000 today. “God knows how I did it,” he recalled later. However, Fitch felt guilty that he had failed his benefactor and Conran felt let down. Fitch and Company began with 10 employees and thrived as the high streets boomed; by 1990 he employed over 450 employees in offices in Europe, the USA and the Middle East. Growth was spectacular. The company created the Top Shop chain for the Burton Group, the first “stand-alone” fashion chain for young women in Britain. In the mid-80s, they rescued the near-bankrupt Debenhams Department Store for the Burton Group, creating a flagship which was declared, at the time, the “Best Department Store in the World”.

In 1982, Fitch became the first design company to be listed on the stock exchange. In a bid to make his business the world’s leading design company, he agreed a deal with Deane Richardson and David Smith, founders of RS, America’s biggest product design company with a wealth of disciplines at its fingertips.

However, with the recession of the early 1990s, profits were hit, capital investment stagnated and the company found itself over extended. This resulted in the directors restructuring Fitch’s company financially in a bid to oust him. In 1994 Fitch was forced to resign acrimoniously.

Soon after, with the backing of Richard Branson, who expressed confidence in his abilities and co-owned the business, Fitch established Rodney Fitch and Company, a consultancy specialising in retail and entertainment interiors and brand communication graphics. Fitch’s self-respect was restored.

In 2004, after an absence of ten years, the wheel came full circle when the WPP Group took over Fitch and Co and Sir Martin Sorrell invited Fitch to return as chairman and CEO. Sorrell said: “We are delighted to put the Fitch back into Fitch.” Fitch instituted a renaissance at the firm before leaving in 2009.

An avid cricketer and fan, Fitch even had his own team. Known as a good raconteur and generous individual, Fitch enjoyed sharing his good fortune whether it was holding parties for colleagues or friends to refurbishing his local village church; he did a lot of philanthropic work including working with Vanessa Redgrave to create a school for disadvantaged children. However, it was his wife, Janet (née Stansfield) whom he married in 1965 and his five children who he regarded as his mainstay, conveying his love for them by presenting each one with a different piece of jewellery created by his friend, the goldsmith Peter Page.

He was a trustee of the V&A Museum, chairman of the finance committee of the Royal College of Art, deputy chairman of London’s University of the Arts and a member of the Design Council.

The recipient of a number of awards, Fitch was appointed CBE in 1990 for his services and his “influence on the British design industry”; the same year he co-authored the seminal book, Retail Design. Furthermore, he received France’s Légion d’honneur and was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Design Institute of America. Fitch died at home following a recurrence in April this year of the cancer he had previously successfully fought. He is survived by his wife, a son and four daughters.

Martin Childs