Biba offices Westbourne Park.

I was still in a trance sitting in the Biba offices reception admiring the surroundings, when Steve Thomas greeted me. A  tall handsome amiable man with a fifties vibe he led  me through a kind of workshop on the ground floor. This was the merchandising department and glancing around I saw many people busy with patterns, fabrics and pining clothing onto tailors dummies. We went down a floor into a large studio room with big windows and a black and white checkered floor. Steve Thomas and his partner Tim Whitmore were ‘Whitmore Thomas’ a very talented design team who worked with Barbara Hulanicki styling the Kensington High Street shop and designing the units for Biba makeup when the cosmetic range was launched and sold in many countries. Now they had the monumental task of designing each floor for the new big Biba  . Steve Thomas also headed the graphics team.

steve

Steve Thomas

tim

Tim Whitmore

He looked through my portfolio, he particularly liked the drawings I drew the night before. I tried to dress as Art Deco as I could that day, I wore my riding jacket with a new set of old Art deco buttons  sewn on and some funny 1930’s brown and white shoes, [these were to clad household ladies later on]. Steve filled me in on what was going to happen to Biba with the move to the old Derry and Toms department store, a huge project which also involved a lot of graphic design starting with logos for each floor. So that was it, he asked me if I could start monday [ this being a friday], he would brief me on the work and then he was off for two weeks and would make decisions when he came back. I was floored to say the least and spent the rest of the weekend finishing outstanding work, it was quite clear if I stayed at the  Biba job I would not have time for other work.
On the monday, I sat down with Steve and we went through what I would work on whilst he was away. He showed me the Rainbow room logo which was the only logo completed so far and was to be the template for all the other designs, It was from a 1930’s song  sheet and had a lovely lyrical quality.

rainbowRoomLogo

The Rainbow Room logo

foodHallLogo

The Food Hall logo

lolita

The Lolita Department logo

I was to start work on The food hall logo, the household logo , and a Lolita logo from the childrens’ department, so armed with pencils and pads of layout and tracing paper I took a corner of the room. Steve announced he would be back in two weeks, I was relieved, I have always hated people watching me work. Chris Angell was the only other graphic designer  and he was working on new Biba typefaces and lettering. I got to know him and we became firm friends, it turned out he knew Mick from Colchester college of art and he was taught there by Adrianne Le Man who also taught us at Leicester.
There were other draughtsmen in the studio, two very quiet gentlemen in suits  and ties at the far end who did not interact very much with us, and two trendier types both named Brian  [Temple and Bousfield ] who were very friendly. The Brians were also funny, I think they liked to ‘smoke’ quite a bit they were always mellow. All the draughtsmen worked for Steve and Tim designing units for the big store. One of the Brians was going out with an actress of the time [ I cannot remember who] the other Brian was a bit frail having had rickets as a child during the war . He told us he would never see forty, sadly he was right.

Tim Whitmore was not around much at that time, he was always dashing around going to meetings.
Chris and I went to a nearby pub at lunchtime, in fact most of the Biba office people also descended on this pub . The Biba crowd asked for rose wine , steaks  salads, and even champagne , and the landlord happily supplied them , he could not believe his luck. It was a poky little pub [long gone now] and it had its regulars old people who had been going there for years, they all kept to one side of the bar with their pints and the glittery Biba crowd took over the lounge and they liked to drink, especially wine. In the seventies Mateus rose was a favourite. Barbara and Fitz would lunch here from time to time, the first time I saw them was in the pub.
Back at the studio I drew all day.  I started on the Food hall logo first, I wanted to keep the movement of the Rainbow room couple so I designed a running lady in 1930’s clothing wearing my old shoes. I just had one lady to start with, later Steve suggested including two more ladies which gave them a brisk efficient movement. I had a problem when drawing faces, they almost always end up looking like someone you know, or somebody famous or someone you do not like or all of the above, so I had to erase some personality because it was distracting. I found that closing the eyes or averting and hiding the faces somewhat helped . With the Lolita girls I hid the faces with hats and used body language to suggest awkwardness, the household girl stood on her own  back towards us with a bold stance. These are the three I remember working on the most in those two weeks.

bibahousehold

The Household department logo

. I never talked to anyone upstairs, the girls were very glamorous and there was a definite snooty air about them [ or so I imagined ]. I do remember  a topless Delicia Howard standing around having clothing pinned onto her. With her bobbed haircut she was very pretty looking exactly like one of the art deco Biba busts that were everywhere in the shop, she was the epitome of the perfect Biba body. I always knew when she was half naked upstairs, I could hear the guys whispering that Del had her kit off  again and it was perhaps a good time to go upstairs to get a coffee. There is a photo of her on the front of the Biba newspaper, she is wearing a top hat, black jacket and big bow tie. Also in this photo as the cigarette girl Joyce O ‘Toole who I remember from the office although I cannot remember what she did. She was very Rita Hayworth glamorous, and had two little yappy dogs with her all the time. The only other people I knew in this photo were Uriah, with Barbara’s dog Othello, and Eleanor Powell in the back row with the leopardskin dress and turban. Eleanor was the head manageress and had been with Biba from the beginning and she was also Steve Thomas’s girlfriend.

groupPhoto

Photo from the Big Biba Newspaper

With my two weeks coming to an end I was getting a bit nervous, I had no idea whether what I was doing was on the right track. I was working through a lunch hour one day and no one else was in the studio when I felt a presence behind me breathing down my neck. After a while I turned around slowly and looked up at the most enormous black dog I had ever seen, it was Barbara Hulanicki’s great Dane Othello or Otto as he was usually called. Maybe he had sniffed me out as someone new and decided to investigate. I was frozen never having seen a great Dane before, he stared at me for a while and then turned around and loped back upstairs. I heard Joyce O’Tooles dogs yapping like mad, later I learned that if Otto was at the office so was Barbara.

6 comments

  1. I’m really enjoying reading your memories of Biba . It was such an amazing and unique place with the most amazing and unique people.
    Joyce was a manageress in the smaller Ken High St shop and then went on to be in charge of part of the Rainbow Room…hence the glam cig girl outfit. I often think of Uriah (aka George Spence) He was the kindest, most generous person you could ever hope to meet

  2. Thank you Rubyfoot, I did not know that Uriah had another name. Yes he was a sweetheart, he spent a lot of time with us when we moved to Derry and Toms which I will talk about later. He used to clean our mess up there and I have a photo of him which I will put up later.

  3. Oh, I can’t wait to meet Barbara….

  4. Looking forward to it!

  5. I’m really enjoying your memoirs too.

  6. This is really odd, have just sent a post about being the person on Antiques Roadshow, I am still reading – now on Biba Offices, Westbourne Park. I was there at the same time. I would love to hear from anyone from Whitmore Thomas – you mention Chris Angell from Colchester College of Art – I knew him, he was one of the crowd from the 60’s we used to hang out in the Newmarket Tavern …. I could go on! Anyone out there who remembers? Hebe x

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