THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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12 August 2014

What’s the creative process in visual merchandising? Arantxa Garcia on Comics Unmasked

Coming back from maternity leave, one of the first things I noticed is that the British Library Shop has had a major refresh and is looking fantastic. The displays leap out and grab your attention, it’s full of shoppers and there are plenty of products I have got my eye on (I like Alison Hardcastle’s Map of London and our Beano greetings cards). I find the process of retail and visual merchandising fascinating. I like the careful balance between creativity and sales figures.

British Library bookshop Comics Unmasked 1
Photograph: Anna Bakosova

I got in touch with Arantxa Garcia, our freelance visual merchandiser, who has a wealth of experience in the museum sector. As well as designing our Comics Unmasked displays, she has worked with the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Museums Greenwich and Historic Scotland.  I asked her a few questions…

Hello Arantxa! Just to start off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you got into visual merchandising?

I guess it was a natural process for me to become a visual merchandiser. I was born into a family retail business and from an early age I worked for my pocket money. I helped my dad checking off delivery notes and assisted my mum with the window dressing, (who by the way is my fiercest critic, being a VM herself) and as I got older I took part in buying and visiting fashion and trade shows. In Spain I freelanced for high street retailers, where I gained most of my experience.

I moved to London when I was 20 to study fine art and always worked part time in shops during my degree. After graduating, I worked at the National Portrait Gallery shop, where I helped to set up of exhibition shops and visual merchandising until one day, while scanning postcards as you do, I had a moment of clarity and decided that this is what I needed to do for a living: visual merchandising for cultural enterprises. It was the perfect blend for me, just like the perfect marriage, between my retail background and my interest in art and history. It just felt right!

British Library bookshop Comics Unmasked 3
Photograph: Anna Bakosova

What is the process involved in creating a display for an exhibition like Comics Unmasked?

We always start with a kick-off meeting with the buyers. It is crucial to understand what’s behind the ranges and to buy into their vision. These meetings are full of adrenaline, catalogues, samples, and lots of: “have you seen… Just like that…I wish we could….”

The approach I took was to recreate a comic scene in itself.  A fun and humorous space almost like a caricature and exaggeration of the elements. The exhibition ends handing over to the public, almost saying: “here you go, we have given you the inspiration and the tools, now you go and create your comic”. The public exits through the shop, so somehow the shop needed to be a continuation of this message.  So I did some research on what a comic artist studio might look like and the common elements between them: reading lamp, drawing table, a stool of some sort and lots of paper everywhere.

The Reading lamp had an important stake in the setting. It could not be any lamp; it had to be the lamp, that timeless design that would embody the right reading lamp of all time.  That’s when I thought about collaborating with Anglepoise, who very kindly loaned one of their giant lamps to us for the duration of the show. I guess the symbolism of the lamp, the light or the bulb, can be interpreted in many ways.  A popping bulb encircled in a cloud pointing at a character’s head always makes us think about that great idea, and so on.

It is important to remember that visual merchandising is a commercial resource used to drive sales through creating spaces that enhance the customer to interact with the product and purchase.

British Library bookshop Comics Unmasked 7
Photograph: Anna Bakosova

Do you have any particular favourite displays or shops in museums and galleries?

Well, that’s when my mind goes blank. I love Museum shops in general. I´m an easy person to sell to. I loved the exhibition range for Elizabeth I and her people, which was hosted at the National Portrait Gallery last September. I especially like souvenirs with Queen Elizabeth I on them. It can be from a fan to a spectacle cloth!  I enjoyed working on Georgians Revealed at the British Library; that was a great range to work with.

What makes a museum shop good is the buying, product development and the use of collections in doing so. I find it really interesting how you are able to describe an era or a personality through product, and in this way you bring it closer to the visitor. So my favourite shops are those that are true to their collections. Those who do it well! Inspiration comes from everywhere: art, architecture, theatre, colour, interior design, conversations, History books, junk shops. And from walking around with your senses fully open.  

British Library bookshop Comics Unmasked 6
Photograph: Anna Bakosova

Are there any trends for visual merchandising for museums and galleries at the moment?

I’m not sure if it is right to talk about trends in the museums and galleries sector, as the trends are given by the shows they have on at the time, or just by the nature of the institution itself.  This is part of the beauty of the job, which allows you to travel through time: one week, the Elizabethan era, and the lavish Georgians the week after. It is true though, that as Museum and galleries become mindful of their retail resources and income generation, they look outside - at how the high street does it, and the techniques they use to drive sales. Nonetheless, it is crucial to keep up-to-date with the general trends in art, fashion, current materials used in interior design, colour combinations, contrasting textures, and general ways of creating ambiences and spaces. 

British Library bookshop Comics Unmasked 5
Photograph: Anna Bakosova

Arantxa will also be helping us with the visual merchandising for our Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition in the autumn.

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