Changing Shopfronts

Following on from The History of Shopfitting in the July – September edition of Interior Fitout, in this issue we look at the period between the wars, starting with shopfronts. This was a time of great change in society, a time of boom and bust.

Australia had slowly recovered by the mid 1920’s from an earlier recession, up until the early 1930’s however change was not evident in retail. Shopfronts had looked much the same since at least the turn of the century. Hardwood sills, stalls and mullions were gradually replaced with timber cored metal mouldings and tiled brickwork, but the overall concept remained much the same. Standard size hinged entry doors with display windows and window backs. Often with lead light top hampers to facilitate natural lighting.

The good times however came to an end with the crash of Wall Street in 1929. Australia was hit hard and unemployment reached 30% by 1932. Retail and therefore shopfitting was also hit, although there were some quite large stores opened or refurbished in the Depression period, with activity picking up markedly as the Depression started to ease from 1932 on.
Because people did not have the mobility we have today, ‘corner’ stores were everywhere. Typically they were small in area with a dwelling behind or above.
Day-to-day necessities such as groceries and butchers needed to be within an easy walk for the population. The photo of Davidson’s grocery shown here would have been typical.
At the other end of the spectrum were the spectacular display windows of Georges in Collins Street Melbourne

By the mid 1930’s, the recovery was well under way and business was booming. There were two main discernible influences. As well as traditional retail activity, there was a boom in milk bars and cafes driven by the influx of post WWl migrants.

Movie theatres were also popping up everywhere with the advent of talkies and hotel bars were a huge source of shopfitting work. People had more money and they were spending it.
The other obvious influence was that of Art Deco. This was a worldwide fashion that came out of the Roaring Twenties and was characterised by the dominant materials of chrome and gloss coloured glass, usually but not always black. In Australia, there were two brands of this glass, Vitrolite and Carrara. As can be seen from the photos, it could be used on piers and stalls, replacing tiles and on top hampers replacing the traditional leadlight.

Because it could be supplied bent it lent itself to the growing trend of wider doorways integrating the shopfront with the interior and with piers, stall and hamper all on one plane and of one material as illustrated in the photo of Burts Milk bar.

Chrome was used everywhere; signage, framing, heavy door furniture.
Many of the photos used here came from advertisements placed in the Journal of the Retail Traders between 1925 and 1945 by the leading shopfitters of their day. They of course would have wanted to showcase their latest and greatest, so perhaps not all stores of the time looked that great.

And of course not all stores were Art Deco. Woolworths, Coles, Mclllrath’s grocers and many other chain retailers continued to expand over this period, each with their own individual style, the shopfront design starting to reflect the gradual shift to self-service.

With the advent of war in 1939, retail activity slowed considerably and by about 1942 many shopfitters, retailers and their customers were in the armed forces. Many of the shopfitters who were left were engaged in activities supporting the war effort such as making ammunition boxes. Advertising in the Retail Traders petered out with one last ad from a shopfitter who simply said they would be back after the war, bigger and better.

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