Published: 26 February, 2014
What are the decoration trends for this year’s Christmas? What colours, shapes, patterns and materials are set to make a big impact? And what part is technology and interactivity playing in festive displays, asks Mia Hunt
It’s that time of year again. The festive displays have only just been taken down but shopping centre managers are already looking ahead to Christmas 2014, pouring thought and energy into creating the perfect festive shopping experience, complete with that all important ‘wow factor’ for kids and adults alike.
Alex Walters has a background in theatrical lighting and set design and worked with Piggotts before setting up his new business, Christmas Creations. He says the key to any Christmas scheme is to grab people’s attention in a short space of time, giving them something spectacular to look at that creates an experience they can’t get online.
“I read a BBC article recently which said that people are using social media, particularly Twitter, to share pictures of bad decorations,” he says. “People are so critical now, partly because they are spending more on their own decorations, so they expect more when they see them outside the home.”
The traditional Christmas theme, complete with Father Christmas, fireplaces strung with garlands, fir trees, baubles, off-white fairy lights and reds, greens, golds, has always been popular, particularly with shopping centre landlords and managers wary of losing the Christmas message to a modern interpretation.
“Research shows that guests of shopping centres feel most comfortable with displays that they can relate to and includes elements that they naturally associate with Christmas,” says Imagination’s Adam Nicholson. “Traditional shapes and style will always be fundamental to create the ultimate shopping atmosphere, and we’re convinced there’s a tangible link between the domestic feel and the retail experience.”
Whereas suppliers used to have free rein, coming up with the ideas and pitching them, Walters says his clients have a better idea of what they want now having seen schemes they like in other centres, and it’s that new level of input that’s driving the direction. And while traditional is big, a contemporary twist is coming to the fore.
Walters notes a move away from garlands and greenery and towards more organic structures, made of circular frames and wire, on which you can hang lighting and build in colour elements like baubles.
“Where once ice white LEDs were popular, icy blue, cold displays can feel quite harsh and won’t necessarily deliver a good experience,” he explains. “There’s been a resurgence in warm whites, gold and silver with their connotations of wealth, glamour and an opulent feel.
“People will always want to see Christmas trees and other things that remind them of traditional values, but you can mix it up with meshed materials, fibre glass, and open weave structures.”
MK Illumination is a global company based in Innsbruck in Austria that specialises in Christmas lighting products. The UK branch has recently taken assignment of Fuzzwire’s 100+ contracts in the wake of its administration at the end of last year (see page 29 for more on the collapse of Fuzzwire) but existing clients include Westfield Stratford, Manchester City Council, Gloucester Quays and Lowry Outlet.
It employs a host of artists and designers in its 24 offices around the world, and in terms of innovation, Paul Dove likes to think the input from designers in the various offices help to set the industry’s colour and tone trends.
“There are a lot of new colours. We’re looking into pastel colours – mints, pale pink and whites – mixed with browns and black lacquer, coppers, bronze and pewter, and paired with traditional or organic shapes, and silk and other fabrics,” he says.
And The Seasonal Group’s Andrew Bontoft is looking into incorporating more fabrics and texture, gathering inspiration from an exhibition at the National Exhibition Centre at Birmingham where warm browns, draped fabrics and faux fur made up a rustic theme, offset by materials like crystal for a sophisticated edge.
James Glancy of James Glancy Design took inspiration from the Christmasworld trade fair in Frankfurt: “We found interesting ideas in shop presentation in terms of materials,” he says. “For example, we saw planters that would provide excellent bases for floor mounted Christmas decorations, and garden led designs that would provide a great starting point for using rattan and birch in a bigger context. If we were looking for something that had a homemade feel to it, they would be ideal.”
But while Glancy finds inspiration from various sources, he takes a different view when it comes to trends. James Glancy Design creates bespoke schemes that are tailored to each centre because “no one size fits all” and he says it in imperative to produce individual schemes for individual centres, even on the smallest budgets.
“Catalogue design or off the shelf solutions are fine up to a point but it is important to make sure that it’s possible to avoid shopping malls looking the same in terms of presentation,” he says. “Trends aren’t really important, it is more critical to devise a scheme that correctly reaches the audience. The design we installed at Southside in Wandsworth was more a celebration of colour, aimed at a broad multiracial audience and not a lot, or anything, to do with current trends. I don’t think that robins are particularly on trend but they were perfect for Carnaby Street.”
Bontoft agrees. To his mind, bespoke will always be better than off the shelf: “Off the shelf products are fine if the client wants ABC, but what if they want CDE? We plan our schemes depending on size, location, theme and budget and tailor it to the client’s requirements so it’s bespoke to them and their centre,” he says.
“Decorations are harder to get right compared to displays because they are always compromised by the design of the centre, taking into account things like low ceilings, high atriums, and narrow or wide malls - there are all sorts of variables and they need thought.”
Working closely with suppliers is the best way to deliver an appropriate scheme, particularly if it can be done at the development stages.
James Glancy Design worked with both Trinity Leeds and London Designer Outlet (LDO) last year, with the schemes born out of thorough feedback and an on-going conversation with the centre teams. They were actively involved in all parts of the process at LDO, including event and PR meetings, to ensure they were au fait with the launch strategy and fully understood how the Christmas decorations fitted into the overall marketing mix.
And they were involved in Trinity Leeds while it was in development, offering significant benefits in terms of understanding the possibilities for producing and rigging a design that suited the building, and understanding the customer base.
The team at Bluewater changed its Christmas scheme the year before last, undertaking a huge piece of work to get it right.
“The guest experience is the cornerstone of what we do, and Christmas is a key part of that,” says Bluewater’s head of marketing, David Wilkinson. “At Bluewater our aim is to be surprising, memorable and inspiring, and that’s what we’re looking for from the pitching process, a scheme that delivers that and ties in to the brand.
“We went for something that was bright, colourful and vibrant, and a modern take on a traditional theme. There were hanging candy canes, a reindeer scheme in one mall, trees in another, and we had baubles that children could get into and have their photo taken in. Bluewater attracts a wide range of age groups from children to teenagers and adults, and it had to work for all of them.”
Because Bluewater is such a large space, cohesion between the three malls was imperative. A winter wonderland theme was installed into the centre’s dedicated events and exhibition hall Glow, complete with an ice rink and grotto, and the light scheme was extended from there out into the mall. There were subtle differences in colour between the malls and in each dining area with reds and pinks and Guildhall and green in Thames Walk.
“The scheme gave us fantastic coverage and really delivered that ‘wow factor’,” says Wilkinson. “It was very visible in all the malls and dining areas and outside as well. Making sure the external decorations are just as obvious and match those on the inside was important for us, and it had to work from day to night. We had extended opening hours in the run up to Christmas, opening until midnight on some nights, so it had to be magical in daylight and when it was dark outside.”
Technology & interactive
Technology is playing an ever more important role in Christmas decorations, not only in terms of better lighting options, but in more accurate, reliable and ultimately more ‘magical’ animatronics and the use of augmented reality in turning static displays into animated and interactive versions on iPad screens.
The Seasonal Group manufactures a whole host of themed displays and animatronic characters including arctic displays complete with penguins and polar bears, and more traditional options with Santa and toys. And they’re currently working on a 36-piece military brass band complete with uniforms, instruments and a music score that allows different parts of the band to come in at different times, for a client in Canada.
The company also produced a display for a holding area in a grotto at Polhill Garden Centre where children and parents waiting to go in and see Father Christmas were entertained by a talking owl, a sleeping bear and a reindeer.
The company employed two new engineers last year (one of whom has a degree in robotics) and invested in three new 3D printers to aid the creation of new products, particularly animatronic displays, which it is focusing on constantly developing ideas and adding new features.
Multi-character displays can be designed so that each has its own MP3 player, with their mouths moving perfectly in sync with the voice or music - in one of The Seasonal Group’s displays last year, visitors prompted a yeti to give a spoken introduction and sing a song by pressing a button - and characters can be programmed individually to do separate things.
They also make characters with built in intercoms and headsets allowing centre staff to take control of them - your voice will issue out of the character and its mouth will move automatically when you speak, something Bontoft says children are mesmerised by. And they are moving towards electronics that allow capacity for 20-30 different functions in each character.
“Animatronics were massively popular last year but they are expensive, in some cases costing as much as a car,” says Bontoft. “We invested in 3D printers so that we can make the mechanisms that power the eyes and the inside ‘brain’ functionality as and when we need them. Something that might have cost several hundred pounds to produce now only costs £20 and the job’s done better and more quickly. It’s not about adding expensive features; we’re investing in technology to make it cheaper without compromising on quality.”
They also use software to animate characters in virtual reality, allowing them to test how the joints work for example, and doing all the trial and error on screen rather than in steel. Before, they would have worked in metal from the start, a timely exercise involving changing, cutting and melding until perfect, so the new software has also helped to cut costs.
MK Illumination’s Paul Dove sees interactivity as a growth area, as he explains: “Augmented reality has been huge in the last 12 months. More technology is coming through in that arena and it’s being used in many different ways. There are displays that, when looked at through an iPad, turn digital on screen and allow children to use the device to catch falling snowflakes or shooting stars. It’s highly interactive and it’s good for marketing because centre owners and managers can link in competitions as a vehicle for data capture.
“Traditional grottos aren’t necessarily going to cut it anymore. Three and four year olds know how to use iPads so tech is where it’s moving and it has become available to everyone.”
There are quirky options too. Walters gives a stand at Christmasworld as an example. It had an enormous video wall that people could interact with via iPad and it could be used by centre staff to display Christmas messages or to incorporate marketing material, although Walters says he would be wary of using it as an advertising tool, fearing it might deter shoppers.
“Another stand had a bicycle whereby people rode it to power a lighting element of the display,” he describes. “It had a green feel because it was conserving energy, but what happens when no one’s riding it? The lights go off. I’m sure it would capture people’s attention but it was a bit gimmicky.”
Christmas has always been synonymous with decorative lighting, and suppliers have long embraced it for a range of designs beyond fairy lights strung around a tree, to impart a warm, magical feel and to spread festive cheer. And although DMX lighting - a system for controlling “intelligent” lighting fixtures electronically - has been around for years, it’s only now catching on, and it’s likely to be key for the year ahead.
Walters, Bontoft and Nicholson have all seen a move towards DMX lighting, as a way of programming lights to change colour and to sync with music.
“To further enhance these decorations, DMX lighting allows us to set scenes and moods depending on times of day or to coincide with special events,” explains Nicholson. “We can set tones to suit the customers that will be attending at any given time of the day.
“In the past we have always offered colour changes within the contract period, to keep displays looking fresh, but now we can achieve this with DMX lighting systems. We’re now in a situation where we can leave savvy centre managers with the ability to programme or adjust their displays to suit moods or events as they happen. Each decoration can have a wireless receiver so can easily be controlled, via a hub, from a tablet or laptop.”
With budgets squeezed in recent years, many suppliers allude to clients expecting the same or more for less money, and they’re working hard make the decorations go further. “We have to deliver what the client wants and needs while making the budgets go further and that takes some creative thinking,” says Dove.
“It’s important to work together closely and to offer the best value for money without compromising on the ‘wow factor’,” adds Alex Walters. And he has a word of warning: “Decorations shouldn’t be spread too thinly so be careful not to tie up too much of the budget in one particular atrium.
“It may be that you go with one large spectacular display in a key part of the mall and continue with smaller complementing designs throughout the rest of the centre. Go with statement pieces that make an impact but be careful not to go over the top. It can be a tricky one to balance, but getting the most out of the decorations is key.”
Stylus trend predictions
Tessa Mansfield, senior vice president, content, at innovation research and advisory firm, Stylus, outlines three dominant trends for Christmas 2014.
Rural lands Christmas
Far-flung central European landscapes will inspire a Christmas trend that recalls rural traditions. Intrepid and nostalgic, colours are graded, resulting in a vintage palette. The feeling is rustic and worn; pattern is a folkloric mix of simple geometric and floral motifs. Carved, painted and knitted crafts are central to this Christmas trend.
A sumptuous mix of opulence, heraldry and excessive decoration encapsulates Baroque. Lavish details capturing elaborate wealth blend with reinterpreted historical references. This trend evokes an opulent mood, colour is rich and pigmented. Christmas is a time and space where excess is acceptable; colour, texture, pattern and embellishment combine. In line with the world of pop, eccentricity and performance will be celebrated, and the stage will be set for a Christmas of theatrical decoration.
Spatial and sensorial, the Wrapped Christmas theme explores digital processes and new materials noted in design and architecture. Curved, undulating lines and iridescent finishes blend seamlessly with one another for a minimal, conceptual statement. LED lights are used to create immersive and multi-sensory designs. Sculptural pieces are faceted, folded and perforated for a technical statement. Digital holograms and pixelation will inspire pattern.
Every year the Christmasworld exhibition in Frankfurt publishes a trends guide from design consultancy bora.herke.palmisano which draws on trends in society, fashion, architecture and design to form a prognosis for the decorations sector.
The designers predict Christmas 2014/15 will see a shift away from unequivocally in-your-face boldness to more restrained, subtle, and delicate styles. These will create a ‘deliberate calm’ that ‘engenders a new creative power and increases the desire for carefully selected decorations’.
“With the general acceleration and increasing complexity of life, people have a growing desire for peace and quiet, for serenity, for restraint and a concentration on the essentials. This subtle and careful approach to decorations turn festive occasions into special moments,” explains bora.herke.palmisano’s Annetta Palmisano.
This year, she has identified Silent Dignity, Geometric Gravity, Shaded Modesty and Dazzling Beauty as key themes.
Organic shapes, elegant materials and delicate pastel shades come under Silent Dignity for a cultured look.
The dominant colours of this trend are apricot, lilac, mint and light blue mixed with almond white, dark brown and black, with round flowing shapes like globes, vases and trinkets. These go well with delicate materials such as Japanese lacquer work, ceramics and delicately tinted woods, while tree branches lend a sober, decorative note.
These artistic designs are reminiscent of Asian high culture: traditional kimono patterns, gracefully drawn flowers, delicate ink and charcoal drawings as well as traditional Japanese motifs spread over elegant papers, silk, satin and taffeta ribbons, together with shiny surfaces.
Geometric Gravity consists of stark contrasts, blocks of surface colour and vibrant patterns. It is a style with crisp features – stark geometrical forms interplayed with contrasts. Beige and grey tones create shading, while powerful colours like deep blues and intense yellows appear mainly in plain, even surfaces.
From lines, circles, points, rectangles, squares and diamond shapes emerges a rich and varied array of designs, including mosaics, cubes, stripes and linear motifs. These repeating line patterns, sculptural elements, elaborate grids and criss-cross designs, may appear to be moving.
Nature is integrated too, with leaves and blossoms, as well as translucent patterns, attracting a lot of attention.
The overall design is complemented by the use of brushed metal, lacquer, plastic, glass, ceramic, chrome and steel. The combination of matt, shiny and transparent materials heightens the visual impact and high-quality, toughened textiles complete the overall effect.
Shaded Modesty uses expressive materials and dark colours to achieve balance.
This look reflects a natural way of life – relaxed, unpretentious and down-to-earth. Materials with a strong tactile quality meet calm colour in misty shades. The style harmonises earthy colours with a dark night blue, burgundy and chestnut. These are offset by cool shades of violet and green.
Materials are made up of the tactile surfaces of stone, concrete, marble, slate and leatherwork, matched with specially selected textiles such as felt, coarse-knit fabric and flannel. Natural elements like fruits and blossoms add a note of comfort and tenderness, while chrome, bronze and copper create elegance.
Dazzling beauty is made up of a kaleidoscope of intense colours with floral patterns and symbolic motifs to give a feeling of youthfulness. It is imaginative, surprising and quirky. Colours include sunshine yellow, salmon, red, lavender blue, turquoise and petrol in contrasting combinations. Exotic blossoms and flowers appear in the form of painted porcelain, embroidery work and prints.
According to bora.herke.palmisano, there is hardly any limit to the materials used in this category - textures with a strong tactile element like loose weaves, course lacework and carved pieces, create contrastive tensions with coloured glass and plexiglass, iridescent foils, confetti and rhinestones.
Key elements for this style are photo-real prints, shimmering light reflections and fantasy prints which emphasise the modern slant on this off-beat trend.