Saturday, 14 July 2012

Grudging Praise

Following on from my objections to Starbuck's turning up in Vienna, I suppose I should admit that they do do some things well. I only realised this clearly the other day when I was at Luton Airport, standing in a corridor between WH Smith's and Starbuck's (yes, I know they don't use the apostrophe, but they ought to) waiting for my flight to Budapest to open for check-in.

In WH Smith everything was a bit grubby. The ceiling was a series of plastic perforated chequerboards, into which lights and fire-sprays had been recessed. Every now and again one of the chequerboards would be replaced with a square containing four fluorescent tubes, inadequately disguised by pierced metal covers, and in a couple of places a space had been carved out to accommodate a large beige plastic air-conditioner. These machines were grimy and had patchy stains like the burns you sometimes see in formica in cheap hotels, where some former occupant has put down a cigarette and forgotten about it. In one place, any kind of cover was missing, and you could look up into a dark cavity full of blackened piping. Most sinister of all, at intervals across the ceiling, almost unnoticeable unless you really paid attention, were the glossy inverted domes of CCTV cameras.

Arranged along the top of the walls, at the point where they met the ceiling, were metal-framed plastic panels announcing on a dull blue background that WH Smith is No.1 for magazines. Beneath these were ranks and ranks of metal shelving, filled with books, magazines and sweets, set out without any discernible effort to produce an attractive impression rather than just shoving the goods within reach of the public. The floor was covered in murky grey-green linoleum tiles, which had become splotched over time with unidentifiable, but seemingly indelible, black, slightly rubbery-looking splatters.

The whole scene was pretty uninviting and so I was surprised when a group of Poles elbowed me out of the way in their eagerness to empty the container I was standing beside. It contained fridge magnets of telephone booths and post boxes, both of a design too pretty to be considered practical for current manufacture, and of the lamented Routemaster bus.

Having been displaced by the Poles, I went across to the Starbuck's opposite. Their ceiling was uniform, a system of clean steel mesh, their flooring was wood, intercut with dark ceramic tiles that looked a bit like stone. Their tables were wooden, their chairs were wood or padded leather - or leather-lookalike - designed to look like something in a comfortable club. There were wooden bookshelves with products arranged attractively on them, as if they were on a dresser in someone's cottage kitchen - and near them wicker baskets, not plastic tubs, piled with more goods. Over the (wooden) counter lamps with metal bowl-shaped shades shed a warm light on customers.

Where WH Smith's interior was semi-industrial, the whole design of this place was intended to make you feel that you were not in an airport but a domestic interior. The use of wood and wicker, instead of metal and plastic, was beguiling in such surroundings. I had to take my hat off to the people behind the whole enterprise. They had got the outward look of the place so right. Given the effort they'd put into the exterior features of their business, though, I found it even more baffling that they hadn't addressed the central thing they do with a similar level of concentration. Their coffee is, quite frankly, disgusting and no amount of interior design can change that fact.

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