Liberty & Co. of Regent Street, London, has been a well‐known name in fashionable retailing for more than 125 years, with a particularly distinguished place in the history of design in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. Of particular note was its role in relation to the Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau, often known as Stile Liberty in Italy. Arthur Lazenby Liberty (1843–1917), the firm's founder, became involved with the world of London retailing at the firm of Farmer & Rogers' Regent Street emporium in 1862, the year in which London's second major international exhibition was held in South Kensington. A prominent feature of this exhibition was the display of Japanese art and design, both attracting considerable critical comment and exerting a powerful influence on designers, architects, and artists. Farmer & Rogers purchased a number of oriental artefacts from the exhibition, putting them on sale in its Oriental Warehouse, in which Liberty was given a managerial role in 1864. Capitalizing on the rapidly growing interest in such exotic goods in artistic circles, Liberty opened his own shop in Regent Street opposite Farmer & Rogers, importing decorative artefacts, silks, and wallpapers from India, Indochina, Persia, as well as Japan and other countries. A Furnishing and Decorative Studio was set up in 1883, reflecting fashionable interest in ‘art industries’ and the Aesthetic Movement. The costume department, established under the direction of E. W. Godwin in 1884, also promoted fashionable dress and sought to challenge the pre‐eminence of Paris. Liberty's exhibited aesthetic clothing at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, opening ‘Maison Liberty’ for the sale of clothes and fabrics in the centre of the city in the following year. It proved successful and lasted until 1932 when unfavourable trade tariffs were introduced. In the later 19th century Liberty's commissioned many other leading designers associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement including C. F. A. Voysey, Hugh Baillie Scott, Lindsay Butterfield, and Arthur Silver for work across a wide range of media. In the early years of the 20th century the company established its own range of silverware designs under the name Liberty & Co. (Cymric) Ltd., soon followed by its Tudric pewter range. Celtic decorative motifs were an important source of inspiration for designers such as Archibald Knox and Rex Silver, although they remained anonymous and their work marketed under the Liberty name.
After the First World War, Liberty's was forced to rebuild its Regent Street premises with two buildings designed by Edwin T. Hall & Son, one in Renaissance style, the other in Tudor. The latter was built in 1924 when the Tudor style was emerging as a popular expression of British imperial heritage. Although Liberty's had commissioned printed textiles for several decades, this sector of the company's activities expanded considerably in the 1920s and 1930s with a proliferation of small‐scale floral prints which became known as Liberty Prints. To cater for such growing consumer demands a wholesale company was formed in 1939, Liberty of London Prints. After the Second World War the company continued to promote both traditional and fashionable contemporary design across its departments, selling work by such celebrated designers as Gio Ponti, Robin Day, Lucienne Day, Arne Jacobsen, and Paolo Venini. In 1973 Liberty's took over Metz & Co., a famous Dutch retailer that had for many years also sold Liberty & Co. products. The artistic and cultural significance of the firm was acknowledged by the holding of an important Liberty Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1975. Reinforcing the long‐standing historical ties with Japan, Liberty's established links with the Seibu Department Stores in Japan in 1988. In the early 21st century the Liberty name is still synonymous with both contemporary fashions and heritage, with retail outlets in Windsor and London's Heathrow Airport in addition to the main store in central London.
Subjects: Industrial and Commercial Art.