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Liverpool’s Hidden Icons – Secrets of the Built Environment

The built environment is ubiquitous – we cannot escape the structures that define us. This milieu has altered greatly over the past 50 years. The concrete jungle is being replaced by smart, functional designs – there’s even a roof top garden in our building. So, I was delighted to find out about Stephen King’s first solo show – A Storey of Photography. The show reveals secrets and hidden iconic design of city store. It follows the announcement this week that the store is set to close in June for redevelopment. In a poignant turn of events, a contemporary fine art photography exhibition, Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Storey opened 26 February and runs until 30 August 2010 documenting the current state of the store’s fifth floor of this Liverpool institution.

The first solo exhibition by Liverpool photographer Stephen King reflects his visits to the store’s ‘lost’ fifth floor, closed to the public for the last three decades. Its world of 1950s design has remained hidden since it was closed to the public in the early 1980s, being used as a storage floor ever since. King’s photographs record two aspects of the fifth floor, providing a rare glimpse of the spaces which originally comprised three restaurants and what was at one time the world’s largest hair salon, while also revealing the faces of 40 current and ex-employees.

National Museums Liverpool curator Nicky Lewis commented: “Lewis’s is a household name in the city, and we hope this will be a popular exhibition with local visitors who wish to re-capture memories of the store and a bygone age, particularly in light of its impending closure. “The exhibition will also be enjoyed by people who have a passion for history, interior decoration, photography and design. Stephen’s photography captures perfectly the unique aspects of the fifth floor, including specially commissioned artwork that put it at the forefront of interior design in its day. His portrait work with Lewis’s staff puts life back into the now deserted floor.”

Included in the exhibition are images of the cafeteria which once seated 600 people, with its Grade II listed unique hand-painted ceramic tile work still standing the test of time. Created by Carter’s of Poole, the 65 metre long mural is inspired by a mural at the 1951 Festival of Britain which celebrated the best of British design. The Lewis’s mural features condiments, utensils, vegetables and cutlery.

Other features typical of 1950s style were designed to inject vibrancy into the post-war years that saw Liverpool’s population, along with the rest of the UK, emerging from destruction and deprivation. The fifth floor flaunted bright colours and light.

Stephen King commented: “The fifth floor is a great place for photography. However, the randomness that 30 years storage brought to the stylish 1950s and 70s interiors needed making sense of in some way. It became obvious that it was necessary to involve the people who had worked in these spaces to breathe life to the fifth floor once again with integrity. What started out as a purely documentary project now incorporated the new dimension of 40 portraits with ex-employees photographed in their original place of work. I tried to create a series of images that correctly translated both the glamorous and eerie atmospheres that make the fifth floor the strange place it is.”

Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Storey is part of a wider project developed by Neutral Spoon, who also commissioned local artist Jacqueline Passmore to produce a film for the exhibition. Capturing the ghostly abandonment of the fifth floor through the use of old-fashioned cine-film footage of the floor as it is today, the film is overlaid with the voices of the participants recapturing their memories taken from hours of filmed interviews.

The exhibition reminds Merseysiders of their own stories of Lewis’s, but provides all viewers with a unique insight into the history of shopping culture. Stephen’s sympathetic approach to capturing his subjects not only immerses the visitor in the eerie emptiness of the floor but also evokes a feeling of joyful nostalgia and a longing for a time that once was.

National Conservation Centre Whitechapel, Liverpool
www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/conservation

A Storey of Photography
Lewis Department Store, Liverpool
Until 30 August 2010

Images (c) Stephen King

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