Halfway down Tottenham Court Road sits the Heal’s building, a retail institution festooned with flags. All sharp angles and symmetrical forms, its exterior is perfect for piquing an Art Nouveau lover’s excitement.
Heal’s is a furniture store dating back to 1810, as famous for its lighting department as for its iconic spiral staircase. It’s not, by any stretch, the last remaining store on what was once London’s ‘Furniture Street’ — it shares a building with Habitat, while Dreams, Natuzzi and Feather & Black are all within sight from the main entrance.
Yet Heal’s is the one whose roots seem to be buried the deepest, the one which has the best story to tell.
It doesn’t hold back from telling it. Heal’s displays its history with pride on the front of the building. The store’s name is written in gold leaf at the very top, but the best features are the blue tiles dedicated to the crafts through which Heal’s made its name — metalwork, pottery, bedding makers, to name a few. Passersby know that this store is something special before they’ve even set foot through the doors.
Taking the entrance shared with Habitat, we find ourselves in the lighting department, all brushed steel and copper, and exposed lightbulbs. A nod to the neon trend in one corner adds a shard of colour, but otherwise the overall effect is an industrial one.
The lighting Pick & Mix section is an intriguing concept. If you’ve got the money, you could look on this place as a confectionary stall of luminescence; the sweet shop counter of light.
Before we know it, we’re in the kitchen department. The muted greys and whites, chilled out music and zen scents merge the departments seamlessly. A lot of research appears to have gone into creating the optimum conditions at which people spend their money. A peek at the clock wall round the corner, where almost every timepiece is set to the classic 10 to 2, confirms this suspicion.
Heal’s knows the power of its own brand, and isn’t afraid to use it, as demonstrated by these posters and prints for sale in the gift department:
The timeline on the first floor is a further nod to Heal’s history, without being ostentatious. An orderly selection of photos, newspaper clippings and information plaques lines the whitewashed walls, chronicle the store’s past.
Bare, rough floorboards creak beneath our feet as if to highlight the building’s centuries of existence. It’s easy to imagine Victorians wincing at the same squeak while the horse-drawn carriage — shown on a black and white photo — rattles past on the 19th century street outside.
Elsewhere on the first floor there’s sleek living room and office furniture department, with creative displays incorporating pages hanging from the ceiling. It’s cool, but far from the quirkiest display Heal’s has to offer, as we later discover.
A contrast to this slick department is the old-fashioned rug and soft furnishings department — not quite as snug as the famous Liberty rug department, but not far off. It’s certainly the most colourful corner of the shop, and the cafe alongside it makes it the most lively too.
Heal’s is the sort of place where you don’t feel rushed. The staff would probably let you wander all day, knowing you’ll make a decision in the end — after all, it’s not the sort of place you go just for a mooch. If you’re there, it’s safe to assume that you have the serious business of furniture-buying in mind.
The lifts are Art Deco in style, tinged with a purple light, which can be seen from the street outside.
Unless you’re really here to spend your money, the second floor seems a little underwhelming at first glance — but don’t write it off. Head to the rear left corner, and you feel like you’ve walked into Harrods by accident, as the room gets darker until you reach this glorious sight:
Fighting your way through the bling forest, things quickly take a turn for the quirky. Whoever manages this department — and we can’t be sure which department it actually is — certainly isn’t short of creativity or vision.
The centrepiece of the room is 2ft x 10ft columns made entirely of old, leather bound books. We can almost smell that beloved ‘book smell’ as we peer at the old maps on the walls.
Up to 40 tennis racquets frame a chandelier on ceiling, the sleek light completely at odds with the wooden racquet, and yet somehow, neither feels out of place.
Faded maps, beautiful old typewriters and leather sofas make this corner of the store feel like an old fashioned hunting lodge, or the study of a large country house. By the time we’re ready to head back downstairs, the canoe hanging from the ceiling seems run of the mill.
To descend the famous Heal’s staircase is to walk in the footsteps of thousands before you. Only 25 spiral steps separate the leather and dark wood of the second floor from the white, modern first floor. The ground floor is lighter still — little surprise as we’re back in the lighting department.
And then it’s back out onto the bright light of Tottenham Court Road, and another world.
Heal’s, 196 Tottenham Court Road, W1T 7LQ