Paul Dart is the lead designer at James Glancy, an ex-theatre designer who has since taken the drama off the stage and into the streets. We sat down with him to talk about the installations in St James’s, in which he expresses the spirit of Christmas across Regent Street St James’s, St James’s Market, Jermyn Street and Waterloo Place. The scheme is made up of a series of large-scale spirit figures with arms triumphantly outstretched, made from a metal cage and coated in mesh. We caught up with Dart to discuss the craftsmanship of Christmas.
Your office is quite something. Why is it always Christmas in here?
To cheer up the clients! It’s demonstrating the moment of joy. People always walk in here and gasp that they’d love to work here.
We have a giant spoon, a giant champagne flute...
Well that’s just because I like outsized objects. And I’ve always wanted to do a Christmas that’s all about bubbles.
This all began for you with theatre.
I was a very weird child. By the time I was ten I decided I was going to be a theatre designer. I had a very varied career, most of the time doing large-scale storytelling. I ended up at the National working with Ian McKellen, Mark Rylance and others, and at the same time doing operas, contemporary dance, some exhibition design at the Barbican, video design and a bit of telly.
Then I met my partner and we started a shop, which then turned into a little chain of what was essentially a gay man’s gift shop. James Glancy was doing our marketing and his dad knew the people who ran St Christopher’s Place, and from there we got our rst commission. It slowly grew into the monster that it is today, and now I don’t do shows anymore except in the middle of the street at Christmas!
How was it to move on from theatre to all Christmas all the time?
I was ready for that next stage and most theatre I worked in was about harnessing people’s imagination. It was creating this world onstage and I feel the same about this now. It is about dominating streets.
Let’s talk about St James’s. When did you start designing the installation?
The first time we did a presentation was actually on my birthday, 2 February. We turned up at The Crown Estate, they had doughnuts and candles and sang happy birthday, and then I did the presentation. The interesting aspect of this job was knowing there was a very strong story to the place.
How did you land on the ‘Spirit of Christmas’ concept?
I came across the Grinling Gibbons pelican carving in St James’s Church and researched the story of the pelican. So I started with the wings and that naturally evolved into an angel or spirit. I wanted something that had the human form. It became about the spirit of christmas and not a religious thing.
How does an increasingly secular world impact your work?
I’m less interested in the religious aspect of Christmas and more in capturing that moment of switching on the Christmas tree for the first time. This magical moment of joy, this moment of bizarreness. It’s a nuts thing to do, to bring a tree into the house, cover it in lights, cover the whole house in goodness knows what, and spend these few days together doing the weird traditions that each family has. It’s that moment of childish transportation, and whether that’s translated into a religious idea or not is, for me, neither here nor there. What I love is that moment, that gasp, and that’s what you’re trying to achieve for the people who will see this on the street.
There is something magical when you walk down a street you walk down the entire year and suddenly it’s transformed.
Yes, exactly. And that’s really my gift to people: this form of giant storytelling. Part of my job is to make it very modern, and very clean like for St James’s. But there must still be stars, there must still be an element of the Christmas tradition. And you’ve got to find the right melange of all of those things independent on where you are.
What is the schedule of your year?
As soon as it goes up we start talking about next year. It really is 12 months’ turnaround for the larger projects. From first initial concept ideas through to physically putting it up. We are a bit like the tax man; we come round every year.
What aspects of your work might people not think about?
People think that designing for Christmas is the fairy on top of the Christmas tree but it’s not... it’s snow loadings and wind loadings, safety, feasibility, budgeting and engineers. My job is to defend the design because the boys turn up – well, it’s women as well – to talk about construction and installation, and my job then is to make it look gorgeous.
And the commercial side?
You want people to be in a good mood, to feel generous to whoever they’re shopping for. That’s the other end of spectrum. It’s been very interesting coming from a non-money, do-it-for-the-love-of-it background, going into a commercial world later on. And that’s sort of why the company’s successful, because we question ‘Why are we doing this? What are you hoping to achieve?’ and then helping to the client achieve it. We don’t go, ‘Here’s a catalogue, pick something,’ because that’s lazy. That doesn’t get anywhere, that doesn’t create anything individual. And if that were to stop, I think that’s when I’ll decide I’ve had enough.