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Let it glow: meet the urban Christmas makers

The brightly coloured light displays that adorn shopping streets at this time of year aren’t created by magic elves, but by a team of designers based in south London

Author:

  • Noella Pio Kivlehan

10 December 2021

Regent street London Christmas lights

'The Spirit of Christmas' Regent Street, London

Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and with last December’s festivities hit hard, never has the sparkle and twinkling lights of Christmas been more needed.

“Christmas has got to do a lot more, probably more than it’s ever done,” says James Glancy, co-founder of London-based firm James Glancy Designs (JGD). “It’s got to make you feel pleased about the time of year. But it also plays a memorialising role. People have lost relatives they didn’t get a chance to see at Christmas. This time round, thank goodness, you might get to see your relatives.”

Each year, Glancy’s company creates glittering decorations that bring the spirit of Christmas to public spaces. It has created signature pieces on the capital’s iconic Regent Street and Carnaby Street, as well as some of the country’s largest retail malls, transporting shoppers to bejewelled winter wonderlands. JGD has also worked its magic on Hong Kong’s Lee Tung Avenue and this year worked as a consultant for New York’s Fifth Avenue.

The firm was founded after Glancy and business partner Paul Dart, a set and opera designer, collaborated on an arts-based project for Dublin in 1991 when it was the European City of Culture. “Paul dressed an element of [Dublin’s] River Liffey between the Halfpenny Bridge, and O’Connell Bridge. It looked amazing.”

From that came the idea of commercialising dressing. “Christmas was the best opportunity,” says Glancy, whose background is business studies and credits Dart as the artistic driving force. “It’s not my business acumen – it’s his designing… it is absolutely outstanding, phenomenal.”

JGD’s home – offices and workshop – is in a run-down looking 1950s two-storey building in an industrial estate in South Bermondsey, London, a couple of miles from Tower Bridge. As soon as the design studio’s glittering gold front door opens, the visitor’s senses are overwhelmed. Inside, is a grand display of lights, and baubles. Workers’ desks are swamped by fairy lights, while a motley crew of figurines sit on walls and floor.

This is an effect in which Glancy revels: the shock and awe. “It’s that moment where you turn the corner, or go through a door, and go ‘oh, my goodness’. That’s the essence of making something memorable,” he says.

From this building, the designs are created that adorn the UK’s most famous shopping centres – including Bluewater, and Meadowhall. This year an ‘Après Ski’ theme is at the Land Securities-owned Trinity Leeds centre, while the newly opened Edinburgh St James Quarter shopping centre is bedecked with giant starbursts. On Regent Street the lights represent ‘the Spirit of Christmas’, while Carnaby Street, has opted for ‘Carnaby Kaleidoscope.’

Regent Street London lights Christmas

'The Spirit of Christmas' lights on Regent Street, London

Aerial view of lights on Regent Street London
Aerial view of lights on Regent Street London

Ideas happen in collaboration with each client, a minimum of a year ahead, sometimes stretching to two or three years. JGD has a hands-on approach, with installation overseen by Dart. COVID-19 meant designs were more sensitive last year, with decorations forming empathic words like ‘hero’, and ‘hope’. This year has seen a quiet shift to more sparkle, reflecting the hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us.

Using Carnaby Street as an example, Glancy says: “It’s a kaleidoscope of shimmering neon butterflies. The Carnaby team were clever in terms of how they feel we are moving out of this [pandemic]. The butterflies are a symbol of that. It’s visual messaging in a gentle way.”

Working closely with each client means going abroad is tricky, needing the right partner. In 2018, JGD took a scaled-down version of Regent Street’s ‘the Spirit of Christmas’ to Hong Kong’s Lee Hung Avenue, with other work in mainland China, particularly in Shanghai.

“It’s that moment where you turn the corner, or go through a door, and go ‘oh, my goodness’. That’s the essence of making something memorable” James Glancy, co-founder of James Glancy Designs
Trinity Leeds Christmas lights

'Après Ski', Leeds Trinity

Carnaby London Christmas lights

Carnaby Kaleidoscope, London. Photo by Dave Parry

James Glancy boardroom

James Glancy Design boardoom

“We have done a little bit of work for China last year and this year, but it’s a different marketplace now, because of COVID-19. [Before], they wanted world brands to showcase, to back-up their big new shopping centres. [Now] they are more confident of pushing their own brands, their own identity.”

This year JGD was asked for its expertise to help with New York’s festive display on Fifth Avenue. “The idea was to embrace the whole of Fifth Avenue. It was more thematic, using Washington Square Park at the top, so we recommended how that could sit with the streetscape.”

But working in the US has issues. “We were clear from the outset we are happy to design or provide the consultancy but couldn’t do any manufacturing or building or installing.” The reasons, says Glancy were down to timings, and insurance. “Also, the US market is very litigious and you must be super careful,” he adds.

New York Christmas lights

This year's Christmas decorations in New York

New York Christmas polar bear
New York Christmas lights

“We are good at getting our designs installed, making sure we deliver properly, but you stick the Atlantic in between and it’s a different ball game. You have got to plan properly … and I wouldn’t have felt very comfortable trying to ram a design into Fifth Avenue that we wouldn’t have been able to work on long enough.”

Fifth Avenue has gone for toy features, including a mailbox, teddy bear and yellow taxicab. New this year is the fountain display with moving polar bears and 24 icebergs at the centre of a skating rink.

As Ebenezer Scrooge discovered in A Christmas Carol, Christmas is much more fun if you get involved in the festivities. And with the right sparkle, lights and messaging, people can celebrate and look forward to a better new year.

 

Christmas lights around the world

Vienna Christmas lights

Vienna, Austria

Christmas lights Singapore

Singapore

Christmas lights Russia

Moscow, Russia

 

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