Kirk Originals

The name Kirk Originals requires explanation. In truth, there have been two historic Kirk brands: a creative interwar partnership between two inspired British brothers, and a descendant's later revival based on genuine vintage frames. Seldom has a company been so proud of its history, yet so clearly disinclined to be governed by that heritage.

In 1919 Sidney and Percy Kirk, two ex-dairy farmers, established themselves in London, where they manufactured various items, including buttons that they supplied to Woolworths. Never averse to taking work home with them, they converted a sewing machine into a lens cutter. Encouraged by Max Wiseman of optical instrument business M. Wiseman and Co., who later founded the Algha Works, the Kirk brothers concentrated on optics and in 1920 established a frames-manufacturing business on Gray's Inn Road, eventually employing one hundred people. Between 1925 and 1935 they took out ten patents for improvements in pads, mountings and pince-nez.

Sidney Kirk was apparently the more 'hands-on' brother, while Percy handled the marketing. Kirk Brothers was the first British optical company to have a publicity department and, in 1929, the first to employ motorcycle couriers. The Kirbro brand offered various products prefixed 'Kir', such as the Kirbend side-measuring rule. After the Second World War the brothers split; Percy continued as a wholesaler in his own name (retaining the brothers' Motex safety-googles business, which he moved to Devon, where it later merged with the Savoc firm), and Sidney started the Kirk Optical Co. in Hatton Garden, London's "jewelery street."

Sidney Kirk had five sons and one daughter, Dena, who in her day became the country's sole optical saleswoman. One son, Neville, practiced as an optician, first in partnership with his brothers, then on his own in the small Buckinghamshire town of Chalfont St Giles. In 1992 Neville and his son Jason discovered some old interwar Kirk frames in the practice, and shortly afterwards Jason had the good fortune (as he later saw it) to be made redundant from his marketing role at L'Oreal. Having visited London opticians to ensure that nothing similar was on offer, Jason entered the family optica1 tradition, re-glazing the old-fashioned styles with modern sunglass lenses and selling them through quirky boutiques, such as those of designers Helen Storey and Nick Coleman. Jason has described this mixing of old and new ingredients as the optical equivalent of alchemy. He eventually ran out of original frames, of course, but bought old stocks of acetate sheet so that new frames could be made from original materials: 1960s styling from 1960s platic.

In 1993 Jason married Karen, a graphic designer, who became his partner in the business, and the couple started designing their own frames. The Kirk Originals range of sunglasses debuted at the French SILMO trade show in 1994 and soon won a Japanese award. Initially, the Kirks ran the business from their living room (pieces of Lego occasionally found their way into customers' deliveries, surreptitiously placed there by the Kirks' young son), but in 1996 the company opened its own shop and offices in the popular London shopping district of Covent Garden. It also set up Kirk Originals Manufacture (KOM), a factory for handmaking spectacle frames, in the Essex coastal town of Clacton-on-Sea. In the late 1990s KOM worked with lads'mag Loaded to produce a Loaded Eyewear range, which included limited-edition sunglasses featuring original 1950s aluminum sides from Switzerland.

In 1999 the Kirk Originals shop suffered a major fire and, although the business survived, years of very difficult trading ensued, latterly as a franchise. Only in 2010 did the firm revive the concept of a directly run boutique in London's West End. The premises comprised a single display wall of frames, and no other furniture that might distract the customer. The business administration has moved to Brighton, while manufacturing is now in the Jura region of France because it is easier to source the necessary component parts there.

Kirk Originals' operating philosophy, 'Try to start with something that's impossible', has influenced the company's preference for unusual materials. For example, the Sculpture collection, launched in 2000, had acetate fronts but acrylic sides that bent round the front; it took three years to develop this acrylic material, and the firm then had to educate opiticans in how to explain it to their clients. The company even made a film, 'The Look of Love', showing how to adjust the acrylic sides. Kirk Originals now makes many of the materials used in the frames, such as the glitter acetate used for the Saturn collection, the concept for which was born when Jason Kirk spilled fruit juice on a frame and noticed the textural effect wrought by the acetic acid in the juice.

Vintage-inspired eyewear from Kirk Originals has proved popular with such celebrities as Elton John and Julia Roberts, but the company has always steered clear of celebrity endorsements, emphasizing that if these people wear Kirk Originals frames it is because they want to, not because they have been paid to do so. In recent years the brand's cult following has been measurable online: in the Kirk Heroes range (launched in 2004), characterized by asymmetric designs that are handmade and hand-painted, each model was based on a fictitious historic Kirk family member as illustrated by Sharie Edwards, and each 'character' had its own Facebook account so that fans could keep up with its activities. Each frame was supplied to the customer with a pack of cards introducing the whole 'family', including Olaf 'the shadow' Kirk, stunt double for Noel Coward, 'left-handed contortionist' Melissa Kirk and bounty hunter Curly Kirk and her three-legged horse. The heroes soon had more fans that there were actual customer, and by popular demand a 'new generation' of characters, drawn by illustrator and write Max Scratchmann, was launched in 2009.

Kirk Originals Flagship Store - London

In stark contrast to the conventional clinical white box of traditional opticians, Campaign has created a dramatic interior for the London flagship store of global eyewear brand Kirk Originals.

Located in Conduit Street, in the heart of London's west end, the new store showcases the Kirk Originals collection of stylish glasses and sunglasses in its entirety along with selected ranges by independent eyewear brands exclusive to Kirk Originals in the UK.

A convivial space has been designed to convey the brand's heritage, ethos and be conducive to browsing and trying on the handcrafted frames on display, with full eye examinations and fittings available in the basement.

Taking inspiration from the brand's latest Kinetic collections, the flagship store design features displays of winking eyes in various guises. A series of larger than life lenticular printed eyes are suspended in the front window, simultaneously winking and catching customers' eyes as they approach and enter the store. A sense of interaction continues inside, as a wall display of human-like ‘winkies' runs the length of the store, providing a ready-made audience to enhance the browsing and trying on experience. The ‘winkies', 187 white powder-coated sculptural heads, each wear a unique frame and can be tilted and re-positioned to create clusters of onlooking craning heads.

A restricted palette of monochromatic colours and modest materials including blue-grey painted walls and a dark grey floor keeps the spotlight firmly on the ‘winkies' adorned with frames as if displaying works of art.

Integral to the shopping experience, the Kirk Originals identity is interwoven throughout the space: a succinct account of the brand's origins has been rendered in graphic text over two walls at the entrance; meanwhile a black and white projection on the back wall playfully re-works the Kirk Originals logo through a continual kaleidoscopic loop.

Side-stepping the expected, Campaign has transformed 65 sqm of interior space to create a memorable destination for eyewear aficionados.

Information provided by:
-World Interior News
-Cult Eyewear

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