Towards the end of the 1950s and into the early 1960s the CWS Architects’ Department was very keen on incorporating public artworks, often large-scale murals, into their buildings. Several examples are shown in their book Co-operative Architecture 1945-1959, including the surviving ceramic tile mural in the town square at Stevenage (it now fronts Primark), a figurative work representing the spirit of co-operation by the CWS’ own designer, G Bajo. Into the 1960s and mosaics came to the fore; still with us are the colourful semi-abstract on the Ipswich co-op buildings (1962, unknown artist) and the massive graphic abstract glass mosaic on the former Hull emporium (1963, commissioned from Alan Boyson) which hopefully will be retained in future developments. There were many more, but I thought rebuilding and weathering had seen the end of all the others. But no! Just rediscovered in the north of England is this large (three plate glass windows wide) mosaic abstract, part of the 1963 building which was then the largest co-op pharmacy department store in the country (I’m not sure whether that’s England or the UK), presumably rivalling Boots and suchlike. Inside, the store is rather grand, a broad central stair descending to a large lower ground area, and twin side stairs reaching up to a gallery-cum-mezzanine, all very spacious; it’s not a co-op, but is still a functioning shop and almost exactly as it was originally laid out. The mosaic faces north, and is best seen in midsummer rather than winter when the light is from the rear, but it has survived amazingly well – a little conservation/restoration work and it would look terrific. Again, the artist is unknown. Overall, the shop is an absolute gem. How many more of these are out there I wonder?
One of the many curious things about the relationship between the CWS and the (at one time) thousands of local co-operative societies relates to the CWS Architects’ Department. Local co-op societies could use it rather than the array of (normally) locally-based architects and the societies’ own building departments to provide plans for new stores and whatever else was required. But even though the CWS architects were available from the very late 19th century onward, by no means all local societies used them, much (one guesses from editorials in some of the CWS publications) to the annoyance of the central department. But look, for instance, at this photo of the Doncaster co-op emporium and offices, built 1938-40 right in the town centre and still in use (partly at least) as a shop today, although not as a co-op. The design, all curvy modernist streamlined lines, moderne even, was by the local architectural practice T H Johnson & Son. Why look further afield when you can get something this good locally? In addition, local architects, especially earlier in the 20th century, were often members of the local co-operative society themselves. The Derby central emporium, designed by Sidney Bailey in 1938 but only completed after the war, is another good modernist example produced locally. The CWS architects did some great stuff too, but it is easy to see why a specific local society would want to keep up its long-term relationship with its ‘own’ (as they were often referred to) architect.