Rising to the challenge: British designer Matthew Hilton unveils his staircase design for Heal’s flagship store 

Heal’s iconic store on Tottenham Court Road has become synonymous with famous staircases. Most notable of which is the spiralling staircase by architect Cecil Brewer, cousin of Sir Ambrose Heal, installed in 1916. With a design echoed by a helix of lights, added after the Second World War and updated in 2013 with a bespoke Bocci chandelier, it’s hardly surprising that it’s become one of the most-photographed staircases in London. Indeed, people come from around the world to admire and ascend. Why not drop in and say ‘hello’ to the Heal’s Cat? Legend has it that if you rub its paw it grants your wishes.

Now, British talent Matthew Hilton and his studio team, have designed their first staircase for the launch of the newly-extended Heal’s flagship. To accommodate even more world-class design, from exciting additions like Zanotta and Carpe Diem Beds to favourites such as Knoll and Vitra, the extension back into the Mid-Century building heralds a renaissance of the historic store that remains much loved within the design community. 

Matthew says: “Creatively, it was a pretty open brief, apart from it needing to be something special and Heal’s-specific, while bearing in mind the other two staircases in the building. Plus, it was required that it was visible from the street, and offered flexibility with a choice of entrances and exits. Practically, a few things were already set in stone, such as the distance between the floors.” Working alongside studio designers David Britton and Harry Hasson, Matthew received the brief from Heal’s CEO Hamish Mansbridge, and the team wasted no time in exploring ideas at his studio. Matthew had never designed a staircase before, but drew on his wealth of experience in creating everything from furniture to lighting to apply the same process and expertise, finally massaging initial concepts into firmer routes overlaid with the addition of structural and safety requirements. “We initially proposed six quite different ideas,” he reflects, “which were finally narrowed down to just two or three. We then combined a mix of these into a single concept that was universally liked. In a way, because we didn’t know all the regulations that were required of a staircase initially, it freed us up to openly explore – without being crazy, of course – then apply the restrictions afterwards.” The regulations were strict, from dictating how things were joined to the proportions of the design and the choices of the materials, so Matthew and his team collaborated with planners and engineers at every step. He adds: “We retained the spirit of the idea throughout, though, as you need to hang onto the aesthetics to keep it special.” 

Made from predominantly steel and timber, the final design, which Matthew describes as “a cross-shaped staircase”, is inspired more by the modern extension than the original building or other staircases, drawing on Arts and Crafts and Mid-Century styles. Four interconnected staircases deliver on the brief for flexibility – providing numerous ways to get on and off – while opening-up the space and making the most of redundant areas. “We wanted to keep the structure as light as possible,” Matthew explains, “so we created a cantilevered staircase coming off two central structural pillars with louvres that you can see through. There’s a softness to it, featuring curves wherever we could put them, while hidden details, such as handrails built into the lozenge pillars, gradually reveal themselves as it’s being explored. It’s a quiet and restrained design with no superfluous details – everything has a purpose.”

Matthew concludes: “I was excited and honoured to be asked to design the staircase by Heal’s – it was such a great thing to do. Once we got stuck in, it was pretty much like designing furniture, only bigger. I’m now considering designing a staircase for my own house refurb!” 

Visit Heal’s Tottenham Court Road to explore The Matthew Hilton Staircase for yourself and uncover its beautiful details hiding in plain sight.