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Rodney Holt, Designer & Set Builder

November 8, 2018
by the gentle author

It was my great delight to meet Rodney Holt of Mojo Productions, the creative mastermind responsible for London’s most famous window displays, at Fortnum & Mason for the past thirty years. This bright-eyed genius with a shock of white hair flits around his workshop in Brentwood, Essex, grinning excitedly as he oversees his extravagant creations and encourages his minions just like Father Christmas in that other fabled workshop at the North Pole.

Rod and his team of specialists were putting the finishing touches to this year’s Christmas window displays before they were transported to Piccadilly for installation last week. The walls were lined with huge wooden frames, the same size as the shop windows, and each one was filled with a sequence of exotic animated confections, rotating lobsters, flying puddings, champagne fountains, exploding crackers and a train set circling eternally. All around lay fragments of former displays, including golden carriages, giant nutcracker dolls and the man in the moon.

Wandering around this bizarre interior was like exploring the unconscious imagination of Santa himself – the workshop where dreams and fantasies are manufactured. Yet Rod’s crew of painters and model makers worked placidly at their tasks despite the phantasmagoric contents of their workplace. Readers will be relieved to learn that everything is under control for Christmas 2018.

Rod & I retreated to his office, where a row of miniature shop windows contained the working models for this year’s displays. Here Rod told me his story and I was fascinated to learn how this overflowing of flamboyant creativity has its origins in the craft traditions of old East End.

“I was born in Bethnal Green but my family moved out to Essex after the war, when I was still a baby. There were jobs in Essex and my dad went to work at Ford’s in Dagenham and was there for forty years. Mum had ten children, so she was quite busy too. Her full name was Amy Rosina Goldring, so we think she might be Jewish. She came from an interesting family – one of her brothers was in the film industry in the early days, one did back-to-front sign writing with gold leaf, another had an accordion band in West End, The Accordionnaires, and her mother was a court dressmaker.

Dad was one of ten brothers and most of them worked in Spitalfields Market, some were traders but others used to make carts and barrows in the Hackney Rd. My dad was a French Polisher who kept a horse in Gibraltar Walk and used to make furniture deliveries on a flatbed cart. I remember him telling me that he used to deliver as far as Hampstead.

I left school and went to Hartley Green College, doing a course in Display & Exhibition Design. My career officer told me I should be a council tiler, that was the nearest they could get to an artistic career. So I said, ‘That’s no good,’ and I think it was my art teacher at school who suggested I do this. To be honest, I wanted to be a sculptor or a potter, but there were not many options then. If you wanted to be a potter, you worked on an assembly line in a pottery. I was at college for a couple of years and I did not learn a lot but I sorted out what I wanted to do. They did a day release scheme and I got sent to Selfridges in Oxford St. I got on well with everybody there and they said, ‘You’ve got a job here after you’ve taken your diploma.’ But I went to Paris instead of taking my diploma. I stole a mate’s bike out of an alleyway while he was away at university in Manchester and cycled off to France. When I came back, I went straight to Selfridges.

At Selfridges, I told them I knew nothing about fashion, so I could not be fashion dresser. I said, ‘I’d like to do all the toy windows and all the gardening windows,’ because those were the things I thought I could be more creative with. I was nineteen years old and they let me loose. I did one display where I had all the teddy bears marching out of the window which everybody liked. My idea was they were fed up and walking out. I got on alright there but I thought I do not really like this much. I wanted to join the team in the big studio up in the roof. I used to get on very well with all the guys there. After eighteen months, a couple of Australians who worked there and had come over land said, ‘We’re all fed up now, we think we should go off somewhere on a trip.’ I said, ‘That sounds good to me,’ and we went off to India. Mr Millard, the Managing Director, asked me, ‘Are you sure? Because the others have gone, you could move up the ladder.’ But I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go up the ladder, I’d rather go to India.’ He wished me all the luck in the world.

I only had a hundred quid but I made it to Kashmir by hitch-hiking, where my sister sent me another thirty quid to get home. It cost me six quid to get from Istanbul to London and I sold my blood to do it. When I got back, it all fell into place. Selfridges welcomed me back to work on the Christmas windows. I was lucky because it was the first time they were trying a different type of window. They did a set of windows that had no stock in them but told a story instead. The designer Peter Howitt had just finished the film of Alice in Wonderland and he was able to buy the sets. They gave us an old factory in Kensington where we sorted the scheme out. Pete asked for me, he said, ‘I’d like Rod because he doesn’t want to do window dressing really.’

Working freelance, I did all sorts – shops in the Kings Rd and themed pubs, clubs and bars. I worked for Peter on the original London Dungeon too. They gave me a mini with ‘London Dungeon’ on the side and an iron coffin on the roof! I had to be careful how I drove that about. I had quite a few contacts at Pinewood and Shepperton so I was able to purchase some great old props. We used to work overnight in the Dungeon and the stuff that happened was unbelievable.”

Rodney Holt, Designer, Set Builder & Model Maker

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. Caroline Bottomley permalink
    November 8, 2018

    What fun!
    Brilliant idea for an article, thanks GA x

  2. November 8, 2018

    A fascinating man with endless creativity and ideas. Thanks for sharing. Valerie

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    November 8, 2018

    Yes – it looks like a great place to work!

  4. Di Corry permalink
    November 8, 2018

    I’ve always loved those Fortnum and Mason Christmas window displays, it’s good to know who is behind that amazing creativity……and someone with East End roots too!
    Thank you GA for sharing this story and thank you Rod for the Christmas magic, I’ll appreciate the craftsmanship of you and your team even more this year.

  5. Helen Breen permalink
    November 8, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, great story! I am no shopper, but I always enjoy the window displays at Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges when I am in London. I never thought about the logistics of creating these sets. No wonder Rodney Holt and his crew need such a large space for their work.

  6. Barbara Hague permalink
    November 8, 2018

    Looks as if he is fun. Interesting life – hope he put the bike back after “borrowing” it – sort of!

  7. Jean Rossisp permalink
    November 8, 2018

    Oooooh!! I have envy!!! My Anglo Irish Catholic/Franco Prussian Jewish family originated Spitalfields and Shadwell and Limehouse! We were cleared/scattered to various locations outside London after WW2. I am now in Billericay. As a child in the 1950s I was taken to Selfridges at Christmas to see Father Christmas – the windows have always been a part of London culture through the 60s and now. They are, along with those of Fortnum and Mason are still stunning and worth a special trip. How lovely to have enjoyed such a special life. I have “art envy”!!!

  8. Gary Arber permalink
    November 8, 2018

    There used to be a factory in Bow called Burt Bros (Bow) Ltd.
    They used to make scenery for the big London stage productions, they also made the Christmas decorations that were used in the West End streets.
    Gary

  9. Sarah Webb permalink
    November 9, 2018

    How fascinating to read Rod’s story! My dear friend Maggie Harrold was a display artist who worked with Rod on the Selfridges and Fortnum windows and the London Dungeon during those heady days in the 70s & 80s.

    All those talented people who give such pleasure generally remain anonymous, beyond their immediate colleagues, so Maggie would be thrilled that Rod has been showcased in this delightful series of Spitalfields life.

    On her behalf I thank you, Gentle Author

  10. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    November 10, 2018

    I always thought it would be great fun to do that, window dressing! In New York, though it was highly competitive. I suppose the same is true of London. Kudos, Mr Holt!

  11. Tracy James permalink
    November 10, 2018

    Rod is a man of few words; I had no idea of his family roots. Loved working on Fortnum and Masons windows with the team. Always felt appreciated and proud of the windows. When’s the book coming out with pictures of all the amazing windows from over the years, Rod? Tracy James (formerly Usher)

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