The Art of Window Display

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Is it visions of sugar plums or a sighting of a bedecked storefront that gives you the thought that Santa is readying his sleigh? When the Christmas tree gets lighted at Rockefeller Center, the department stores trim their windows and the excitement of the season begins.

The invention of large paned glass in the 19th century, coupled with Edison’s invention of the electric light in the 1880s, created an innovative opportunity for the newly developed department stores. Their decorated storefronts became both advertising and entertainment to the passerby. L. Frank Baum, a theatrical man most noted for his Wizard of Oz series, was the first president of the National Association of Window Trimmers. He considered this newly developed craft a “business window:” a presentation created to draw in a potential buyer. These stores employed artists and technicians to create magic, and nothing was more spellbinding than what was conjured up for Christmas.

Mechanical animals, Santas in grottos, and circus figures were used to delight generations of parents and children as they toured the Christmas sights. Perhaps these windows became a precursor to television, as people would stare into a giant boxed store window of fantastic entertainment.

In 1939, Bonwit Teller (no longer existing on 57th street) hired the Surrealist Salvador Dali to visually excite potential customers. He overachieved this with his interpretation of “Day” and “Night.” These windows were considered too risqué for the Bonwit clientele, and, unbeknownst to Dali, changes were made to conform to the norm. The artist could not accept the revision, reviled at “having my name associated with typical window dressing,” and created a stir, which resulted in jail. A lesser sentence for disorderly conduct was given and a performance artist was made.

Bonwit Teller continued the trend to hire artists for window installations. By 1955, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, calling themselves Matson Jones, used cyanotypes, as well as their personal work, as backdrops for displays. James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol trimmed windows, too, but Bonwit closed in 1979, ending the store’s more avant-garde view.

Gene Moore, who worked at Bonwits before his 39 year career at Tiffany’s, continued the high quality of window dressing. His holiday designs had most viewers wishing that Santa would bring them that diamond bracelet so artfully displayed.

Robert Ruffino, who began his career at Henri Bendel’s, came to Tiffany’s after Moore. His idea was to create a storyline that made people dream. These windows were designed to have the response of awe and WOW that became a sort of a Christmas card to the world, delighting the eye with vignettes of “could be…”

Simon Doonan, renowned creator at Barney’s, looked at trends for inspiration. Early to see the public’s fascination with personalities, he fashioned windows about Cher, Celebrity Chefs, Warhol, (“Have a WarHOLIDAY”), and contemporary topics like ecological sustainability. As he says, he was more about the carney: creating attention to bring in the costumers to hawk the wares.

Today, David Hoey and his crew at Bergdorf Goodman are continuing the tradition of delighting the crowds with elaborate high camp feats of artistry. This year’s “Destination Extraordinary” has taken a year to achieve. His seven-person staff increases to 100 of freelance artists, technicians, and fabricators. A large collaborative effort of artisans give the passerby the awe, the hopes, the dreams, and the joy the season can bring.

Today, we have evolved into a world where people tend to look at their phone as they walk down the street. The Internet has changed the way we shop. Perhaps the heyday of window dressing has passed, but if we can’t get nostalgic at holiday time, when Santa can make a dream come true, and there is magic on display in every window, then when can we?