New York Windows 186, 2011
One of the great pleasures of a walkable city is window shopping. In the old days of retailing, the visual display artist was king. Department stores had teams of creative people who consulted with buyers and merchandisers to plan and execute vast tableaux in the street side windows of their stores. Good display artists were like gold and were as indulged as divas. Their value was calculated not just on the artfulness of their scenes, but also on the ability of those scenes to sell merchandise.
When I was in college I worked for about a year in one of those big old downtown department stores, a grand emporium famous for, among other things, its Tea Room and fashion shows. There were three pleasures associated with the job: 1) I had the only sales job in the store that allowed sitting down; 2) my one-man department that took orders for “bronze shoes" and sold pressure cooker and vacuum cleaner supplies was tucked behind the women’s sportswear department, the manager of which I had a huge crush on; and 3) I got to watch the window designers doing their installations.
Window displays were almost always changed at night after the store closed. Shades were rolled down to hide the changing of the scenery from street view. Sets would be painted, lighting adjusted, props brought in, furniture arranged and manikins dressed. In the morning the shades would be raised and passersby would crowd before them to see what new retailing stories were being told. Anyone who might have previously doubted the connection between good retailing and good theater would quickly be set straight.
The period of time I’m talking about here is the early 1970s, likely the last period of prosperity for many local and regional department store companies. Over the next two decades, many local and regional department stores closed or were drawn into national chains. Suburban malls spelled the end of downtown department stores. The growth of specialty retailers knocked the wind out of the entire department store. As for the visual merchandising people, artists who’d once focused on just a dozen or so windows at a single store were instead tasked with creating simple displays that could be replicated quickly and inexpensively by minimum wage workers in a hundred of stores across the country.
New York Windows 196, 2011
In cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, though, there are still retailers who appreciate the value of good visual merchandising. You might have to look a little longer to find them. The proliferation of national chain stores in New York means that you now see the same window displays on Madison and Fifth Avenues that you see in every mall in America. But at upmarket stores like Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman, Van Cleef & Arpels and other independent shops, thoughtful visual display can still be found.
I didn't set out to document good store windows in the photographs shown here—to be honest, I didn’t have a lot of time and didn’t see many that were very interesting—but rather to use the display windows as a starting point for relating these vignettes to the city around them.
New York Windows 180, 2011
New York Windows 127, 2011
New York Windows 199, 2011