Ever since there have been storefronts, there has been a longstanding tradition of filling their windows with an enticing array of goods, luring customers off the streets and though their doors.
The importance of an attractive window display can be traced back to the late 18th century, when Marie Antoinette’s famed hairdresser Léonard Autié, who invented her trademark ‘pouf’, filled his shop windows in Paris with the most outlandish and ornate pre-crafted ‘poufs’, drawing crowds of spectators and well-off women who yearned to look like the queen. Fast forward to 1945 when, on those same streets of Paris, French artist Marcel Duchamp crafted a window display for Brentano’s bookshop to promote the book Acarne 17, by his friend and colleague André Breton. Furthermore, French industrial designer Serge Mouille began his career in the decorative arts, constructing geometric forms for window displays by which to hang fabric.
Paris has long been considered the city of lights and the city of fashion. One of the most famous couturiers to set up shop in the French capital has been Cristóbal Balenciaga, who opened his Paris couture house in 1937 on Avenue George V. While Balenciaga quickly became a star designer due to his modern silhouettes and unique use of materials, he gained further popularity in the 1950s on account of his creative partnership with sculptor and window-dresser, Janine Janet.
Balenciaga gave Janet free rein of his shop windows to do as she pleased, the only stipulation being that the displays could not contain anything for sale and must convey the spirit of the house. Balenciaga viewed his windows as an artistic extension of his designs, not a portal for commerce. Amongst some of Janine’s most successful displays was a figure made entirely of decorative studs, a faun made of birchwood, and a trio of figures commissioned in 1959, which included a queen, a king and a valet, composed of wood, nails, feathers, straw, shells and bark. Following her fruitful collaboration with Balenciaga, which lasted over twenty years, Janet went on to design vitrines for Hermes, Christian Dior and Givenchy, and began a creative partnership with French artist and writer Jean Cocteau.
New York’s Fifth Avenue has been sprinkled with blockbuster window displays long before window dresser extraordinaire, David Hoey, took the creative reins over Bergdorf Goodman’s storefront. For decades now, a concentration of commerce lining Manhattan’s midtown has produced some of the most ingenious and artistic window displays to attract the attention of passersby.
The late and great department store Bonwit Teller was somewhat of a founding father of upscale retail on Fifth Avenue. Bonwit Teller’s flagship uptown building stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th street for over fifty years, eventually shutting its doors in 1980. Within five decades, a number of the most important artists of the twentieth century took a hand at creating window displays for the luxury department store.
In 1939, a young Salvador Dalí constructed two site-specific windows, one representing day and the other representing night. Andy Warhol had a longstanding relationship with the store, which began by way of a commission in 1951. This was hardly Warhol’s first foray into the world of luxury fashion, at the time he was still working as an illustrator, creating weekly ads for shoe brand I Miller and producing fashion drawings for publications such as Glamour, Esquire and LIFE Magazine. Soon, Warhol’s reputation grew and in 1961 he hit his big break at Bonwit Teller with an installation of five paintings based on comic books and newspaper advertisements, displayed behind department store mannequins. Warhol embraced the commercial qualities of his artwork, giving his window displays exceptional fluidity between fine art and consumerism.
Bonwit Teller’s windows in the 1950s also saw installations by artists Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist. Johns and Rauschenberg worked as a collaborative pair under the pseudonym “Matson Jones”. Among their many projects, the “Matson Jones” duo exhibited an American flag on an orange field behind a mannequin, and collaborated on a cyanotype photography print in 1955. James Rosenquist, who began his career as a commercial artist painting billboards, started designing window displays for Bonwit Teller, Tiffany and Bloomingdales in 1959.
Throughout the 1950s, there was a tremendous amount of creative crossover between Bonwit Teller and the retail store’s neighbor on Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & Co; namely, Gene Moore. Moore, arguably the godfather of window displays who considered himself a “window trimmer”, joined Tiffany in 1955 and dreamt up some of the most iconic vignettes ever to be displayed on Fifth Avenue. Dubbed a ‘window artist’ by the New York Times, Moore concocted the perfect balance of creativity and commerce in his whimsical, imaginative and humorous scenes, all without distracting the eye from the star of the show, the product.
Seven blocks south of Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue stands retail behemoth Saks Fifth Avenue, who proved that artists are not the only collaborative source for interesting displays. In 1967 the luxury retailer partnered with furniture design and manufacturing company Knoll, to outfit their windows with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s now iconic Barcelona and MR chairs. Saks paired Mies van der Rohe’s marvels of midcentury design with couture costuming; masterfully creating a snapshot of the 1960s that was both visually pleasing and carries social significance as a dialogue on the evolving role of women in the workplace.
The art of window displays has been just that, an art, for centuries now. With brick and mortar retail sadly struggling in these rapidly changing times, hopefully the quest to visually stimulate and entice customers will never cease to exist.