In Window Display the Play’s the Thing


I oo many display windows are cluttered with accessory paraphernalia when they are not overloaded with merchandise. That window is a failure which does not do three things in succession: arrest the glance; focus attention upon the merchandise; persuade the onlooker to desire it. The store window is a stage on which the merchandise is presented as the actors. The rules that apply to designing for the stage are in many ways true here. Keep the empha­sis on the actor, for it is he who tells the story. This is the principle applied for the two years that I designed the merchandise displays in the windows of the Fifth Avenue department store of Franklin-Simon.

Such treatment presumes, first of all, a definite choice from among many systems that are possible in the light of display principles. It is necessary to define one clear line and adhere to it. The essential feature of any such method is that it shall include nothing which serves only as decoration.20*

Many windows were designed with backgrounds conspicuous for their elaborateness.20’ Some stores adopted various ways of getting away from the window dressers’ paraphernalia and introducing a more contemporaneous


feeling into their windows but were afraid to go at the problem whole-heart­edly. They would set a piece of contemporary furniture in the window as a " fixture ”, with merchandise placed around and on it. Such a confessed make­shift was an individual window dresser’s dash up an alley to escape from wearisome monotony. Affording no intrinsic beauty, force or selling power, such displays failed in any serious attempt to solve the problem of giving store windows a fresh point of view and interest in keeping with the merchandise, the times, and the prospective purchaser.20*

Five years ago the most generally used window background was a highly varnished paneling of yellow oak. It is a color and finish that conflicts in a jarring way with almost any other color that can be put in front of it.20* The next most common background in use was an imitation stone, as cheerless and uninviting as a mausoleum.20’

In contrast with these, I designed a background, the chief value of which was its unobtrusiveness in form and color. The structure, built of wood, was plain except that at varying intervals in a horizontal direction a wave pattern rippled across it in relief.212 The quiet beige of the walls was matched by a


carpet and ceiling of the same color. Its high key gave a sense of gayety and life. In front of this the values of any other color stood out vividly but har­moniously. The six large windows became a compelling unit to every passer­by. As an ensemble they were sufficiently strong so that in several instances when using only the minimum of merchandise they achieved their most conspicuous success.

One display, consisting of just three articles of merchandise, had the most unexpected result.207 An aluminum bust, wearing an Agnes turban, a scarf of vermilion and chartreuse green, occupied the center of the stage. A hand­bag in colors to match lay on a circular glass platform which supported the bust. The background was composed of large triangular shapes so composed as to focus attention on the actor. Hidden spotlights threw a blue shadow of the bust against this background. It was simple and unexpected. Shoppers looked and stopped. Observers from the other side of the Avenue crossed over, only to discover that the center of attraction was an almost empty store window. On one occasion the crowd swelled to such proportions that police


reserves had to be called out to clear the way. Naturally, we felt that the effect of this display was in the nature of a " fluke.” Some time later we used the same design again; the result was the same.

To begin with, in the Franklin-Simon windows, I endeavored to keep the color schemes within the laws of optics. Starting at the floor with a pale beige carpet, the walls, which matched the color of the carpet at the base, gradually became darker as they approached the ceiling, the ceiling itself being a dark gray. The darkened ceiling dropped downward and the impression of a lofty, empty void disappeared. The result was a window neutral in character, rich in atmospheric tone, and fitted to serve as the embrasure for every variety of temporary, changeable background.2,2

Working in conjunction with this fixed background were four classifica-



tions of interchangeable units, all of different materials. They were con­structed so as to be set up in front of the window’s permanent back and varied according to the merchandise displayed. Each of the four classes of units was developed in a radically different way as to form, material and color. To illustrate: Materials were classified in four groups – woods, metals, glass and textiles. Every material can be finished in a variety of ways, to bring out its most effective qualities. Metal panels can be made in sets of aluminum, blue steel, copper and brass. Wood panels may comprise unvarnished ebony and walnut as well as enameled surfaces in ultramarine, vermilion, and emerald green. Glass sets, wired for illumination from within, can be made of frosted, etched, stained, painted, mirror, and clear glass. Textile panels have a gamut to run — velvets, satins, silks, swansdown, leathers, even paper.

It was found feasible to construct all panels in such a way that their com­ponent sections could be removed and interchanged with other panels. The same construction permitted open spaces affording a view of objects behind and beyond the panel surface. One of the major features of my method re­quired the reduction of every accessory to a system of units. These units were interchangeable and at the same time furnished an endless variety of forms, all adapted to display purposes. With two units, four different combinations were possible; with three, nine; and so on in geometrical progression. The application of this unit system was somewhat like giving a turn to a kaleido­scope. The bits of colored, glass fell into fresh geometric patterns with every fraction of a revolution.

As to length, breadth and height, the forms were all standardized to a unit dimension of four inches, or its multiple. The choice of four inches as the measurement unit was not arbitrary. It was selected after a careful study of store-window dimensions, merchandise peculiarities and other requirements. The four-inch unit appeared to be the minimum available for fitting in one piece with another and also for the employment of discrepancies in elevations which, operating on a difference of less than four inches, might appear to be accidental instead of intentional.

Taking these component pieces in their simplest form, the triangle, one can readily see how they adapted themselves to an enormous variety of sets or combinations.207 Side by side, they provided a plain surface of any desired contour, elevated above the window floor. Placed one upon another, they gave a pyramidal structure of diminishing, receding angles. On end, they afforded screen effects. In combination, their possibilities and variety multi­plied. Every unit was susceptible to instant transformation into the semblance of a fresh setting and this process of transformation could go on endlessly. Furthermore, the method automatically carried a definite style through the

entire system of units, and in general gave the windows of this particular store individuality and distinction.

As an illustration of the unit system in actual practice, I refer to the shoe window of six units arranged asymmetrically.20* Upon the highest unit an abstract bust wearing a lustrous straw hat and gay-colored scarf furnished the focal point for the composition. The various heights of the platforms made possible a shoe arrangement that permitted critical examination of each pair of shoes from any angle outside the window. The symmetrical character of the units themselves held the composition together and forced to the fore the merchandise. The accessories, the platforms, sank unobtrusively into their proper place while the merchandise dominated the scene. It was the old prin­ciple of the stage, wherein the setting was designed to throw the actors into relief.

Every unit piece, as constructed, was card-indexed for its several attri­butes.20* The card recorded the individual number of the piece, its form, its material, the positions covered, the nature of the covering, the color of top, sides and bottom. On the reverse of the card appeared a diagram of the plan, elevation, dimensions and cross section. Every window set and every compo­nent part of every set was card-indexed in every detail, with the resources of the store’s display department continually increasing in number and variety and with every item among those resources built up, from its inception, with the idea in mind of permanent availability. The store that put this plan into practice acquired a wealth of display material in the form of these units for a minimum cost.

Before constructing a single unit, I standardized the colors for the whole display system as definitely as was done with the forms of the units. First, I


selected twelve variants of each of the three primary colors, yellow, blue, and red. In the scale of yellow, the range ran from lemon through cadmium and orange into brown; in the range of blues, from a pqrple-ultramarine through pure blue such as cobalt, to a green-blue on the border of cerulean; in the red range, from crimson through the madders into the magentas. Each of these thirty-six colors was so mixed that it would combine harmoniously without variation with any of the others. Units which were one color on the top and two sides were another color on the bottom and other sides. Consequently, by merely turning them over, we got a distinctly different color result. This more than doubled the utility of the pieces.

Once these colors existed in pigment, the next step was to duplicate each in the selected materials and textures. Each color was duplicated exactly in a soft matt finish, water-color texture, in a hard lacquered finish, in velvet, in silk, in felt, in leather, in wood, and in glass. To these were added certain metals, such as aluminum, copper, steel, and chromium plate. Six sets of samples the size of card-index cards were made up, and given a file number. They repre­sented the key-set for all future color combinations. Whatever scientific formula was necessary to duplicate the sample was printed on the back of each. This method with regard to color created vast possibilities for combina­tion and variety; and the flexibility of the unit form was increased rather than restricted by the use of color.

Color contrast and color harmony were used to accentuate the merchandise displayed. For instance, in the shoe window10* the six units were covered in shiny antique satin, the top plane alone being a rich dark red. Monotony was avoided by having only four of the units placed with the red surface up. Against this red, the intricate pattern and strong color contrast of the reptile shoes appeared to advantage; whereas, the more subtle beige shoes stood out better against the black satin. The ivory mannequin, with her black straw

hat and red, white and blue scarf, further accentuated and carried out the entire scheme. It may be interesting to note that this ivory mannequin20′ is a duplicate, except for color, of the aluminum mannequin in the single hat window.207

In a travel window the brilliant colors of the travel posters called attention to the tweed coat and matched pigskin bags of various sizes. Color was also used to suggest seasons, thus adding a touch of human interest. Eleven units made of chromium-plated tubes and glass plates combined into an abstract Christmas tree.210 The base and branches were shelves for Worth’s famous " Dans la Nuit ” perfume.2" Illuminated from the front with a pale red light, with three brilliant green shadows on the wall, the festive holiday spirit was complete.

In lighting the windows, the most modern methods known to the stage were applied. Stage lighting to-day involves the use of special lenses for lamps in the similar sense that a camera does in photography. The reason for this is found in the flexible nature of the spot-light beam. Non-focus or flood lamps in the form of footlights or arched strip lights cannot be concentrated upon a definite place where emphasis is needed. Lenses can do this. When an important bit of action is to take place, it is possible through the use of spot lights to give emphasis to the scene by a greater concentration of light at that point on the stage. Unimportant backgrounds are proportionately subdued to emphasize the actor, and the values of the scene are intensified by the amount of attention-compelling light. " Spot light ” is a general classifica­tion. A dozen different combinations of lenses can be used on a single lamp for as many different results but very few people even in the theater know it.

The conventional lighting apparatus of display windows was and is thor­oughly naive. It floods all parts of the windows, the background receiving as much light as the merchandise.201 With this equipment it is impossible to concentrate a greater amount of light in one area than in another, regardless of comparative importance. Therefore I installed a large number of thousand- watt focus lamps in each window, with a varying assortment of interchange­able lenses and attachments. Mounted on universally adjustable swivels, they were equipped with soft edge irises to eliminate the severe edges of the light areas when desired. Beams from the spot light directed attention to the mer­chandise with emphasis and variety.

The elimination of realistic wax figures was another self-imposed limita­tion. Only abstract ones of my own design were used, and these were not grotesque atrocities such as appeared in other windows later. A mannequin who did not display the merchandise to better advantage than it could be dis­played without her was regarded as a detriment. Under no circumstances was

she allowed to focus attention upon herself. Special mannequins were made of glass.212 Illuminated from the inside, they were used to reveal the delicacy of lingerie.

Instead of the customary show cards of cardboard,204 I used frosted glass with beveled edges20′ and various metals. These have since come into general use.

Throughout, my method of handling the work was quite different from the general practice. I retained and found eminently satisfactory the same window-trimming department that the store had always had. In my studio

was a scale model of the store’s Fifth Avenue front one story in height. Mod­els were also made to the same scale of all of our units. Within a few hours’ time after being advised of the requirements of the store for the coming week, the problem was studied and the units set up in the windows of the model. Once the arrangement was satisfactory, working drawings were made. These were blue-printed and several copies were sent to the window-trim­ming department of the store the next morning. The window-trimming de­partment was responsible for getting out of the storage rooms the particular units specified on the drawings by serial numbers, and for installing them according to the specifications and dimensions on the plan. These diagrams covered all phases of the work, the units, the merchandise, and the lighting.


One of my assistants, delegated for supervisory work, passed on all the win­dows before they were disclosed to the public. This method, in general, and the unit system in particular, reduced costs and made excellent workmanship possible.

The credit should go to Mr. George Simon who invited me to try my hand. It was the Franklin-Simon windows that inaugurated the modern simplified and abstract trend in window disday in this country, and for six weeks no effect was evident on other stores. Then presto! Within two months the whole street changed. For three years Fifth Avenue windows became more and more exciting to look at — and the passerby looked. Recently there has been a re­action that is disappointing. The note of simplicity has dwindled. Windows have again become elaborate and fussy. Moreover, the workmanship of dis­plays is shoddy. The psychological effect of this is bad on the store.

Window displays are an expensive item of overhead for every store, in view of the amount of space given to them and the cost of this space on the ground floor and adjacent to the street. To insure the best utilization of this space, there should be a display system of the utmost creative scope and flexibility, yet sufficiently standardized in practical terms to impose upon the store’s win­dow dresser scant need for introducing special pieces, at the same time com­bining into compositions of genuinely arresting appeal. Merchandise and background should always tie up intimately, as actors and scenery are an in­tegral part of the successful play on the stage.

213 • BISON


Updated: October 11, 2015 — 7:01 am