Art: Avenue Art

4 minute read

“We said it was coming,” said Mr. Dana O’Clare of Manhattan’s Lord & Taylor department store in a mixed mood of complacency and profane surprise, “and last night, by God, it came.”

What came on Thanksgiving evening was a blizzard, confirming a prophecy plastered on all of Lord & Taylor’s windows the previous week while inside the windows an artificial snow storm of unbleached corn flakes swirled in a frosty void. Display Director O’Clare thought that one up, and L. & T.’s President Walter Hoving defended it against the conservative protest of the Fifth Avenue Association which has a rule against “motion or sound.”

Last week motion and sound definitely entered the displays of Fifth Avenue stores below 42nd Street. At Altman’s big toys revolved in the windows. In each window at Franklin Simon’s a cute white angel stood at a cute white organ under changing colored lights while organ music breathed from lofty loudspeakers. Lord & Taylor had windows full of its famed big, swinging golden bells with chime accompaniment, the same as last Christmas—the first “repeat” in recent Fifth Avenue history.

All this not only added melody to Christmas shopping but made the Avenue’s 80,000 daily pedestrians acutely aware of an artistic rivalry which has begun to show signs of lustiness. The art in question has been conceived as such for only about a dozen years.* It stems from a conception of fine art as the handmaiden of Industry, first popularized by the Paris Exposition of 1925. Its professionals are now at work in all the big cities of the U. S., but its greatest expenditure of money and ingenuity is on a mile-long stretch of Manhattan’s luxury shopping street.

In their stuffy offices under basement steam pipes or partitioned off from noisy stock rooms, the display directors of Fifth Avenue labor in no arty atmosphere. They spend anywhere from $300 to $2,000 every week (twice a week at Lord & Taylor’s) on a complete change of windows, usually stay up all one night at least with a squad of carpenters, painters, dressers, electricians. Every window display is tied up with merchandising, but this tie-up in the last few years has changed. Display directors owe half their fun to a Depression-born business axiom: “Sell the store as well as the merchandise.”

Thus encouraged to be nifty, display men have taxed their wits to captivate the eye—and the other senses—of a hypothetical pedestrian passing with his head down and his own worries in an interval of about ten seconds. On Fifth Avenue this has led to glamor plus novelty. Most noticeable evidence: a change in manikins from a shiny waxwork sisterhood with open-eyed little smiles to papier-máché, wire mesh or carven effigies of the dangling, mask-faced glamor girl.

One of the first modern manikins on Fifth Avenue was designed for Saks’s veteran Display Director Sidney Ring by the noted sculptor, Alexander Archipenko. There are now several cunning sculptors who make manikins their business: Cora Scovil, Lester Gaba, Jean Spadea (who gives her Bonwit Teller manikins such names as Zombie, Emmie and Eve). Manikins sculptured in wire mesh and covered with sheet music were introduced at Bergdorf Goodman last spring by Buckley & Riley, considered the maddest independents in the business.

The striking force in window display, in fact, has been imitation of the catchier varieties of modern art. First window designs openly based on an art exhibition were Saks’s van Gogh windows in 1935. Since then Bonwit Teller has taken the ball from shrewd Saksman Ring and has had half a dozen tie-ups with Art, notably a Surrealist display in 1936 designed by none other than Salvador Dali. Bonwit’s own Display Director Tom Lee has reached a certain summit this autumn with swank and cockeyed Ballet windows. Harlequin windows and “Sweet Surrealism” windows, one of whose attractions, the female chair (see cut. p. 57), is already famous in the profession.

*A New York School of Display, the first, was opened in 1934 by Display Artist Polly Pettit.

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