Shopping Windows

Although I am not, generally, somebody who finds much to like about the “winter holidays,” from time to time I fall victim to a kind of a thing for the store window decorations. This year in Chicago, I must regretfully report  that the holiday offerings are, overall, kind of limp. If retailers depended on their window displays to lure shoppers off the street, a lot of the stores along Michigan, Oak and Rush would, I think, be pretty empty.

Overall, what’s unifyingly disheartening about the holiday windowscape is a general lack of what I normally think of as anything like a holiday theme. Is it a culture war thing? Skittish retailers fearful of alienating potential shoppers if their displays don’t feature symbols of the specific holiday that particular shopper celebrates?  This seems to rule out not simply the full-on creche replete with shepherds, drummer boy and Magi, but anything Santa/ North Pole-related, or the traditional Victorian fantasia of decorated evergreens, twinkling lights, Sugarplum Fairies, partridges and pear trees. Certainly you could argue that visual merchandisers have abandoned such holiday imagery as cliched, tired, passe, but I just think they’ve run out of ideas.

Where to start? Anthropologie, which for the last several years, has been mounting a remarkable body of  clever displays, mostly with recycled materials. Year round, the chain apparently develops a decorative strategy out of company headquarters and issue general guidelines about the design direction, then leave it up to staff at each store to execute. Maybe I’m just not getting it, but the spray of metallic spirals they’re using this Christmas is almost pathetically uninspired.

Are these snow showers? Ice webs? What do they have to do with Christmas, or, for that matter, anything?

Hermes, although purposefully minimal, is more typical of the general blandness and insouciance.

The only intimation that their windows relate to the season is the use of bare white-painted tree branches as display armature; they could just as easily pass as driftwood if adorned with different goods.

Ted Baker goes for something humorous and animatronic [the turkey wiggles and gobbles]

Kate Spade’s holiday window is festive, in a 12 year old’s beach party way. The candy colored merchandise and gift boxes don’t scream Yuletide.

Across the street, Kate’s “brother” Jack deserves props for honesty. Could there be anything more blatantly commercial than a flashing neon sign with an unmistakable message?

The Moncler store has gone generically winter, which is entirely complementary to its winter sports merchandise, and has done so with no small degree of panache and drama.

The windows are more like travel posters than anything else, which makes great sense: like many of the best display windows, they tell a story — creating a fantasy into which the viewer wants to place himself, and consequently be motivated  to go inside the store and buy a new sweater for his next weekend in Gstaad.

Louis Vuitton is featuring a harlequin-patterned circus motif, and once again, I’ve gotta ask: what does this have to do with Christmas, either as a religious observance, a pagan festival or the baldly consumerist spectacle many of us enjoy?

None of them seem to pop out among the amusing scenes devised by British soft-sculpture artist Carmel Said.

On the positive side, Gucci has succeeded better than anyone this season at creating a polished, tailored minimalism that says “money.”

In a similar vein is Ralph Lauren,

but as my friend Amy Courage pointed out, the Ralph Lauren aesthetic — a red satin evening gown for her, black velvet smoking jacket for him, a Royal Stewart cashmere throw on the bottle green mohair sofa — it’s all Christmas all the time anyway, so how do you distinguish between now and the rest of the year?

I hear all kinds of numbers thrown around about the percentage of annual revenues that retailers take in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I know it’s a lot, and probably more for jewelers than any other category. So you count on the jewelry stores to create tableaux like, well, jewel boxes, to spotlight their wares during the season. This year: again, kind of disappointing.

Tiffany’s goes updated, urbanized Currier and Ives, all Jingle Bells and Central Park snowfall

Trabert & Hoeffer uses traditional evergreen boughs  and mirrored ornaments unironically

and  Harry Winston uses die-cut snowflakes unoriginally

I can happily report that Barneys does not disappoint.

While it doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas, you’ve got to love the wild energy of the imagery, the contributions of real kids and the whole Gaga connection.

At Crate & Barrel, where visual merchandising is paramount, it’s never been about the windows.

But the store itself is a series of display dioramas, and there’s a grand, dramatic, seasonal gesture of swagged Marimekko fabrics spanning the escalator’s vertical space.

Back in the Good Old Days,  Christmas decorations were all about department stores. In Chicago, that meant Marshall Field and Carson Pirie Scott on State Street. [Bloomingdale’s doesn’t even have a Michigan Avenue window, and its display on Walton is so assertively unimaginative as to be embarrassing

Carson’s has left State Street and Field’s is now owned and operated by The Store That Shall Not Be Named. So Christmas tradition, for what it’s worth, now all boils down to how TSTSNBN has performed, and the answer this year is: not all that well.

TSTSNBN’s theme this year seems to be about believing and wishes come true and while it’s a noble idea conceptually, it’s pretty limp as a visual spectacle.

There are kinetic elements that I guess kids will like, but I just can’t get excited about how it looks.

I also have a problem with the typeface they’ve used to tell the story.

Actually, I think the store did a better job with its more traditionally Christmas-esque corner windows

Ultimately, the best Christmas window in town may be at Blake, which continues its longs-standing tradition of having nothing in its windows — not even a sign — but banks of seasonal foliage.

Happy holidays to you all.

Harvest time

The second annual Design Harvest event seemed to be well attended this weekend, although it was unclear if any of the vendors were actually selling anything.  I, of course, bought nothing, but saw some really nice stuff.

Seth Deysach of Lagomorph Design is an accomplished furniture maker, but it’s his bike design that puts him in a totally different category. He reminded me that the earliest bicycles were all made of wood — tubular metal fabrication wasn’t developed until the 19th century. Even so, the components of the frame and fork here are flattened, rather than rounded, to make for a more sculptural object.

I am a bicyclist, and I’m a little nutsy about making sure I don’t get caught in the rain, because — although lots of folks ride in wet weather — I have ruined at least one bicycle by letting it rust out to a degree that the gears were permanently stuck in one position. [I know single gear bikes are the hot thing now, but that wasn’t what I intended to have.] So I asked him about the practicality of this one, and he said that shouldn’t even factor in to the equation. “It’s not a bike,” he said. “It’s a chair that you can ride.” And a cool one, indeed. Also a pricey one. It’s $2750 for the frame and fork — you have to add the tires, derailleur and other components. “I’m not a bike shop, and I couldn’t really make any money  building real bikes,” he told me.

Russ White  is a sculptor who works as a fabricator for Deysach at Lagomorph. He showed a great piece made, appropriately, from wood scraps at the Dock 6 booth.

It reminds me a little of a Jasper Johns cross-hatch piece,

but also of early cubist works like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.

Anna Wolfson has been making custom wall treatments, made of clay-based paint and jute fibers, for six years. They’re richly textured and quite beautiful, although you can’t really tell in the pictures I took at the event.

But if you go to the Girl and the Goat restaurant, you can see what she does in situ.

Outside the tents, the shops on Grand were hawking their own wares. The one piece that really sent me was at a shop called Buckingham

There’s a Bernhardt mark inside the drawer; the shop clerk told me the owner had found it on a buying trip to LA and didn’t know where it came from, but it sure looks to me as if it were made for the receptionist at an Hermes store. [Where else would a high-lacquered orange finish make sense?] Asking price for the desk and chair is $7500.

An added bonus: around the corner on Race Street, I chanced upon recent MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Jeanne Gang's pierced screen house.

All in all, a fine way to spend an afternoon when most other Chicagoans were busy watching the Bears game.