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.

Small victories still a big deal

In the architectural preservation arena, you’ve got to celebrate the small as well as the big. If they save Prentice Hospital, it will be a major accomplishment. The remodeled storefront at the corner of Lincoln and Melrose may represent a more minor victory, but it is still triumphant in its way.

I had watched the place for years, because it has one of the greatest terra cotta facades in the city, and one of the few really art decoesque: a deliriously dream-like pattern of swirls punctuated by a couple of figurative inserts. It had worn away in spots, but basically kept its integrity.

I took these pictures sometime in 2010.

The last occupant had left the space probably two years ago, and the longer it sat vacant, the more I figured something bad was going to happen to it. But construction barricades went up in the spring and the place emerged refreshed and renewed, if not restored in a historically exact manner. Most importantly, it works as a contemporary retail environment.

You have to credit Talisman Realty Group, the owners of the building, for doing the right thing — realizing that storefronts matter, and unusual, decorative ones matter even more — rather than the easy thing, which might have been covering the terra cotta with something else [as most of the Lincoln Avenue side of the building had been] or [this is painful] painting it. A nod, too, to the architects, Hartshorne Plunkard. While architectural intercession here was minimally invasive,  the changes they made in the original configuration of the building [or certainly in its most recent condition] definitely improve it: the window openings and entry sequence may not be historically accurate, but they completely make sense in a 2011 design.

What makes the place special, of course, is the restored tile work. The facade looks brand spanking new, which is sort of a problem for me. I kind of liked the dull, matte finish on the “before” pictures. But Marion Restoration’s Martin Bazula, the terra cotta restorer who supervised the job, says this is how the tiles would have looked when they were installed in the 1920s. [I will admit to not having done my research, so I don’t know the history of the building and can’t identify who made the terra cotta, although you’ve got to figure it was the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, whose factory was half a mile away from here.]

The actual restoration work was fairly labor intensive; the tiles were cleaned and re-glazed; then the facade was re-pointed with a more historically accurate dark gray mortar. Luckily, all of the tiles on the facade were sufficiently intact that none had to be replaced, although several needed patching and all were re-glazed. All worth it, according to Bazula, who is about as fervent an advocate for restoring terra cotta as you are likely to find, with a zero-tolerance policy for terra cotta building owners who don’t go the extra mile to preserve and conserve. He’d much rather turn down a job completely than cut corners. “You’ve either got to downsize the scope of the work, or don’t do it. People don’t say ‘no’ enough,” he says.

Fortunately, he said ‘yes’ here.

Magic Carpet — [Still] Made in USA

My pulse rose a little the other day walking through the handbags department on the main floor of the store that used to be Marshall Field’s, where I saw a poster from the 1933-34 Century of Progress exhibition hawking an appearance of what they called Karastan’s “World’s Fair Rug” in the newly opened Fine Rug department. I’m just a sucker for world’s fair related design objects, and I like rugs, so I felt as if I had to go take a look. There was no image of the rug in question,  but based on the graphics in the poster I was imagining a repro of some Deco number introduced at the fair.

I was wrong, but what I discovered was really a more interesting story.

The “World’s Fair Rug” is actually a 12 x 15 wool rug with a traditional Persian Tree of Life design made in 1932 at Karastan’s factory in Eden, North Carolina. The company brought it to its  exhibit at the fair, where, they say, some 12.9 million people [according to an electric eye that counted]  walked across it over the course of the event. At the close of the Fair, the Karastan people brought it back to North Carolina, where they cleaned half of it and left the other half dirty, to show how durable and long-lasting the rugs could be. The company did something similar at the New York World’s Fair of 1939.

When Karastan vice president Steve Roan came to the company last year, he was amazed to note that the rug — in its schizoid state — remained in its offices, draped over a partition, more or less where it had been for the last 77 years. He thinks management left it there as a constant object lesson about the quality of the product, and smelled a promotional opportunity. “Why is this just sitting here?” he said. “We should take it on the road.” And so they have.

If you’re a real rug connoisseur, a machine made wool rug doesn’t push your buttons. But you’ve got to give props [as the kids like to say] to an American manufacturer that’s still in business in its 9th decade. What’s even more notable is the rug’s connection to Marshall Field’s.

Marshall Field & Company was in business before the Chicago Fire, but in the last quarter of the 19th century, the Field company was much more than the retailer some people may still remember [even though its identity has been stolen by the Only Department Store Left In America.]. Up until the 1930s, Marshall Field & Company’s primary enterprise was in wholesale distribution of goods. In 1878, in fact, Field commissioned the great Boston architect Henry H. Richardson to design one of his seminal works in his signature Romanesque style: the Marshall Field Warehouse Store on the block just east of where the Sears Willis Tower is today. It stood there until about 1930, when the Field wholesale enterprises, which had outgrown the building, commissioned the Merchandise Mart.

The Field wholesale operation ultimately expanded into manufacturing [no pesky anti-trust legislation to worry about then], and in the 1920s, Field purchased several textile mills in North Carolina and began making its own branded merchandise, eventually establishing yet another mercantile empire. Some of the most famous of those brands survive today [although their connection to Field’s or its successors were severed long ago], including Fieldcrest Mills and Karastan, which if I recall, was a made up name combining several of the Field family members’ names in a configuration that suggested a vaguely Middle Eastern exotica even though it came from North Carolina.

Karastan [now a part of the Mohawk carpet company, which is headquartered in Georgia and seems to still do much of its manufacturing in the US] continues to makes rugs in the Tree of Life pattern, although I have to say that I like the colors in the cleaned-up part of the 1933 rug a lot better than the current ones. The 12 x 15 rug would have cost you $500  when first introduced. Roan says the “World’s Fair Rug” itself is insured for $60,000; today a similar rug would run about $5000, which is actually a pretty good price for a rug that big, even a machine made one like this.

One of these things is not like the other

At the still-unfinished Jewel on Southport Ave, they’ve put up the signage, including the traffic indicators for the parking garage.

If one sign says “in,” shouldn’t the other say “out?” Or if one is “exit,” shouldn’t its companion be “entrance?”

No doubt Edwin Newman [of blessed memory] is already spinning.

Pop-up downer

I was pretty excited to hear about Nick Cave’s Soundsuit pop-up shop.

In general, I’m all for pop-ups. No, they don’t really address the enormous problem of retail vacancies, but usually they’re clever and amusing enough — either in their design or the merch they’re selling — to draw people to them, even if it’s only temporarily. They are particularly valuable if they offer an alternative to virtual retailing, which of course has been one of the primary reasons there’s so much vacant store space. So it sort of transcends irony to report that there’s really nothing about the shop that’s much of an improvement on visiting This is not to say a visit isn’t worthwhile, but not really for the shop itself: mostly it’s for a real time viewing of “Drive-by,” the fine video installation in the display windows at the corner of 23rd and Michigan, depicting Cave’s soundsuiits in motion.

I  assumed that the shop would be more like a gallery, with some of the soundsuits on display, like the show at Jack Shaiman gallery

Silly me. While there is actually one piece of Cave’s original art on display [a furry piece, not one of the beaded/embellished ones], just about everything in the store is some variety of a photographic image of one of his works.

I’m guessing if I had gone to the grand opening, it would have been a different story, but I went on Wednesday night and only a handful of people were in the store. The sole employee looked like what I remembered Nick Cave looking like, except without the bodybuilder bulk. So I wasn’t surprised to discover that this was Nick’s brother, Jay [or maybe just the initial J?], who told me he was a graphic designer and a fashion designer and I’m guessing also a dj, because he appeared to be running the sound system.

The goods for sale are interesting — the cards, the books, the fridge magnets — but there’s nothing tactile about them, and nothing really that you can’t appreciate from looking at them online.

I asked J if I was missing something about the experience, and if there weren’t some of the soundsuits on the premises. He looked at me as if I had an extra nose. Of course not, he said. They’re in museums, and in important collections. Later, I asked about the lengths of beaded fabric laid out on the tables by the window. 

Did the artist come and work on them as people watched? Again, he looked at me as if I had an unusual appendage attached to my face, and said that while one of Nick’s many assistants may have come and worked on the pieces during the day [the shop is open through this weekend],  certainly  Nick himself didn’t. My interaction with J made me conclude that, if the soundsuitshop isn’t precisely a gallery, J certainly seems to have had excellent training as a gallery worker — adeptly skilled as he was at projecting that particular type of hauteur so effective at making the visitor feel clueless.

There is an upside of a visit to the shop, and that’s seeing Drive-by, the video installation on view in the display windows at the northeast corner of Michigan and 23rd Street. The soundsuits are intended to be worn, and while some of them seem to defy wearability, others are fluid and fleet, and really come alive in these vignettes of someone [I’m guessing Nick Cave himself, not one of his many assistants] dances and cavorts in them, moving across the screens that wrap around the corner. A delightful kinetic experience that still photos unfortunately can’t capture.

Saint Peter

I was a little surprised that, when the NY Times paid tribute to Peter Marino a few weeks ago, reporter Suzy Menkes didn’t mention the new [ish] Chicago Barneys at Oak and Rush. Maybe it’s just too obvious.

[photos taken before Barneys salesperson told me I couldn’t take pictures in the store]

[picture “courtesy” of Google Images]

But I think Peter Marino deserves mountains of credit for what he’s meant to architectural interiors and our overall idea of haute luxe. It’s not as if he’s never gotten any attention — the Times’ Patricia Leigh Brown [Highland Park HS Class of ’72, in case you wondered] had his number as long ago as 1987.

Still, I don’t think the world at large gets how influential he’s been. I knew about the Chanel, Armani and Vuitton flagships. But Kleinfeld’s?

If you watch Say Yes To The Dress — TLC’s reality program about Kleinfeld Bridal, the quintessential emporium of its category — it’s kind of alarming to realize what an important role the physical environment of the store plays in the show’s overall impact.

This is definitely a departure for reality TV — so much of which is completely devoid of production design. It’s shot in “real places,” so it just is what it is, which can be a lot of fun — the houses of the various Housewives, for example — but is mostly just a blur. SYTTD is shot entirely in the Kleinfeld store in Manhattan [except for the occasional wedding day coda], and the whole place acts as a wide, white backdrop that looks like a set design.

The Kleinfeld store looks like a set design because it is a set design. All retail is — it’s a staged environment created for selling: retailing as entertainment. And the more theatrical or cinematic [in this case videographic,I guess] the merchandise is, the setting for it has to follow, and nobody does this better than Peter Marino.

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Details, details

The State Street branch of The Only Remaining Department Store Chain In America [to many Chicagoans, A Name That Cannot Be Spoken] — a place you might remember as the flagship store of Marshall Field & Co — still looks pretty good.

You can’t beat the light court at the northwest corner

or the Tiffany-decorated atrium at the southwest

for sheer Gilded Age mercantile grandeur. 

But you know what Mies van der Rohe said about the importance of details.

I will admit that  the Corinthian capitals atop the fluted columns, painted silver now, remain majestic.

Somehow, though, I feel as if we have to interpret the state of the water fountain in the southeast quadrant of the building’s ground floor as a metaphor for the store itself, and maybe even for the state of American retailing in general.

The fountain is a gorgeous thing, a recessed shell carved out of several shades of statuary marble. But for some reason, it’s surrounded by drywall — which i am pretty sure covers marble or granite panels. Why? And worse: the fountain mechanism itself — clearly a replacement part — is attached at a skewed angle, as if it were literally slapped on. And, yes, as you might have guessed, it doesn’t work. [None of this — the drywall surround, the tilted installation, its non-functionality — seems to be a temporary problem:  I first noticed its present state in February; five months later it’s unchanged.]

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A good sign?

The appearance of any new retail store is  kind of a miracle in the 21st century. When I saw the new Goorin Bros hat store on Broadway, I almost thought it was a movie set. A hat store?

Goorin Bros’ website reports it has been in business as wholesale purveyors since 1895, and now has retail outlets in ten cities, one of which has been on Milwaukee Ave in Wicker Park. The Broadway store is its second.

The store itself is simple but nicely built out. I’m just disappointed with the sign hanging over the sidewalk. You can’t fault its graphic elements — what I’m guessing is the company’s 100+ year old logo in gold on a black background. But did it have to be an acrylic box? If any retailer could burnish its image with a painted wooden sign, this would be it. A backlit plastic sign does not convey the kind of old school hand craftsmanship the brand seems to want to project.

 In the full credit department, there is a wooden sandwich board on the sidewalk. When you consider the sort of astonishing fact that, while walking in the city, people don’t really look up,  this is really an excellent idea, and it does a much better job of speaking to the brand.