BEHIND THE SCENERY

If window dressing is an art, it reaches its apogee at Christmas. Veronica Horwell spends the day (and several nights) with the wizards who want to make you buy, buy, buy...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

LYMAN FRANK BAUM, the editor of the Show Window, a monthly journal for "merchants and professionals" first published in Chicago in 1897, was not by profession what was then called a "window trimmer". His lifelong passions were theatre production, at which he was a gifted failure; shopkeeping, at which he was a talented bankrupt; and the stage management of the seasonal family events—Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas—which became so important to American commerce in the 19th century, at which he was by all accounts very good. But he also had a genius for decoration; he was the magician who invented the machine for selling that is the modern shop-window display.

Baum believed that a window should "arouse in the observer cupidity and the longing to possess the goods". Before him, and the set-pieces he photographed for his magazine, most shopkeepers regarded their windows as simply places to cram with as much merchandise as possible. Baum, though—having lived, and performed on stage, by candle, oil lamp and gas jet—gloried in the potential of electric light, installed in many store windows after the high-voltage World’s Fair of 1893. And he understood that, in this new world of material plenty, goods alone had lost their primary appeal. A better idea would be to sell a powerfully lit, yet edited fantasy, every article of merchandise auditioned and few chosen—except at Christmas, when too much was never enough.

Great display directors were inspired by Baum—especially Edward Goldsman, whose sidewalk-stopping windows for the Marshall Field’s store in Chicago, completed in 1907, anticipated Hollywood: D.W. Griffith’s "Intolerance" is just a Goldsman spectacular without the price tags. When Harry Gordon Selfridge, who had been a merchant princeling at Marshall Field’s, opened a department store in London in 1909, he drew back the curtains on an epic sequence of electrically lit windows, designed by Goldsman.

And Baum? He had failed at theatre and retail, but his philosophy for a theatre of retail was a timely success. His magazine gained him recognition, income, and enough leisure to write children’s books: his third was a fantasy about a magic kingdom rich in goods, whose ruler fakes an impressive show with theatrical props and a dazzle of light. Baum called it "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz", and bowed out of windows. 
 
SELFRIDGES, EARLY OCTOBER 2012. "The snow is coming today," says the production co-ordinator of the windows team, James Barnett, a droll man who can do anything with cardboard. It’s barely a month until the Christmas windows go in, and the team is meeting in its attic in the battered heights of the store to exchange updates and ask questions. Some are plain practical: have they booked enough lifters and shifters? Some are surreal: where are the giant walnut shells?

There are nine in the permanent windows team, a laid-back crew who all came into the job obliquely, from fashion or theatre backgrounds. They like to make their props in-house when they can, and sewing-machines and handsaws share desk space with their computers. What they can’t make, they find on eBay ("accounts complain we have a long tail of suppliers," says Erin Thompson, the overall boss of store decor), pillage from municipal tips, or contract out to specialist model-makers. The house style tends to the quirky, tapping the past of British film and music hall—novelty acts, early Ealing Studios. Christmas is their rousing finale, with just a touch of panto. He’s in front of you.

The team first thought about Christmas 2012 in spring 2011, although, according to Erin Thompson, the ideal time for thinking about next Christmas is this Christmas—when, she implies, the team realises what it doesn’t want to do again. Her own chief regret is the orange colour scheme of a few years back that she realised wasn’t a winner when a passer-by asked "Why are you making such a big effort for Hallowe’en?" Since then she has built each Christmas on a foundation of evergreens—Selfridges has a forest of bundled and bagged plastic pine trees and wreaths in a warehouse, ready to verdure its stores. Thompson strictly upholds Baum’s rule that minimal is not an option at Christmas. In those weekly meetings I attended, the team kept using the words "abundant", "generous", "plentiful". The question is always: "Is it Christmassy enough?"

Originally, the team’s idea for what would be Christmassy enough in 2012 was a winter voyage around the world. Then Selfridges’ creative director, Alannah Weston, hired the fashion photographer Bruce Weber for its Christmas print ad campaign, built around the idea of a sleepover in a department store. It was shot one night in the summer, with the professionally glamorous—a ballerina, a plumed showgirl, gorgeous male models—and selected "real people" larking about in the vast classical interior. The ballerina twirled beneath the arch of a mighty silver stiletto in the shoe department. The male models hunkered down, bare-chested, to eat pizza in a tent tacked together from ballgowns. Shetland ponies trotted through the aisles, snorting and shitting. After that, the plan for the Christmas windows mutated—just in time to allow for the usual eight-week preparation period—into a still-life recreation of Weber’s shoot. Alannah Weston believes that windows are like the "front cover of a magazine", a seduction to entice you inside. Erin Thompson calculates they "have three seconds to catch your attention".

Back in the 1900s, Baum’s window trimmers had noticed that passers-by seldom register anything much above their eyeline, which is why Selfridges’ windows are only room-height, as well as being very shallow. To give an impression of depth, the team decided to use photos of Selfridges’ lofty halls as backdrops, and added a dark parquet floor, to be baubled, snow-drifted and possibly ("is it Christmassy enough?") glitter-strewn. A floor’s colour and material sets a window’s tone, another Baum revelation. With only three seconds to sell the story, even the ground under the mannequin’s feet has to be part of the plot. 

Picture: a workman removes vinyl film covering the winter window displays at Selfridges in London

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