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Eye Candy: Bergdorf Goodman’s Holiday Windows and the Enduring Art of Selling

The New York department store honours a longstanding relationship between contemporary art and window dressing

The holiday windows at Berdorf Goodman, the New York department store, are made according to strict parameters. First, there should be a lot to see right up front, at child height. Second, the overall composition should be legible at multiple distances: from the sidewalk, from a passing car, from across Fifth Avenue. The observed aesthetic, generally speaking, is ‘more is more’. Yet time constraints demands that the making be scrappily efficient. Seeming perfection must be delivered at high speed. 

Bergdorf’s windows spring initially from the fertile mind of David Hoey, who has been the store’s lead window dresser for 14 years. His sensibility – ‘high concept, beautiful and ridiculous,’ in his words – differs wildly from that of his competitors. This year, Saks and Bloomingdale’s are heavy on LCD screens. Tiffany & Co. is tidily cute. Barney’s has gone for social messaging, encouraging passersby to donate to charity. Bergdorf Goodman, though, is sheer decadence: candy and cakes in absurdist abundance. One window is a pastry shop in emerald tones (a subtle tribute to L. Frank Baum, of Wizard of Oz fame, who started out as a store displayman). Another, produced by artist Samantha Smith, is a fantasia in cotton-candy pink, rendered in dyed and needle-felted wool. There’s a Day-Glo window, a huge robot proffering soft serve, and a red-and-white peppermint display, executed by Malcolm Hill, including a strange mustachioed visage, equal parts Uncle Sam and anarchist Guy Fawkes mask. 

5th Ave - Fluorescent Desserts, 2018, Bergdorf Goodman, New York. Courtesy: Ricky Zehavi

Talking windows with Hoey is a reminder that every art form has its lore and history. This is the most ephemeral of disciplines – Bergdorf’s is typically on a three-week turnaround, though the holiday windows last longer. The best displays live on in memory, though, and Hoey is enthusiastic about past masters. He takes particular inspiration from the golden generation of the 1970s, who reinvented windows as an edgy and expressionistic medium: Candy Pratts Price at Bloomingdale’s, Robert Currie at Henri Bendel, and Victor Hugo (a former assistant of Andy Warhol’s) at Halston. Hoey bemoans the conservative beige-out that followed – designers were told, ‘just make it residential’ – and gives thanks to the great liberator, Simon Doonan, who came to Barney’s in 1986 and blew up the model all over again.

These days, Bergdorf’s has an internal team of five, but the holiday windows are delivered with the help of externally commissioned artists. Stewart Lucas, a master of fake cakes among many other visual effects, was so important to this year’s theme that Hoey verified his availability before committing to it. Another team regular is Meryl Bennett, who contributed a stunningly ornate gingerbread house, sculpted in foam and then covered with actual cinnamon powder. 

Behind the scenes video showing the construction of the Bergdorf Goodman window displays, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Ernest Martin

And then there is Johanna Burke, of the Brooklyn studio Burke & Pryde, who has worked with Bergdorf Goodman since 1997 (her initial letter of application was sent by fax). This year her contribution is licorice-themed, entirely black and white, and rendered in a style she calls ‘psychedelic grandma’. It has the nested composition typical of window design, with rearing carousel horses to the rear, and a dove and squirrel in the foreground, for the kids. The materials involved are bewildering in their variety: Mardi Gras beads, polymer clay, garment industry trim, roofing shingle rolls, silicon caulk, and much more. (‘There were long, pensive walks in the hardware store,’ she says.) The two large stallions are re-used from past displays, a common practice that recalls a repertory theatre’s prop shop. About the only thing Burke didn’t use much was actual candy, because it doesn’t glue easily and can melt under the lights.  

In addition to her multifarious craft skills, Burke brought to her window a panoply of esoteric references, among them the midcentury decorator Dorothy Draper, the English designer David Nightingale Hicks and historic Bargello embroidery. Despite the rarefied source material, the result is completely populist. It’s an unusual combination. Unlike most other Manhattan department stores, which are flagships for international chains, Bergdorf has no other location; there is no ‘downstreaming’ to consider. The singular venue means that Hoey and his collaborators can deliver intense physicality and sheer weirdness. The windows are, of course, still ‘commercial art’. Their core purpose is to pull crowds into the store – an ever-higher priority today, given the migration of sales from brick-and-mortar to online. Yet they also perform on social media; framed behind glass, each window is an Instagram-ready image, an invitation from Bergdorf to its customers to do their advertising for them. This year’s theme, in fact, could be seen mischievously self-referential: a series of temptations, dangled just out of the public’s reach. 

5th Ave -  Licorice, 2018, Bergdorf Goodman, New York. Courtesy: Ricky Zehavi

This sort of ‘double coding’ is a feature of Bergdorf Goodman’s designs. The windows are akin to current children’s cinema, which is liberally sprinkled with in-jokes for parents. They are also beguilingly proximate to contemporary art. The store is a few scant blocks from MoMA and it is easy to imagine tourists shuttling from one to the other, possibly finding quite similar experiences. (Back in 2000, Hoey masterminded a set of windows based on art history, complete with a do-it-yourself Duchamp bicycle wheel.) Some fabricators, including Bennett and Hill, move effortlessly between retail commissions and their own artwork. Meanwhile, sculpture has attained ever higher production values, often necessitating the work of specialist artisans. Even the most politically savvy artists are channeling these means to their own ends. Watching the public snapping pictures of the confections at Bergdorf’s, it was hard not to think of Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx A Subtlety (2014), which reached a huge public both in person and via selfie. 

5th Ave -  Gingerbread, 2018, Bergdorf Goodman, New York. Courtesy: Ricky Zehavi

We often hear of art’s struggles with its own commodity status. Less frequently do we stop to notice the way art and commerce actively mimic one another’s operations. Yet department stores and art museums have common roots. As design historian Emily Marshall Orr notes in her forthcoming book Designing the Department Store: Display and Retail at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (2019), the two developed in tandem, during the 19th century, in response to the era’s World’s Fairs and the growing influence of design reform. This cross-pollination never quite went away: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg made window displays on Fifth Avenue when they were starting out, and then there was Andy Warhol. Even so, the art of retail and the retailing of art do seem to getting closer these days. When companies like Bergdorf allow their freak flags to fly, even if only at half mast, the convergence is especially striking. When I interviewed David Hoey, he had a lot to say. But what it came down to was this: ‘People who read frieze will get it. At a glance, they’ll understand.’

Main image: 5th Ave - Chocolate, 2018, Bergdorf Goodman, New York. Courtesy: Ricky Zehavi

Glenn Adamson is Senior Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA, and the author of books including The Invention of Craft (2013).

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