Blog: Props to the Props Generation

The visual merchandisers of the 1980s and 90s still have plenty to say
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Posted December 5, 2011

When I see youngsters skipping over the keypads of their communications devices with their thumbs, with all that dexterity and matter-of-fact expertise – as if, who would ever bother to use their forefingers? – I think of how the world passes generations by, one by one by one.

Once my generation had all the answers. We’d been the generation of video tapes, music CDs, pocket calculators and word processors. We once stood for progress. Now we stand for a less-than-patient smirk when we ask a question.

Oh, we have all the wisdom and experience. And while we may try to promote that wisdom and experience, the mere mention of tweeting, texting and skyping makes me think of how my father once reacted to emailing and web surfing. (It saddened him, made him feel obsolete.)

Earlier this week, I received an invitation from Eric Feigenbaum, VMSD’s New York editor and my long-time friend, to his Algonquin Visual Merchandising Roundtable in New York on Tuesday, December 6. I won’t dwell on the connection to the original Algonquin Roundtable because I don’t need a 1920s reference to make me feel even more antique.

I noticed that Eric’s panel lineup included Ignaz Gorischek, Judy Bell, Joe Feczko and Dan Evans. They were among the giants of visual when I came into this industry in 1994. But that was nearly 20 years ago. We’re supposed to be in a Golden Reinvention Age of visual merchandising, with retailers paying increasing attention to the visual excitement and refreshment of their stores. All those bright, fresh ideas in hi-def digital images. So where was that young point-of-view on this panel?

Eric’s answer stopped me short. “This generation thinks that they start at the top,” he said. True that. All their creative genius and technical acumen doesn’t replace the grunt work of moving a department’s store’s holiday program into place over a Thanksgiving weekend, or learning to trim mannequins or dress windows or paint a straight line or use a glue gun.

Perhaps more to the point, it doesn’t replace a deep understanding of the business of retail. Ignaz Gorischek may be a visual merchandiser by trade, but nobody can better express the retailer’s strategic objectives than he can. What design school student understands the way visual can build a brand powerhouse the way Judy Bell does? What bright young visual student is ready to drive an entire new brand program, as Joe Feczko did? How many recent grads have both pinned a mannequin and made a mannequin, as Dan Evans has?

Sure, 3-D rendering is a powerful tool. But it’s just a tool, until the student learns what it takes to be the professional. Technology does not begin to equal wisdom. Just consider that 20-something texting rapidly and expertly without a care in the world – while he’s driving a car.