Tom Beebe spun back into my consciousness last month with an email noting the Gene Moore permanent collection on the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum website.
Tom, a brilliant visual merchandiser in his own right with an honorable retail cv, became an admirer of Moore’s work back in the 1980s (when he was with Paul Stuart, on Madison Avenue), then became an even closer friend until the Tiffany master’s passing in 1998.
It was Beebe who convinced Moore to give his archives to the Cooper Hewitt shortly before his death.
The collection is from 78 of Moore’s notebooks, containing close to 5000 8x10 photographs of his store windows. They document the nearly 40 years of Moore’s work at Tiffany’s, from 1955 to 1994. It’s a trip through history, and a must-see tutorial on clever use of themes, merchandise and props for any of today’s designers.
But there’s something about this that bothers me. It’s the notion that Moore’s work, and Beebe’s, and the work of many other great window designers, is now a relic, to be appreciated only in a museum environment.
There might have been some truth to that 20-30 years ago, as malls and big-box strip centers made disappear so many department store and specialty store windows lining city streets.
But something else has happened since then. I’m referring to the digital revolution – perhaps you’ve heard about it. One the one hand, it’s just as devastating to specialty bricks-and-mortar.
On the other hand, it has forced the surviving physical retailers to haul an old weapon out of their arsenal, to fight the convenience of e-tail with the drama, fun and excitement of what this industry once called “display.” Today’s buzzwords are “branding” and “experience,” but smart, savvy retailers of any generation recognize it as good old visual merchandising.
In his Fifth Avenue windows, Moore created an image for Tiffany’s far removed from the high ceilings, staid wooden cases and haute snobbish salespeople behind those cases. Tiffany’s harkened to the gilded age of extreme wealth. But Moore popularized and humorized it in those jewel box windows, using the merchandise itself and a variety of props and themes that only an extremely creative and puckish soul could have imagined.
Strollers invariably stopped for the show on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. If they went inside and emerged with a blue box, all the better. But if they just talked about this most recent window display, Moore had accomplished something that had the admiration of every retail designer.
His directions from Tiffany chairman Walter Hoving, right from the beginning, were: “I want you to make our windows as beautiful as you can according to your own taste ... Above all, don’t try to sell anything; we’ll take care of that in the store.”
As you get into your holiday buying, do some window shopping on the Smithsonian site here.
It’s the next best thing to stopping by Tiffany’s windows on an afternoon in 1960, along with Holly Golightly and the rest of Manhattan’s smart set.
As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.