Back when VMSD was known as Display World, a man named Bob Cissell designed a Valentine’s Day window for the now-defunct department store Sater’s (Evansville, Ind.) that was featured on its cover. His daughter recently reached out to inquire about a copy, and our editors were able to locate the February 1961 issue, displaying a men’s apparel selection.
The Display World editors wrote of Cissell’s window: “‘For that ‘Number One’ Guy … A Heart Full of Fashion,’ was the way Bob Cissell headlined this Valentine’s display of men’s shirts for Sater’s, Evansville, Ind., shortly before leaving the display directorship of that store for the same position with Blach’s, Birmingham, Ala., where he now holds forth … Sater’s has the distinction of being a stepping stone used by several top displaymen during their rise to prominence.’”
Exactly 57 years after his creation graced its cover, VMSD decided to catch up with the jovial designer.
Cissell has had a long and storied career, beginning as a 15-year-old high school dropout singing on his sister’s amateur Saturday radio program. A local band leader heard Cissell on the air and asked him to come work for him as a vocalist. After several years of traveling with bands, Cissell was drafted into the army during the Korean War. Thankfully, he was stationed in Italy for 17 months instead of joining the combat. After returning home, getting married and touring for a while longer, Cissell decided to settle down.
He began working at a store called Weilley’s in Paducah, Ky., and in 1954, when the store’s displayman passed away, Cissell filled the spot. Eventually he moved on to Sater’s in 1957. (At the time, his window budget was $2400 per year.)
After three years of working in display, Cissell sent photographs of his work to Display World, and to his surprise, they were picked up. Display World’s then-editor Paul T. Knapp visited Cissell and his family to meet face-to-face.
“I sent in several photos, and I got six photographs published on one page, which was kind of unheard of,” he says. “The cover was published in 1961, and I came to Blach’s in 1960.”
Cissell spent years working as a store planner for Blach’s in Birmingham, Ala., and, after spearheading a remodel shortly after his arrival, came to realize that designing interiors was his true passion.
In 1974, thanks to a compromise, he stayed on at Blach’s but began working his off-hours and Saturdays designing small non-apparel stores. In 1986, he took that task on full-time, managing his own one-man design business until just four years ago, when he retired at the age of 84. His company was unique, he explains, in that it didn’t advertise and most of its business (roughly 58+ stores) came strictly by word-of-mouth.
“I never signed or offered a contract. Just a handshake. That was it,” he says. “I never got beat out of the count, and I never had a client fail to pay me in full.”
Cissell has fond memories of his time spent during the National Association of Display Industries’ (NADI) Market Week in New York (now known as the Shop! Association’s Retail Design Collective), visiting the product showrooms, going to swanky dinners with live bands and seeing shows on Broadway, as well as top-notch live acts like Louis Armstrong, the Smothers Brothers and Judy Garland. “Due to the fact I had a union card from my band [days], I could get in free to see any band around the country. All you had to say was, ‘I’m checking union cards,’ and that got you in,” he says, laughing.
It’s individuals like Cissell who make our industry colorful and rich. Their history is significant because it provides a unique perspective on the exciting past of visual merchandising and store design.