The 1920s: 'Sell Them Their Dreams'

In post-war america, prosperity drives the new aesthetic
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Posted May 3, 2001
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With the war over, the boys came home from France. But another powerful army was marching across the landscape: the major corporations of America. It was an age of big business, mergers, conglomerates and large capital investments. The age of demand returned, but now it was the insatiable demand of big business.

An incessant call for production led to the fine art of enticement. People had money, and the modern media of popular magazines, motion pictures and, later, radio drove the desire to imitate. "Rudolph Valentino wears an Arrow collar - so should you."

The great merchants of the 1920s learned to capitalize on those aspirations and dreams. Helen Landon Cass, a popular radio personality, told a display convention in 1923: "Sell them their dreams. Sell them what they longed for and hoped for. Sell them this hope and you won't have to worry about selling the goods."

The strategic seduction of the masses was fueled by three A's: advertising, air conditioning and art. In 1925, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover said, "The Midas of advertising has given artists freedom and independence." Sherwood Anderson, John P. Marquand and F. Scott Fitzgerald were writing ad copy. The paintings of Georgia O'Keefe were seen in the windows at B. Altman's and Marshall Field's; the murals of Boardman Robinson graced the walls of Kaufmann's. The promise of advertising and the enhancement of fine art were bolstered by a commitment to customer comfort. Retailers now prolonged the selling season into the dog days of summer thanks to the magic of air conditioning.

Power surged. Demand multiplied. Bigger was better. With a premium on real estate, stores not only grew outward, but upward as well. In 1926, Gimbels unveiled a 12-story megastore on Philadelphia's Market Street. The following year, L. Hudson's opened a 21-story behemoth in Detroit. But Macy's ruled supreme. With an influx of investment capital, Macy's increased its Herald Square store to a staggering 1.5 million square feet.

In this Golden Era of Enticement, the simpatico between fine art and the art of display grew ever stronger. Fernand Léger equated the art of window display to his own search for a new approach to realism: "Mundane objects could be shown with a gravity and weight previously denied them."

In Europe, images of regal baronesses - nipped, tucked, uplifted and laced - faded into a distant memory. Fashion and art intermingled. The highly stylized drawings of Erté graced the covers of Harper's Bazaar. The Bauhaus was in vogue, Hemingway was in Paris and women were in voting booths. Mannequins, no longer purely utilitarian, evolved beyond realism to become the stylized embodiment of a new femininity. In August 1925, Vogue proclaimed, "A new art form has been born, evoking the complex personality of the modern, well dressed woman." Perhaps inspired by Modigliani, there was an elongation of gesture and figure alike, and the hint of a modern attitude.

In 1928, Frederick Kiesler of Saks Fifth Avenue created what he proclaimed to be America's "First representative exposition of modern show windows." The integration of modernism into the retail venue brought with it a sense of simplicity, allowing the viewer to focus on the goods. Kiesler spoke of his "spotlighted" windows: "Accent one chair - one white fur. One sees only a chair - a white fur collar."

With show windows now recognized as an art form, lighting became paramount. New techniques were explored. Herpolsheimer in Grand Rapids, Mich., installed spotlights into its storefront architecture. During a brief stint as Macy's display director, Raymond Loewy (whose diverse design portfolio was to include everything from streamlined locomotives to Coca-Cola vending machines) used light in a more profound manner. "I left the window in semi-darkness," he said in The American Show Window. "The only illumination came from three powerful spotlights focused on the figure. It was dramatic, simple and potent. It sang."

With its simplicity of form, modernism forever altered the course of display. In The Journal of The American Institute of Architects in 1927, Lee Simonson, a stage designer and consultant to Macy's, elaborated on a new approach to retail design: "We must break up vistas, isolate objects, use every constructional means to focus vision instead of dissipating it."

The evolution from "display" to "visual merchandising" had begun.

Photos Courtesy of ST Publications, Cincinnati