Holiday Windows Spurn Technology in Favor of the Handmade

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While you're preparing for Christmas this month, Paul Olszewski, the director of windows at Macy's is already thinking about next year.

Responsible for the iconic displays that grace the retailer's windows every holiday season, visual merchandiser Olszewski begins planning for Christmas displays in January. "Sometimes I start thinking about it when we're finalizing this year's display," he says.

This year's display at Macy's depicts a rocket that goes to the moon to fulfill wishes, part of the retailer's tie-up with the Make-a-Wish foundation. The six windows each contain ornaments made by celebrities, which you can buy, with proceeds going to the charity. Marionettes, puppets and turning cogs form a large part of the display, creating a steampunk theme of technology-meets-the-Victorian era.

"When we first started, I knew I wanted to do the steampunk thing," says Olszewski. "But we started with traditional steam punk, and the heart of the windows was getting lost."

To highlight the Make-a-Wish ornaments, Olszewski and his team decided to turn everything white, except for the ornaments themselves. "That could look very magical," he says.

Macy's is one of the only stores that also creates the original score that can be heard at the windows. Working with the orchestra from "Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark," Olszewski composed a classical theme that acts as a "contradiction to the craziness." Macy's also worked with animation specialists Space Design for the puppets and 3D Fusion for the screens that tell the story.

At Saks Fifth Avenue, steampunk is center stage as well. The window displays (see one directly below), designed by Pentagram, divides the Saks world into two distinct themes, bubbles and snowflakes. Tying them together is a little girl who is shopping at Saks and finds a door that allows her into the world of the underground bubble makers and the rooftop snow-makers. Mannequins (dressed in the retailer's merchandise) in store windows operate machines that create the bubbles. Iris also created a holiday light show on the Saks building. Projection mapping showed bubbles and snowflakes coming out of pipes snaking in and out of the windows.

Heart's at the Heart
For a holiday window to work, it has to have heart, says Olszewski, who has been working with Macy's for seven or eight years now. (He calculates how long it has been by counting Christmases.)

"You can't be sterile, avant-garde or wacky," he says about the holiday display. "It's not going to work."

For the last few years, Olszewski has seen the trend of technology being used in windows -- but he isn't fully convinced. "I've always pushed it, but I've realized that people have an appreciation for the hand-made."

Jack Hruska, EVP of creative services at Bloomingdale's, thinks similarly. Last year, the retailer went a distinctly techno-centric way with its window display: a collage of 150 screens that depicted various holiday scenes. "I tried that and I didn't like this; we don't want techno perfection," says Hruska, who has been working with window displays at the retailer for 19 years.

This year, the Bloomingdale's display celebrates the company's iconic shopping bags with a selection of oversized bag recreations posted in every window. Each bag opens to reveal some animated, sculpted diorama: a Santa Claus, or a woman trying on shoes at the store. Just like Macy's, a charitable feature includes displayed ornaments designed by celebrities that sell for the Child Mind Institute.

In one break from his anti-technology rule, Hruska has included a social feature in the window for the first time: cameras that snap your photos and post them to the Bloomingdale's Facebook page.

Initially, an idea of tying the Bloomingdale's display with the upcoming Steven Spielberg "Tintin" movie was floated around. But it wasn't Christmas-y enough for Hruska, so the idea was shelved. The retailer was already giving the shopping bags away to consumers, so Hruska just extended that idea onto the display.

Neither store sets up displays to sell merchandise during the holidays. "In New York, part of the holiday experience is this idea of going around and looking at the windows. It's like a gift from the stores for New Yorkers," says Hruska.

And it's not as competitive as you may think. For Olszewski, when he started at the job, he had that sense of pressure of finding out what other stores are doing. Now, he says, that's not around any more. "Now it's about tradition."

Macy's photo credit: Kent Miller Studio's, Macy's Inc. Bloomingdale's photo credit: Jemal Countess, Getty Images Saks photo credit: Pentagram

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