Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary dates the verb "to window-shop" to 1922. It wasn’t long after that retailers realized that setting themselves apart meant more than stacked cans of peas and static mannequins. By the 1930s, the flashy window display had taken hold, and we’ve never looked back.
In one of his more pragmatic moods, artist Salvador Dalí designed a series of surrealist windows for New York’s Bonwit Teller in 1939, and early in his career, industrial design legend Raymond Loewy created windows for Macy’s in New York. Gene Moore is widely considered the master, though. He designed approximately 5,000 windows for Tiffany & Co., periodically using his collection of stuffed hummingbirds as props.
"Consider the growing importance of the visual merchandiser, in-store producers, and experience managers," says Martin Raymond of trend forecaster the Future Laboratory. "Stores, and the activities that consumers expect to find in them, will become more like nightclubs, galleries, and theaters."
If stagecraft is the witchcraft of retail, then Simon Doonan is Harry Potter on LSD. Since 1986, the Englishman has been designing the windows of luxe New York department store Barneys, using anything from live ducks to live students (two women, one in drag), accretions of flyswatters or toilet paper, and, once, 68 boxes of pink wafers. He very often pairs detritus with couture: trashed mattresses strewn about Louis Vuitton–clad ladies-who-lunch. His resourcefulness is matched only by his provocations. "Windows change so often that they offer limitless opportunities for triumphs and excruciating blunders," Doonan points out. "Anything edible will invariably attract vermin, but this is not necessarily a bad thing: A scampering rodent will make a window memorable."
For Doonan, windows are vaudeville on the street. Once they served as the only means to connect people with their local stores; now, the Internet offers more immediate and omnipresent messaging. The window, however, offers something more palpable and much more moving. "To compete with the Web," Doonan suggests, "today’s window displays should be very low-tech and crafty—–funky handmade installations that are the antithesis of digital slickness."