Notes From A Native New Yorker: Shrinking Displays of the Department Store

Michelle Stein—

In The American Department Store Transformed, 1920-1960Richard Longstreth documents the development of the department store as it moves from “a great, all-inclusive emporium that helped define the character and the purpose of the city” to its transformation into shopping centers and malls.  Here in New York City, many department stores have remained their original single building homes.  One of the major impetuses for the changes in the department store was the growing popularity of cars, forcing designers to plan for parking, soon leading to the advent of the shopping center.  Nevertheless, early in the 20th century New York City was at the forefront in developments in department store design.  The architectural firm Starrett & Van Vlecks designed at least six major department stores in New York City in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, including the flagship Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor; both remain major department stores today.  In the 1920s, stores changed on the inside, from design to display, reflecting both industry and global trends in art and design.

The displays in department stores began to mimic a smaller store, allowing some brands to retain their exclusivity.  Display design also became focused on allowing the customer easy access to the goods, whether viewed clearly in a window display (consistently the hope since even before the 1920s) or artfully arranged in the interior (while still allowing the customer to handle many products).  New York was at the center of some of these changes, with Saks Fifth Avenue being among the first to design a floor around a series of smaller areas/stores.  Even the New York’s World Fair of 1939 reflected the changes of department stores in display, organization, and the use of florescent lighting; many who went to the fair saw it as akin to a large department store.

On the reverse of the World’s Fair mimicry of department store design were the department store expositions, which were reminiscent of these large events and fairs, especially Paris’s 1925 decorative arts exposition.  Department stores, including NYC’s Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, John Wanamaker, and Abraham & Straus, began to hold their own expositions mirroring those in Paris and beyond.  Macy’s hosted the first one with its one-week 1927 Exposition of Art in Trade, and followed up seven months later with a second show focused on more affordable items for the middle-class New Yorker, and then the International Exposition of Art and Industry in 1928.  These expositions were “usually arranged as a series of rooms containing a dazzling array of furniture, carpets, draperies, and objets d’art,” sometimes selected and arranged room-by-room by different well-known figures.  As the exposition trend travelled throughout the United States department stores became Americans’ primary exposure to modernism and modernist design.

Today, the second floor of Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store centers around designer clothing for women.  As in the 1920s, each brand is given their one little niche on the floor.  While the main hall is wood-paneled, each section of designer clothing has its own area, distinguished by entryways and a completely different look from the hallway that encircles the floor.  On floors without this structure, there are still clearly defined areas on the floor, sorted by designer or type of clothing and divided by clear aisles.  At Lord & Taylors, the details—molding, elevator entryways, lamps, etc.—remain in place from the original design, and the building itself was designated as a landmark in 2007.  Both stores offer the opportunity to not only shop, but to see how shopping has developed.

Michelle Stein is a former Yale Press intern and recent Vassar College graduate.  She lives on the Upper West Side in New York.

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