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11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Holiday Window Display Designers

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For decades, lavish holiday window displays at department stores have been one of the first signs of the season. But have you ever wondered how the designers behind the windows create those enchanting arrangements? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into making the holiday windows so magical at this time of year—from the best way to arrange lights to the pre-season all-nighters.

1. EVERY HOLIDAY WINDOW HAS A PURPOSE.

The holiday windows are supposed to make you feel something, says Jacques Rosas, New York-based artist, founder, and CEO of Jacques Rosas, which does holiday window installations in stores such as Godiva, Elizabeth Arden, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Whenever Rosas is working on a window, he asks about the personality of the store, what they’re imagining, favorite decorations, traditions, and more—all starting with what they sell. “I try to pull settings that have nostalgia for them,” Rosas says. “I think the magical part is the nostalgia.” He loves the feel of an old-fashioned Christmas—last year, he decked out one store window with handmade stockings, old ornaments, and a real train.

2. YOU WON’T SEE MANY CHRISTMAS TREES IN THE STORE WINDOWS.

A Macy's 2007 holiday window display. Image credit: Wally Gobetz via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 
At least not any real Christmas trees, Rosas says. Usually, the windows are hot, dry places, so any live trees would dry out and die. They could also catch fire, so a lot of the newer buildings won’t use them even if they could create the right environmental conditions. “We tend to use a lot of fake stuff,” Rosas says.

3. YOU ALSO WON’T SEE ANY PRODUCTS.

While stores' windows throughout the year are supposed to sell products, this time of year is all about the entertainment, says David Spaeth, CEO of Spaeth Design, which does holiday windows for Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman. Sure, you may see a product or two in some of the windows (it’s not a hard-and-fast rule), but this is the time to seduce customers with gorgeous snowflakes or pretty (fake) trees instead of fantastic outfits.

4. BUT YOU WILL SEE LIGHTS.

Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window. Image credit: WallyGobetz via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

Lights are what draws customers to the windows, and they can really make the displays pop. But you’d be surprised at how few lights will make a big splash, Rosas says. “There’s not a lot of lights—that’s a big mistake,” he says. "If you do too many, the reflection will play tricks on the viewer, and you won’t actually be able to see anything but lights.” Instead, he uses a few perfectly placed lights that bounce off each other. Rosas also tends to use plenty of wood composite, fiberglass, bark, paper, and plastic to create his scenes. But don't be surprised to spot other wacky items in holiday store windows, like Lite-Brite (yes, the retro toy), coffee stirrers, and even taxidermy. Anything goes when it comes to creating the perfect holiday window.

5. THEY PLAN AHEAD.

When the holidays start dying down, these designers are just getting started on the following year, says Michael Bednark, owner of Bednark Studio, a Brooklyn-based fabrication studio that is responsible for some of the Macy’s holiday windows throughout the country. Design talks start in January, and by March, the ideas are set. It takes two more months to figure out rendering, and the summer months are for fabrication (building the physical elements). Installation starts even before Halloween—by about mid-October, Bednark says.

6. THEY HAVE WORKING HABITS COMPARABLE TO VAMPIRES.

Ever wonder how holiday windows pop up like magic? That’s because the artists work through the night to put them up so that they’ll appear in the morning. Installation for the simpler windows usually takes six to eight hours, Rosas says. “We have to be like wizards,” he explains.

7. THE MORE INTENSIVE WINDOWS TAKE WEEKS TO INSTALL.

A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014. Image credit: iStock

 
A regular window display is an overnight job, but the team working on the Macy’s windows pre-builds them inside the shop. There’s a fake window inside every single Macy’s store, filled with the entire holiday window display. “We pre-build inside the shop so we can make sure that everything fits,” Bednark says. The pre-build takes about four weeks. If it’s a go, it’s moved into the regular window, which takes three weeks.

8. TO MAKE IT LOOK PERFECT, THE ARTISTS TOUCH EVERY LIGHT.

The reason store windows look amazing while your holiday display looks just passable is because these designers really pay attention to the details. “When you decorate a tree, or you’re doing your lights and everything, the secret to really nice displays is to touch and adjust each branch, each light, and position everything as if everything was its own individual thing,” Rosas says. “That’s the secret to styling.”

9. WHEN THE SEASON IS OVER, THE DISPLAYS ARE USUALLY TOSSED.

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Some stores will re-use the decorations in-house, but many will toss them because the décor is so unique. Basically, they don’t want to wear the same outfit two days in a row, Spaeth explains.

10. THE HOLIDAYS AREN’T THEIR ONLY BUSY SEASON.

We’re obsessed with holiday store windows, and they’re great for business. But these artists are busy year-round, Rosas says. In addition to doing store window displays for every season, they also decorate show rooms, do trade show displays, and even create sets for TV shows and product launches. In Rosas’ studio, they have two 7500-square-foot spaces, and they use these for creating fake store windows or for marketing experiences. For example, a yogurt company may hire Rosas to use that studio to build an entire yogurt set as a backdrop for a yogurt product launch. The yogurt company would then invite members of the media to the room, where they’d take pictures and do interviews. “We try to inspire people to write about [the company] there,” Rosas says.

11. IF YOU WANT TO REPLICATE THE LOOK, GET OUT YOUR CHECKBOOK.

Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window. Image credit: iStock.

 
To hire a professional display artist to do your holiday windows, expect to pay anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 per window, depending on the number of details and amount of work it will take, Bednark says. In other words, making this kind of magic doesn't come cheap.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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The Force Field Cloak
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Design
This Glowing Blanket Is Designed to Ease Kids' Fear of the Dark
The Force Field Cloak
The Force Field Cloak

Many kids have a security blanket they bring to bed with them every night, but sometimes, a regular blankie is no match for the monsters that invade their imaginations once the lights are off. Now there’s a glow-in-the-dark blanket designed to make children feel safer in bed, no night light required.

Dubbed the Force Field Cloak, the fleece blanket comes in several colorful, glowing patterns that remain invisible during the day. At night, you leave the blanket under a bright light for about 10 minutes, then the shining design will reveal itself in the dark. The glow lasts 8 to 10 hours, just long enough to get a child through the night.

Inventor Terry Sachetti was inspired to create the blanket by his own experiences struggling with scary nighttime thoughts as a kid. "I remember when I was young and afraid of the dark. I would lie in my bed at night, and my imagination would start getting the best of me," he writes on the product's Kickstarter page. "I would start thinking that someone or something was going to grab my foot that was hanging over the side of the bed. When that happened, I would put my foot back under my blanket where I knew I was safe. Nothing could get me under my blanket. No boogiemen, no aliens, no monsters under my bed, nothing. Sound familiar?"

The Force Field Cloak, which has already surpassed its funding goals on both Indiegogo and Kickstarter, takes the comfort of a blanket to the next level. The glowing, non-toxic ink decorating the material acts as a gentle night light that kids can wrap around their whole body. The result, the team claims, is a secure feeling that quiets those thoughts about bad guys hiding in the shadows.

To pre-order a Force Field Cloak, you can pledge $36 or more to the product’s Indiegogo campaign. It is expected to start shipping in January 2018.

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