100 Window Displays

This month Ginza Maison Hermès marks its 100th window display.

In June 2001, just after the completion of Ginza Maison Hermès, the window, which looks out onto a street in Tokyo’s Ginza district, debuted as “Hermès Theatre” in order to introduce passersby to the maison’s worldview. Based on an annual theme connected to Hermès’ creations, the window displays, freely conceived by both domestic and foreign artists and designers, are completely changed every two months, and the products that take center stage there display different features.

To commemorate the 100th window display, Hermès launches an archive site, allowing visitors to trace the trajectory of the project, and a number of talk events. In addition, we present a text by the design critic Alice Rawsthorn, who refers to Ginza Maison Hermès in order to consider the social and creative significance of window displays.

Bespoke WindowBy Alice Rawsthorn

Sheet after sheet of gleaming Plexiglass in vibrant shades of orange and yellow was precisely cut and positioned to resemble a cityscape of buildings. Strewn around them were silk scarves, boxy leather bags and a horse saddle in the same vivid hues. More bags and another scarf popped up among a second architectural cluster, constructed from yellow, red and purple Plexiglass.

The dazzling cityscapes were designed to fill the two front windows of Ginza Maison Hermès in Tokyo to celebrate the opening of the store on 27 June 2001 They were the work of Leïla Menchari, the Tunisian designer who was then responsible for creating the extraordinary window displays at Hermès’s principal store in Paris. Ginza Maison Hermès was reopening after its expansion by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, who had designed its original building in 2001 with the distinctive glass brick exterior that inspired its nickname the ‘Magic Lantern’. As well as devising the displays for the front windows, Menchari concocted miniature tableaux of watches, jewellery, silverware and other Hermès’s products, which she placed on colourful Plexiglass props inside some of Piano’s glass bricks.

Striking, witty and beguiling, Menchari’s design scheme was the first of the series of specially commissioned window displays for the store that has continued ever since. So popular has the project proved to be that, on 18 January 2018, the 100th bespoke window display – conceived by the Japanese product designer, Shigeki Fujishiro – was unveiled at Ginza Maison Hermès.

Each of the 100 sets of windows was designed specifically for the store. Many of the most influential and innovative designers of our time have participated in the project, which has served as an impromptu retrospective of early 21st century design, thanks to the involvement of such gifted international designers as Jasper Morrison and Max Lamb from Britain, Germany’s Konstantin Grcic, the French brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, and Italy’s Studio Formafantasma. The constantly changing window displays have also treated Tokyo to an ongoing survey of contemporary Japanese design through the contributions of Naoto Fukasawa, Kenya Hara, Nendo, Yoshioka Tokujin and, of course, Shigeki Fujishiro.

Ginza Maison Hermès’ window design program is an engaging chapter in the proud history of store window design that dates back to the birth of consumerism in the late 18th century. It was then that enterprising manufacturers and retailers started to show off their wares in the windows of their stores in the hope of persuading passers-by to come inside and buy them. Among the pioneers was Josiah Wedgwood, the famous British potter, who instructed his showroom managers to fill the windows with opulent arrangements of his exquisitely decorated ceramics. But it was not until the late-19th century, when department stores had opened in cities all over the world and glass manufacturers had succeeded in producing sheets of plate glass to make bigger windows, that the phenomenon of truly spectacular windows displays began.

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R. H. Macy, the founder of Macy’s department store in New York, set the tone from the 1850s onwards, and pioneered the concept of Christmas-themed ‘holiday windows’ in 1874 by unveiling an elaborate display of porcelain dolls in scenes from one of the most popular children’s books of the era, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Nine years later, the French author Émile Zola published Au Bonheur des Dames, a novel set in The Ladies’ Paradise, a fictitious Parisian department store, which was modelled on Le Bon Marché. The novel begins when a young woman Denise Baudet and her younger brothers arrive in Paris from the provinces after their parents’ deaths to live with an uncle, an impecunious draper. Standing outside his dowdy drapery, the Baudets gaze awestruck at the sumptuous displays of goods in the windows of The Ladies’ Paradise across the street, and compare them unfavourably with their uncle’s.

The early 20th century was a time of technical innovation in window displays. Lord & Taylor installed hydraulic lifts beneath the windows of its flagship department store on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Teams of designers and artisans perfected their displays in the basement until the moment came for the lifts to glide up to street level and reveal the results. Many stores installed electric lighting, so the new genre of window shoppers could inspect their displays on evening sightseeing sprees. The windows of Selfridge’s in London were lit from 8pm until midnight every day.

From the 1920s onwards, some retailers commissioned famous artists and designers to create their displays. The Spanish surrealist artist, Salvador Dalí, was employed as the window display designer of the Bonwit Teller department store in New York from 1929. One of his design schemes provoked so many complaints from customers that the management toned it down and Dalí jumped into the window in protest only to crash through the glass on to the sidewalk. Undaunted, Bonwit Teller continued to work with artists including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol through the 1950s and 1960s.

By then, Hermès had also chosen someone to design the window displays of its store at 24 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris. But, unlike Bonwit Teller, it had remained loyal to the same designer, Annie Beaumel. Having joined Hermès as a sales assistant, , she was asked to design the window displays by Émile Hermès, a grandson of Thierry Hermès, who had founded the business as a harness workshop in 1837. Émile spent the 1920s developing new leather products, such as bags, belts, gloves and luggage, as well as silk scarves and jewellery, to be made by Hermès’s artisans to the same quality as its original harnesses. Realising that the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré store (on the site of a workshop his grandfather opened in 1880) needed to tempt people to come inside and see the new merchandise, Émile invited Beaumel to create seductive and dramatic window displays after noticing how imaginatively she arranged merchandise in the store. Drawing on the specialist fabrication skills of Hermès’s workshops, Beaumel devised such beautifully crafted scenarios, rich in narrative and visual drama, that crowds of people gathered outside to see what Parisians called ‘The Hermès Theatre’.

When Menchari came to Paris from Tunis in the early 1960s to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, she took her sketchbook to show Beaumel in the hope of being offered a job. Beaumel employed her on the spot and, when she retired in 1978, Menchari took over as head of window displays at 24 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where she occasionally took on special assignments, including the Plexiglass cityscapes for the opening of Ginza Maison Hermès.

Dozens of different designers from all over the world have since been commissioned to devise special window displays for Ginza Hermès Maison, which decided to reflect the eclectic spirit of the glass blocks in Piano’s architectural scheme, rather than adopting the same window designs as Hermès’s other Japanese stores. The only rule is that the designers must create installations for both front windows that include Hermès’s products. As all of the designers and design teams have made the most of the opportunity to express their sensibilities in their displays, the results have been compelling.

Among my favourites are Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s homage to Hermès’s Parisian roots in a 2006 scene of bags, belts and boots spilling out of huge cardboard boxes stamped with the words ‘Paris’ and ‘By Air Mail’; and the rock’n’roll stage set built by Konstantin Grcic the following year with a white silk scarf draped around a microphone, which was black like the amplifiers, drum kit and the rest of the equipment. Equally inspired in its use of colour was a 2008 display by Naoto Fukasawa in which Hermès outfits were suspended inside a large oval recess in each window. One recess was bubble gum pink, the other bottle green, and both were framed by Hermès’s signature shade of orange.

One of the strangest, most intriguing scenarios was created by the Dutch product designer Jurgen Bey in 2013. He filled the big window with creamy white felt sculptures embellished with machine-sewn illustrations, and the smaller one with a Hermès-clad mannequin toiling diligently on a felt sewing machine. While Simone Farresin and Andrea Trimarchi of Studio Formfantasma concocted a fantastical aquatic adventure in 2016 in which crabs, lobsters and other sea creatures were surrounded on the seabed by Hermès shoes, a bag, hat and gold teapot.

Memorable though those and the other displays have been, the ‘people’s favourite’ is undoubtedly Souffle, which was designed by Tokujin Yoshioka in 2004. A close-up of a woman’s face was portrayed on a digital screen installed in each of the two windows. As she blew through her lips, a Hermès silk scarf fluttered playfully as if the woman really was breathing on to it. Yoshioka’s exquisite and ingenious design concept appeared in the media worldwide and drew hordes of fascinated Tokyoites to Ginza Maison Hermès, tempting them to return and enjoy the work of the other designers in its very special windows.

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Alice Rawsthorn
Alice Rawsthorn is an award-winning design critic and the author of the critically acclaimed book Hello World: Where Design Meets Life. Her next book, Design as an Attitude, is to be published in spring 2018. Alice speaks on design at global events including TED and the World Economic Forum in Davos. Born in Manchester and based in London, she is chair of trustees at Chisenhale Gallery and the contemporary dance group Michael Clark Company, and a trustee of the Whitechapel Gallery. A founding member of the Writers for Liberty campaign to champion human rights and freedoms, Alice has been awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to design and the arts.