Exactly a week after Thanksgiving this year, the office of Spaeth Design was abuzz with great news. “Lord & Taylor got platinum, and Bloomingdale’s got silver,” owner and CEO David Spaeth announced to colleagues as they walked in the door. “I knew we would win,” responded one. “No way!” said another.
The night before, visual merchandising magazine Design: Retail held its annual gala where they announced to 850 people crowded into a ballroom at the Plaza Hotel their winners for the Winning Windows of New York City for 2015. It’s a coveted honor, said Alison Embrey Medina, managing editor of the magazine. “If you walk down Fifth Avenue, it’s almost impossible to pick your favorite.”
The same way movies are actually produced by studios like Miramax or Paramount, department stores in New York City outsource their holiday windows to visual merchandising companies. “No one will ever tell me how much they spend,” says Medina. “But it goes to numbers you can’t imagine.” And for more than 60 years, Spaeth Design has been the biggest player in town. Lord & Taylor has hired them every year since 1976. Saks Fifth Avenue employed them from 1978 until 2014. Tiffany & Co, Bergdorf Goodman, and Macy’s are regular clients.
During the off-season they also work on projects like the centennial exhibition for the New York Public Library and the Central Park Conservatory’s Learning Center, and do international installations in places like Hong Kong and Chile.
This year, Spaeth designed the first- and second-place windows. And while they aren’t formally recognized at the awards for their work, they know who made the magic happen. As Matthew Elliott, director of technology, says, “We are the elves behind the scenes.”
More than a year before the holiday season begins, retail outlets start to meet with Spaeth Design to plan their windows. Sometimes they have a detailed rendering of what they want them to look like; other times they have a book they want to base them on or a broad theme like, “This is Christmas . . . ” It’s up to Spaeth to fill in the holes and turn their ideas into a living, breathing reality. “Our tagline is, ‘We build ideas,’ says Spaeth. “They kind of know they can trust us.”
The company has resources at their disposal that would make even Santa’s elves jealous. The firm is located in a gigantic factory in Woodside, Queens, that used to be the loading dock for Hostess Cupcakes. Twelve companies bid for the space over a year and a half ago, but the landlord “loved what we do,” says Sandy Spaeth, David’s wife, who serves as president. In their old location on Manhattan’s West Side, they had tour groups wanting to stop and visit. Now, they try to keep a low profile even though they offer private tours as prizes for charity auctions. At one Red Cross benefit, Spaeth remembers a woman was more excited about winning the tour than a $50,000 watch.
Spaeth employs approximately 30 full-time staff, adding 40 people during the busy holiday season. One department is dedicated to props (for one Lord & Taylor window alone, they had to sculpt and paint hundreds of cupcakes). Another, miniature figurines. A third is responsible for animation, or how to make things in windows move. It was this team that figured out how to build a mini roller coaster for Saks one year. “The mechanics of it was amazing,” says Elliott. “There were a lot of engineering challenges. It’s not as easy as you think.” Over a month and a half, the roller coaster ran so many 23-second loops, it could have reached Las Vegas.
The company bought a 3-D printer five years ago, well before they were commonplace. They use it to make replicas of the installations and map out where all the items should go or, say, to try out different roofs on a gingerbread house. Their newest toy is a laser cutter. Now, they can make snowflakes with even more intricate designs or build dozens of gingerbread men with the exact same piping. Sandy Spaeth said their industry is all about the details: “We make a mini Broadway show, except in theater you are far away, and in movies you don’t have to worry at all, but with windows people can stare close up, and we are held to a much higher standard.”
One of the company’s greatest challenges is how to install their designs into windows with poor access. This year they had to get a gigantic bear and reindeer made of plexiglass into a 30-inch door for Bloomingdale’s. “We hire contortionists,” jokes Elliott. At Saks, the windows are so close to the boutiques they worry about damaging the handbags. They also have something called “longevity challenges.” Those can range from keeping glue from melting, or how to keep a machine running for a month and a half. “Once you put it in, these things have to work,” says Spaeth. “On January 3, we are so happy.”
But these puzzles are nothing compared to innovating every year for every one of its clients. “Usually when we finish the windows, and we are talking to our clients, they say, ‘How are we going to top that next year?’” said Spaeth. “First of all, we are tired. Second, we are saying to ourselves, these windows are gorgeous, how are we going to do better?”
One solution is employing a diverse staff with varied interests. One team member is into robotics, another does metal sculpture, another loves techno music. Whether they are reading a design magazine or playing with their kids, they are always looking for new ideas. Spaeth got an idea while watching Matilda on Broadway and seeing chalk write on the board by itself; Elliott remembers getting inspired playing with American Girl dolls with his daughter. “We never have a static view of things,” he said. “Everyone is buzzing around and hearing music and absorbing culture.”
Even with so many ideas swarming around, clients sometimes still want to pursue the same concepts, says Spaeth. “We kid about it; We think there is a convention someplace of all the window directors because this year there are three full-sized bears, and there have never been bears before! Why does everyone want bears?” Another year, every client seemed to want hot air balloons. “Maybe it is the collective consciousness in marketing and what everyone is seeing on television and what’s popular,” says Elliott. “Hugo came out and everybody wanted moving gears and clockworks.” (Spaeth signs non-disclosure agreements and has to cover work for other clients with screens when another visits. When the holidays approach, clients tend to visit at least once a week.)
More often, though, clients are focused solely on their own designs and their vision for the holidays that year. “We don’t show up and say, ‘We’re going to give this to you,’” says David Spaeth. “Everything is their vision and what we are going to do for it.” If a client wants a Nutcracker theme, for instance, Spaeth asks them, for what period? Do you want it lifelike or animated? Still or in motion?
That’s how it should be, says Medina. “The store windows are the cover of their magazine. And the holiday time is when they really bring the budget to the table and see how they can surprise and delight customers in a new and exciting way, year in and year out.”
Roe Palermo, the Divisional Vice President of Merchandise Presentation for Lord & Taylor, who leads the creation and design of the holiday windows, agrees. “My team and Spaeth have passion for what we are doing, and knowing that we can make someone stop, smile, and enjoy the ‘magic’ for just a few minutes allows us to push ourselves further each year and create even more innovative and exciting windows,” she says. This year marked the 38th year Lord & Taylor has worked with Spaeth Design.
And that’s what has kept Spaeth going for 60 years, working diligently behind the scenes without recognition. Says Sandy Spaeth, “We know what we do is make people happy.”