Automatic Show Windows: Frederick Kiesler’s Retail Technology and American Consumer Culture

Laura McGuire


In the late 1920s, the Austrian émigré stage and exhibition designer Frederick Kiesler focused his attention on show-window design and on theorizing the future of American department store display architecture. In 1930, several years after his arrival in New York City, he published an instructional book on modern retail display, titled Contemporary Art Applied to the Store and Its Display. In this text and in other essays on show windows, Kiesler laid out a vision of stores populated with robotic salespeople, subliminal films, automatic merchandise dispensers, and enormous television screens to wage aggressive, multi-media campaigns to woo potential buyers. He predicted that display managers would use these elements to create highly orchestrated environments in which shoppers would be left to contemplate their own desires by virtue of gadgetry and automation. The most poignant aspect of Kiesler’s writings was his elucidation of the tension created by individual participatory experiences within a fully mechanized mass culture. His proposals for mechanical window and interior displays that would streamline the shopping experience promoted a vision that retail spaces could be democratically inclusive. Yet Kiesler also acknowledged that for certain retail clientele, exclusivity was a selling point. Consequently, he suggested theatrical lighting and staging concepts that would dramatize product individuality. Spotlights and sparsely decorated window sets emphasized the visual and physical separation between the spectator and the merchandise. His ideas for futuristic and theatrical retail display attempted to mediate a triad of raw individual desires, increasingly prevalent retail efforts to elicit predictable consumer responses, and the ultimately homogenizing effect of growing mass consumerism in the United States.



Photo on 10-30-14 at 1.50 PM #2 Laura McGuire, Ph.D., is an architectural historian and a Visiting Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture and Design at Virginia Tech. Her research focuses on American and Central European architecture and design of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the role of Jewish émigrés in American design culture. Her essays have appeared in Endless Kiesler (Birkhäuser, 2015) Frederick Kiesler: Theatervisionäre – Architeckt – Künstler (KHM/Brandstätter, 2012), Norman Bel Geddes Designs America (Abrams, 2012), Studies in the Decorative Arts, and Centropa. She teaches courses in architectural history and theory at Virginia Tech.