What’s in a window? Art installation meets merchandise in Thornes display

  • Carrie Lenard decorates windows at Thornes Marketplace in Northampton, Nov. 25, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Carrie Lenard decorates windows at Thornes Marketplace in Northampton, Nov. 25, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Carrie Lenard decorates windows at Thornes Marketplace in Northampton, Nov. 25, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Carrie Lenard decorates windows at Thornes Marketplace in Northampton, Nov. 25, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Carrie Lenard decorates windows at Thornes Marketplace in Northampton, Nov. 25, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Carrie Lenard decorates windows at Thornes Marketplace in Northampton, Nov. 25, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/2/2019 5:23:51 PM

NORTHAMPTON — With department store closings nationwide and concern about empty storefronts in the city’s downtown, Thornes Marketplace is a beacon to many with its festive display windows featuring intricate snowflakes, snowy villages and Christmas lights. 

The six-window Main Street display is the vision of Carrie Lenard, the marketplace’s visual director since 2006. 

From her basement workshop in Thornes, where she repurposes materials into carefully crafted displays, Lenard seeks to “tell a story in a window if you can, with the merchandise,” she said Monday. She rotates the display monthly to highlight five different merchants, often talking with curious passersby as she sets up the windows.

“I think it makes Northampton unique in that we’re not buying cookie-cutter display pieces like at a mall,” Lenard said. “It’s more of an art installation at Thornes, and I think people appreciate that.”

Window decorators like Lenard are becoming rarer, said Jan Whitaker, a Northampton author and social historian who researches department stores, which are “barely hanging on.”

“It’s pretty unusual to have a window designer for a smallish store in a smallish town,” Whitaker said. She mentioned Faces gift shop, which closed its iconic Northampton storefront in the spring and moved to Hadley, as another downtown business that had a window decorator. “I think that people may have taken those for granted,” she said. 

Department store decline

In their heyday, large department stores would fund costly window displays in hopes of attracting customers into their stores, Whitaker said, but many of those stores began to decline in the 1970s. Locally, Wilson’s Department Store in Greenfield announced last month that it would be shuttering after 137 years. While Thornes, a Main Street fixture for over a century, has weathered the changing retail environment, stores of its size often have far fewer resources when crafting window displays.

Lenard relies heavily on ingenuity and creative solutions. “I work with a very small budget, and I want it to look like a million bucks,” she said. Beyond financial matters, she doesn’t place many limits on herself. 

“I have no fear as far as decorating,” she said. “I’ll try anything, and I’ll use any material … I see things I can use that may have an interesting shape, or that I may be able to reproduce in multiples.”

In the spring, Lenard created a display in the style of a hanging garden using chicken wire, mop heads and paper leaves. These decorations saw new life in the fall when Lenard reused the same structure with autumnal tones. 

“It looked like a totally different window, but it was the same concept as if the hanging gardens had changed seasons,” she said. 

The changing seasons and colors are a common source of inspiration, Lenard said, as are trends in cities like New York and London. But when designing the displays, Lenard also looks beyond her own artistic vision. 

“You can’t be precious about your art,” she said. “The merchandise is the most important thing that I’m displaying. My art is the supporting backdrop for the merchandise … if they sell the merchandise, then I’ve done my job.”

Engaging the community

Lenard’s window displays have been successful in this regard at Cedar Chest gift shop, according to Bridget Martin, an assistant manager and assistant buyer at the store.

“We get a number of comments on what our windows look like, and people will come in asking about a particular item,” she said. Unlike other merchants at Thornes whose wares occupy the windows on a rotating basis, Cedar Chest has its own window display at all times. 

The window display serves two primary purposes, Martin said: showing customers the types of products they have in the store, and giving an “overall impression of what they’ll find in the store in terms of aesthetic or mood or seasonal impression.”

But beyond providing a glimpse into Cedar Chest’s offerings, she said, the windows also help to cement the marketplace as a local point of interest.

“I think Thornes has become something known for its windows,” Martin said. “People know to look for Thornes, like a small version of Fifth Avenue sort of thing.”

Justin Brown, owner of the furniture and art store Assemble, also inside of Thornes, agreed that people seem to look forward to new window displays.

“I think that Carrie does a really good job in representing the different stores … and the different things that we do,” Brown said. “I think people get excited about what’s going to be in the window next, what she’s going to do next.”

People keep a particular eye on the windows during the holidays, Martin added.

“They’re fun to look at, and I think that gives the impression of the building as a whole,” she said. “And because it’s done by one person, it gives a cohesive message even though the stores are so varied and different and really imaginative in their own ways.”

Lenard also notices how the displays take on a particular spirit during the holiday season. 

“I think embellishing the windows really does give people kind of a sense of wonder,” she said. “It’s fun, and it’s more fun especially with the holiday. It’s like tradition, and we don’t want every single tradition to go away.”

Without window decorators, stores would be “losing the sense of theater,” Lenard added. “They’re losing the sense of art. They’re not telling the story if they’re just plopping their stuff in the window.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com. 


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