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The Confluence of Museums and Merchandising

Retailers must recognize the importance of the art of design




Recently, the acclaimed jewelry designer Joel A. Rosenthal, perhaps better known by his initials JAR, had a showing of more than 400 pieces of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Any exhibition, whether in the great halls at the Met, a gallery in Soho, or a grouping of product prominently displayed in a Fifth Avenue boutique, should be informative and educational. What I've learned from the JAR exhibition is that jewelry shouldn't merely be appreciated for the intrinsic value of its stones or the quality of its precious metals, but also for the depth of its design.

Clearly, art is a reflection of our times and design is a reflection of the human experience. Times of great prosperity and times of insecurity both bring an intricacy and sophistication to design. The period between the World Wars and the uncertainty of the Great Depression spawned and fueled the art deco movement, perhaps the most influential period of design in the 20th Century. Innovation and evolution obviously impact design. Gropius introduced the Bauhaus in 1919 in Weimar, Germany soon after World War I. The movement was influenced by modernism and constructivism, and had a significant impact on architecture, graphic and industrial design, fashion and even music.

Retailers must recognize the importance of the art of design. In1946, Dorothy Shaver was one of the first women appointed to head a major department store. Upon her promotion to president of Lord & Taylor, Time magazine dubbed her “Fifth Avenue's First Lady.” Her contribution to modern merchandising was extensive and far-reaching. In 1928, she staged an exhibition at Lord & Taylor of modern French decorative arts. Her vision wasn't simply to sell the pieces, but rather to encourage a relationship between artists and manufacturers in order to produce fashion and objects of beauty for the general public. 

Jewelry is a classic example of fashion as art. More than adornments, jewelry is a cornerstone of the decorative arts, so why not present it accordingly? There is recognition by private jewelry collectors, dealers and curators that this medium deserves a stage in museums and galleries. Why not hang jewels in exhibition? It’s an uplifting experience to see fine jewelry presented in museums.

There is, however, an ethical concern: Is it appropriate to use a museum as a showplace to raise the value of a collection? While that may be debatable, it’s totally appropriate to use retail space to educate.

Dorothy Shaver knew that shows, whether in museums or on the selling floor at Lord & Taylor, increased the value of merchandise. Today's retailers must do more than just show and sell, they must also teach. Curators understand that new scholarship, examining the artist, the techniques and the times, should come out of exhibitions. 


A successful jewelry show must delve into sociological factors that drive design and push the medium. As women continue to advance economically and become more financially independent, they are in increasing numbers, buying their own jewelry. reports that women now control $20 trillion in annual consumer spending worldwide. Accordingly, they are changing the marketplace.

Jewelry designers are responding to this trend by designing to aesthetic sensibilities that might be more attractive to women, rather than those of their boyfriends or husbands. This is a valuable commentary on our times, and after all, that's what art is. Both art and fashion are bookmarks of our society and interpretations of our lifestyles, social values, dreams, wants and needs.

Shaver espoused the importance of design and the elevation of merchandising through exhibitions. We have learned that in robust economies, and even in struggling economies, people are attracted to beautiful things. Brands make adaptations: if it’s beautiful enough, people will buy it. While fluctuations in the economy might impact design scale, design itself is never compromised.

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience.  He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Currently, he serves as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York), and was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In addition to being the New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.



MasterClass: ‘Re-Sparkling’ Retail: Using Store Design to Build Trust, Faith and Brand Loyalty

HOW CAN WE EMPOWER and inspire senior leaders to see design as an investment for future retail growth? This session, led by retail design expert Ian Johnston from Quinine Design, explores how physical stores remain unmatched in the ability to build trust, faith, and loyalty with your customers, ultimately driving shareholder value.

Presented by:
Ian Johnston
Founder and Creative Director, Quinine Design

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