Suzanne Weber-Karch is fussing over an assortment of props--a small pedestal, a bunch of eucalyptus leaves and the head of a mannequin.
When she is finished, the objects will play important roles in a small drama unfolding in the windows of a maternity shop in the Crystal Court of South Coast Plaza.
Weber-Karch is a window designer, and her motif for the maternity shop, called Pea in the Pod, is patina, a green glaze that is a hot look right now in everything from furniture to jewelry.
Shop windows, like the fashions they showcase, are harbingers of style. They are like little galleries, aimed at displaying original art as well as the selling of merchandise. They can begin trends or celebrate them. They are a reflection of ourselves and our culture.
Gene Moore, who for more than 30 years has stopped traffic at 5th Avenue and 57th Street in New York with his riveting displays for Tiffany & Co., uses windows to herald current events, celebrate artistic achievements and launch trends. When in 1962 nine galleries in New York simultaneously exhibited the works of Picasso in a citywide celebration, Moore created windows to pay tribute to the artist. He reproduced Picasso prints three-dimensionally by cutting out elements and protruding them into the window as a backdrop for crystal and jewelry. During a crime wave in the early 1970s, Moore created windows depicting a jewel theft: a papier-mache mouse lifts jewelry from a safe, the jewelry owners are despondent, the mouse is apprehended and in the final window he is behind bars. The windows told a story: crime does not pay.
Moore was also a trailblazer in the use of mundane materials to display dazzling merchandise. His use of materials such as eggshells, chalk, pasta, leaves and empty spools of thread to offset emeralds and rubies is often imitated today.
Here in Orange County, with its competitive retail climate and its proximity to the creative influences of Los Angeles, artists are designing windows that are among the best in the country.
"It's a great place for windows," Weber-Karch said. "You have some very 'forward' stores here, and they want good windows. Orange County can be conservative, but I think that's starting to change."
Weber-Karch, who owns her own design firm called Suzu Designs in Laguna Beach, likes to work with unexpected materials. In her current designs at Forgotten Woman in the Atrium Court at Fashion Island, mannequins are entwined in cord, paper ribbon and brown wrapping paper in a kind of "bondage in the mail room" theme. Nearby at Details, also in Atrium Court, Weber-Karch painted small statue heads gold, broke them into pieces and placed them near the merchandise.
"The important thing to know is what's hitting the hardest as far as trends go," she said. "You've got to know not only what's now, but what's next. You have to be on the cutting edge."
With her short-cropped hair, large silver earrings, black leather jacket and shiny black knickers, Weber-Karch looks very much on the cutting edge, kind of like a Spanish matador, only instead of dodging bulls she's wrestling mannequins.
Rita DeCarlo, who along with her husband, Peter DePelsmacker, owns Sphere Display and Design in Los Angeles, says the biggest thing in window design right now is architectural environments. Urns, arches and statues are hot.
"Anything with architectural elements is really big now," she said. "You see a lot of neo-classical statues, columns, arches and all of that. I tend to be more of a graphic person."
Among DeCarlo's current designs are the windows at the Sock Shop and Swept Away, both at the Marketplace on Campus Drive in Irvine, the Descamps linen store at South Coast Plaza, and the Chicken Little store in Laguna Beach.
"What I do is take the merchandise, whether it's shoes or fine apparel, and try to create an environment harmonious to the store and the products. I try to create an eye-stopper, something exciting to the viewer."
Weber-Karch aims for the same effect.
"One of the things you try to do is shock the customer," she said, "to take the customer off guard a little bit and to show them a little whimsy."
Weber-Karch charges between $300 and $800 a day, which she says includes everything from the props to a photograph of the window after it is completed. DeCarlo charges from $225 to $650 per window, depending on size and complexity. Both artists have fine arts degrees.
Weber-Karch, 28, and DeCarlo, 30, are free-lance window designers. But many stores, usually the ones that line up the merchandise in an uninspired row in the window, use sales clerks or store managers to tend to displays. Large department stores generally use their own visual-display employees.
The observations of Weber-Karch and DeCarlo were borne out on a recent shopping safari in search of outstanding window displays. Urns, columns and other neo-classical architectural elements are practically everywhere. Mottled, glazed or patina surfaces are prevalent and modernistic mannequins are big.
February is when windows are transformed for spring, and cruisewear is most evident. The Bullock's window at South Coast Plaza (lower level, inside the mall) displays mannequins in black dresses sitting on woven chairs. Behind them is a large urn resting on a black stand. On the wall is an assortment of cards depicting tropical scenes and in black script, the words "St. John, Spring '88." Here the window uses a touch of neo-classical (the urn on a stand) with the black tones to display cruise-wear.
Both Weber-Karch and DeCarlo said Bullock's and Nordstrom windows are among the best of the department store designs. Bullock's also uses a neo-classical touch, along with a patina surface, in its MainPlace windows (lower level, looking onto the parking garage), where a giant rose tree blooms from a green patina urn. Next to the roses are women lounging in enormous rose-covered hats and black-and-white dresses and shoes.