When I reflect upon my career I guess I’ve been a lucky guy. I’ve been able to support myself freelance during most of it, except during the last recession which struck the worst blow to retail I have ever experienced. Which, I might add is still lingering on. Retail is just not the same since. The advent of the internet hasn’t helped brick and mortar either. There will always be a “high-end” customer that delights in personal service,but they have become an endangered species. There are simply not enough of them to support the huge amount of retailers yearning for their dollar. The local retailer has had a hard time remaining competitive in the face of the invasion of the “big box” merchants. All in all the last eight years have been bleak.
To combat the malaise in the retail sector lets look back to the Golden Era of retail, the post war years when their was a “chicken in every pot and a car in every driveway. Every boomer remembers tagging along with mom as she dragged us through the great department stores that once where a fixture in every town and city center. Those days of doormen,excellent service and sparkling merchandise,made a lasting impression on me that shaped my future and are still the measure by which I judge my own work.
During my post Art school days I was fortunate to have met Henry Callahan the master of classic display .Mr. Callahan, who was born in Oakland, Calif., grew up in Philadelphia, where as a teen-ager he became a display apprentice to Strawbridge & Clothier’s department store. He later became head of window display at Lord & Taylor in New York City and display head for Schenley, the liquor concern.
In 1957, he joined Saks Fifth Avenue, where he became a vice president and the corporate director of visual merchandise. He retired in 1977. His favorite windows, he once told an interviewer, were of Southern belles napping in hammocks and wearing lace pastel-colored dresses. A hidden mechanism made their chests gently rise and fall as they slept.
I met Henry through a common friend who had tagged me as a perfect display man [before I knew it myself] Henry was retired and living in a snug town house on the very fashionable Delancey Street in Philadelphia. I remember well sitting in his front parlor as he poured tea from a beautiful Limoges pot and spoke to me about his days at Saks as he turned the pages of his scrap books [many scrapbooks] his words still stick in my mind, “You must wear many hats” he said “you must be an artist first and then a painter, a carpenter, a tailor, an architect, and a janitor” Henry had no fantasies about a life in retail, “You have to love what you do or do something else” Henry was kind and introduced me to a number of contacts that launched my career. His words still come to me when I feel I had chosen the wrong path, that I should have chosen a more secure profession and work 9 to 5 for 30 years and retire with a pension. Too late for that now…and I still believe you have to love what you do… Thanks Henry, you were right.
Now for a beautiful collection of Mr Callahan’s work, impeccable, timeless and without equal.