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Student Showcase Archive

Emily Marshall Orr

PhD Work

PhD work

Designing Display in the Department Store: Techniques, Technologies, and Professionalization, 1880–1920

Between 1880 and 1920 displays in leading department stores reached an unprecedented level of artistic and commercial ambition that required professional skill, engaged with technology, earned consumer attention, and provided distinction between stores. Merchandise arrangements conveyed technical proficiency and innovation specific to the retail setting while their form and content were also in conversation with current events, art, urban life, and popular culture. This thesis explores the making, viewing, and meanings of display. Discussion will be framed around the following questions: What role did display design play in the development of department stores in Chicago, New York and London at the turn of the twentieth century and how can the impact and significance of display be identified in the stores’ material and visual cultures?

Drawing from a diverse range of unexplored primary resources and archives, this thesis reveals a set of previously underrepresented design roles, tools, and techniques of display production in the practice of architects, window dressers, shopfitters, and interior decorators who employed manual and mechanical methods to create displays that were on constant view and in continual flux. In this newly changeable retail environment, display’s alignment with fin-de-siècle modernity is explored through the themes of speed, variation, fragmentation, rationalization, and theatricality. Overall this thesis analyzes how display achieved an agency to transform everyday objects into commodities and to make consumers out of passersby.   



  • PhD


    School of Humanities


    History of Design, 2012–2017

  • Emily Orr is Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary American Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Orr’s area of specialty is American design from 1850 to the present. She holds a master’s degree in Visual Culture: Costume Studies from New York University and a bachelor’s degree in Art History and English from Colgate University. Her thesis explores the role of display design in the development of department stores in Chicago, New York and London at the turn of the twentieth century.
  • Degrees

  • BA Art History and English, Colgate University, 2006; MA Visual Culture: Costume Studies, New York University, 2008
  • Experience

  • Assistant curator of Modern and Contemporary American Design, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian, Design Museum, New York, January 2015–present; Marcia Brady Tucker Senior fellow, American Decorative Arts, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, February 2009–March 2012
  • Conferences

  • Chair for "History Through Things: Things Through HIstory: Design Objects in the Museum", College Art Association, 2017; “‘Headquarters for Home-Builders’: Stickley’s Retail Program,” Emerging Scholars Symposium, Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, October 2015; “Surface Appeal of a Nupe Stool,” 100 Hours Project Forum, University College London, June 2014; “‘An Object Lesson in Decoration’: Interior Display at Wanamaker’s Department Store,” Crafting the Look: Styling as Creative Process, Glasgow School of Art, April 2014; “The Staging of Department Store Window Display, 1880−1920,” Society of Architectural Historians Annual Conference, Austin, Texas, April 2014; “The Window Dresser ‘Baiting His Lady-Trap,’” Retailing, Shopping and Gender: Historical Approaches, Center for the History of Retailing and Distribution at the University of Wolverhampton, May 2013; “The Window Dresser: Framing Commercial Art,” Assemblage in Practice, University of East Anglia, April 2013; “Comme des Garcons: Printed Matter,” Fashion in Fiction, Drexel University, October 2010; “The Comme des Garcons Retail Revolution,” College Art Association, February 2010; “Gesamtkuntswerk to Guerilla Stores: Progressive Practice in Fashion Retail,” Seventh Richard Martin Visual Culture Symposium, New York University, April 2008
  • Publications

  • In press: “‘The Age of Show Windows’ in the American Department Store at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: Techniques and Technologies of Attraction” in Architectures of Display: Department Stores and Modern Retail, fall 2017; Contributing author, The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s, 2017; Book Review of John Vassos: Industrial Design for Modern Life by Danielle Shapiro, Journal of Design History, winter 2016; “Body Doubles: A History of the Mannequin,” in Ralph Pucci: Art of the Mannequin, 2015; 30 catalogue entries and 150 designer biographies for A Modern World: American Design from the Yale University Art Gallery, 1920−1950, November 2011