Interview with Amy Meadows

A few months ago, I met with Amy Windows, ‎Retail Design and Visual Merchandising Consultant, about her work and career. She was the Senior Manager of Windows and Marketing Events at Marshall Fields for 25 years. She teaches visual merchandising at Columbia College and runs a consulting business.

I asked her how she got into her career. She explained, ”I was doing set design working for a regional theater company in Richmond, Virginia. I loved it. I loved the people I was working with. A career in the performing arts requires a level of passion and sacrifice that I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable making. I was on a bus downtown, just thinking, “What I am I going do? I don’t want to scrap my degree. There’s gotta be something.” The bus stopped and I looked over to the display windows for MIller and Rhoads and thought “if that were over there a little bit…” So the power of naivety and youth, I just called the head of display for Miller and Rhoads. “Oh hi. I was wondering if you can tell me more about your job.” I’m a huge advocate for the value of the informational interview. People like to talk about themselves. Bring them coffee. It’s fifteen minutes. There’s no expectations on them. They don’t have to decide to interview or not. All you are asking for is fifteen.

“They had a job opening at a suburban store. I took it. A few years later, I came to Chicago to visit my roommates. She was going to be busy during the day. I figured I’ll set up informational interviews. I went into Marshall Fields, they said, “How do you know about the job being available?” I knew nothing about the job available. I almost passed out. The reason that job was available was because an architectural graduate had just called and said she couldn’t take the job after all. She got an internship with an architectural firm she really needed to take. 10 years later we discover through cocktail parties and all sorts of stuff, that that woman was one of my husband’s roommates. She was at my wedding. Seriously, thank you so much for turning down that job because that’s how I got it. She had no idea. I had no idea. But there you go.”

I asked about her time designing windows for Marshall Fields, later Macy’s. It is a tradition for my mom and me to visit the Christmas windows.

“The most challenging thing about the windows, the Great Tree, the main aisle, all of those traditions: How do deliver on a tradition? [There’s the] widely held expectation yet keep it fresh. That’s the thing. Because we think of Disney as a time capsule but it’s not. Everything gets refreshed and, rewritten. They want new things. If everything was the same exact same way it was, it could look just as nice, but you wanted to see brand right. We would say whose name is on the door. We knew our customers expected something that was over the top, that would satisfy a wide generational breadth, because you are going to have grandparents with grandchildren on the shoulders. It became more and more multicultural society evolved. We stopped saying Christmas instead we said the holidays. One of my first windows was the Nativity scene. Do you see any departments doing Nativity scene windows anymore? But even when we did Harry Potter, there were critics who felt that we were promoting Satanic worship or that it wasn’t Christmassy enough... Some are Christmas stories but there other stories that you had to Christmasize. There’s only one Christmas scene in Harry Potter when they get gifts. But you still want to see twinkling lights, the snow, that sort of stuff too. How to merge that and still have it work?

Let’s say we’re doing Cinderella. Along State street from Randolph to Washington, we’ve got 13 window spaces, all different depths. You look at the narrative arch. The high points? She comes to the ball. That falls in the two shallowest windows. Can’t speed it up or can’t slow it down. You still have to tell the story. It has to make sense. The narrative has to hang together. Costs are always an issue. This is where theatrical tricks come in. Instead of having three fully 3D mechanical figures, could you have two that were 3D mechanical and simply have  a bas relief or silhouette with simple movement without the viewer thinking we’ve cut costs...That’s because everyone tries to be careful and creative about it. Could you do flaps that were painted, could you do faux-finished backdrops/set pieces like in a theater, something dimensional or constructed. Canvas always cost less than wood. [There’s] designing the proscenium, the frame all that visual information passes.

“We also try to design for layers of viewers. Little kids up close, little kids on shoulders way far back, and there’s an adult who might be reading the story to the child on their shoulders as they inch their way up. With each step closer to the glass, you should be discovering another new detail. You don’t want to be like: “Oh, we waited for this?” There should always be that: “Ooooh. Look at that. I didn’t see that back there. It still looked great. But Now that I’m all the way up here in the freezing cold, it was worth the wait.”

That’s all for now. To find out more about Amy Meadows and her work, check out her website: