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Alessandra Wood

  • Ph.D. Program, History of American Civilizaiton
  • Museum Studies Program
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Alessandra Wood

Johns Hopkins University, B.A., History of Art, 2006; Cooper-Hewitt/Parsons School of Design, M.A., History of Decorative Arts and Design, 2009.

Kasey Grier

Dissertation Title
"Designing the Department Store: Designers, Retail Establishments, and the Changing Public Perception of Design in the Mid-Twentieth Century"

Dissertation Summary
The use of individual designers, design houses, or new design styles in department store marketing, design, and merchandise selection positions the department store as both a venue for consumption, but also education. Much in the same way as cultural institutions, such as museums, enlightened visitors on art and design, so, too, did department stores. However, the stores also offered objects of art and design for sale, shifting the place of design away from cultural institutions and into private residences of consumers of all price points.

My dissertation will argue that the calculated relationships between designers and department stores, illustrated through visual space plans, display of merchandise, and marketing, created a consumer society hyper-aware of designed spaces and goods. Public awareness of design becomes visible in increased consumer demands and expectations for modernized retail facilities and merchandise. The modern retail spaces and the goods that they sold played a key role in ushering modern architecture and design into American homes in the 20th century.

While many argue that mass production and industrial design are responsible for creating public design awareness, the studies often neglect to discuss how those goods entered consumers’ homes. My dissertation will push design histories further to examine how mid-century Americans literally and figuratively consumed design. It will posit department stores as a major venue of introduction and education of design to the general public. These retail spaces presented consumers with modern architectural design through colors, textures, spatial forms, artificial lighting—even conveniences such as heating and cooling systems and escalators. Just by visiting consumers absorbed a new standard for the world around them, based on heavily designed and controlled spaces and objects. New department stores set visual standards quickly adapted by older stores. Within the designed spaces, marketing, merchandising, and display also presented consumers with similar ideas about the importance of design in every detail; from gift boxes, to shopping bags, to household goods and furniture, to stockings, and dresses carefully designed objects existed all around the department store. The designer relied on retail establishments to deliver his ideas and products to the mid-century consumer. The mid-century consumer increasingly relied on designers and department stores to attain not only well designed merchandise branded with a designer’s label, but also cultural capital through knowledge of design.