Pane staking

Dominic Lutyens tries to interpret the festive messages being sent out by a handful of Christmas window displays on London’s high streets

In recent years, Christmas decorations have come to reflect an increasingly complex code of values that divides the population thus. Staunch traditionalists embrace their orgiastic vulgarity with guileless, childlike enthusiasm, tradition-observing minimalists convince themselves they’re acceptable in monochrome, while the achingly arty eschew literal Yuletide decorations in favour of lateral interpretations. The Christmas windows of London’s Harrods conform to the first category, Harvey Nichols’ to the second and Selfridges’ and the Applied Arts Agency’s to the third.

Harrods cannily exploits the multi-generational appeal of 007-mania (while capitalising on the 40th anniversary, this year, of the first Bond movie) with windows charting the Bond filmography, designed by the store’s visual merchandising department under the direction of their leader, Mark Briggs. Each presents a cornucopia of nouveau riche, sybaritic stocking fillers: dollar-shaped cufflinks, Versace crockery, Theo Fennell rocks, leather hip flasks, interspersed with Christmas baubles. ‘Recession? What recession?’ is the message. Oddly, though, those action-packed Bond movies are reduced to static tableaux. Woodenly posed mucho macho mannequins of Sean, Roger and Pierce brood in the background, while their foxy, female underlings lie listlessly over faux-bearskin rugs or sports cars.

Minimalism-loving style temple Harvey Nichols, by contrast, is in denial about lurid, polychromatic Christmas. Think Tom Ford teaches tacky Seventies disco a lesson in understated chic. Its muted, champagne-gold windows, designed by the display controller Janet Wardley, reference nightclub naffness but remain within the realm of ‘good taste’. Slender gold foil strips – an elegant take on variety-show kitsch – are coyly adorned with tiny Paco Rabanne-esque discs. Nineteen-sixties retro, acrylic wall lights are polite versions of tawdry baubles. Mannequins sport uber-soigne, taupe threads, this old-money classicism curiously contradicted by their ash-blonde, highlight-heavy, glitter-flecked barnets (oh-so-Steps). Harvey Nichols is renowned for its experimental windows. This year, they scream recession-fearing conservatism.

Conceptual and off-the-wall, Selfridges’ windows – designed by its 3D design team, headed by Mat Wilkinson – are out to further the store’s rightful reputation for being at the vanguard of design. One displays a Tom Dixon-designed vibrator (for upscale lingerie store Myla) on a bed of Sloaney pearls in a museum’s glass case, another washing lines hung with mock-tabloid front pages pruriently hollering headlines such as ‘TV Deayton’s drug romp with vice girl!’ both unseasonally salacious and a far cry from schmaltzy, Christmas values. Bizarre then – in the view of all this irony and surrealism – that their official theme is ‘Winter of Love’, a message oddly preaching altruistic, pseudo-spiritual values. (Christmas a time of cynical commercialism? Perish the thought.)

Even more conceptual is the window of Exmouth Market’s Applied Arts Agency, by Barney Barford – a sideswipe at grimly stressful family Christmasses. A table is set with four plates on to which are projected videos, providing ‘each family member with their own tailored entertainment to aid them through the Christmas dinner. Dad’s boasts Tom Jones in concert (such delusions of sexual magnetism), Granny’s the Queen’s speech, Mum’s Space Invaders. The room set is gruesomely spare – sub-Laura Ashley wallpaper, cheap melamine table – the sense of entrapment enhanced by chairs apparently embedded in an oatmeal carpet at shoulder height. When I visited, this conceit deservedly elicited admiring comments from passers-by, the type – you assume – who you’d never, ever catch heartily decking their halls with holly.

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