Red Hook

The holiday magic of Macy’s begins at a Red Hook workshop

A sneak peek at the 2019 window displays.

September 27, 2019 Alex Williamson
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It’s almost October, and you know what that means — time to start talking about Christmas.

If you’re a member of the Macy’s holiday window crew, spearheaded by Macy’s National Director of Window Presentation Roya Sullivan, then that conversation began in February or March. That’s when the team of roughly 200 artists, designers, sculptors, animators, carpenters, electricians and sound engineers start planning the holiday window displays for the retail giant’s flagship 34th Street store in Manhattan, almost immediately after the prior year’s displays are taken down.

Sullivan gave the Brooklyn Eagle a tour of the windows in the works at Standard Transmission studio, a Red Hook design and fabrication shop that’s been partnering with Macy’s for the past seven years to bring the concepts to life.

The first window in the series depicts the Santa balloon from the Macy’s Day Parade, made from chrome, with a city backdrop. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Sullivan’s team first designs the six windows for the Midtown department store, which are meant to be viewed chronologically and to tell a story. This year, the story is about “Santa Girl,” a little girl who wishes she could be Santa watching the Thanksgiving Day parade, and whose dream comes true on Christmas morning when she receives a Santa suit.

“The story is about how Santa is in all of our hearts,” said Sullivan.

The crew at Standard Transmission starts constructing the displays in March or April, using foam, plywood, LED lights, interactive video displays, chrome and robotic elements.

Styrofoam flurries fill the air as a worker shaves a foam igloo down to size. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

One of this year’s windows shows Santa Girl putting antlers on her large animatronic dog. Another incorporates a video game with a steering wheel outside of the plate glass, allowing visitors to steer a 3D vehicle across a screen and collide with as many presents as possible.

Another window has a camera that snaps a photo of the viewer, which is then broadcast across eight LED displays. During a test run, an animated Santa hat appeared in the lower corner of the photo.

“This is in its infancy,” said Sullivan. “The idea is that the Santa hat will be on your head, and that Santa is inside of you.”

A Standard Transmission crew member adjusts the wiring for display window number one. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Construction work wraps up around Halloween each year, and the crew moves the displays to the Harald Square store, where they begin an installation process that takes three weeks before the windows are unveiled ahead of Thanksgiving.

Aside from the Herald Square location, eight other Macy’s stores across the country also receive animated holiday windows, built by the same team in Red Hook.

For the Downtown Brooklyn location, Macy’s is preparing some Brooklyn-themed holiday windows, including one with the bridges and tunnels that lead into the borough, one that depicts a family of bears living inside a Brooklyn water tower and one that shows a large cat dancing on a stage with an orchestra of mice playing beneath her skirt.

“I was inspired by BAM. I went to Pratt and saw a lot of shows there,” said Sullivan.

Workers at Standard Transmission use robotic elements to build moving displays. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

After the holidays, workers dismantle the displays and take them to a Macy’s warehouse, where they salvage materials for future displays at Macy’s stores around the country.

“We kind of figure out what parts and pieces can be repurposed. We are very much conscious of reusing materials,” said Sullivan.

Some of the supplies from last year’s Herald Square displays will be used in windows in Brooklyn and Chicago this year, Sullivan said.

The theme of this year’s window displays is “Believe in the Wonder.” Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Macy’s has been delighting passersby with their displays since 1874, when businessman Rowland Hussey Macy unveiled the country’s first Christmas window displays at his 14th Street Manhattan store. The company debuted the first animated window displays in 1899.

Today, the extravagantly decked-out windows of Midtown department stores like the Herald Square Macy’s, Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdales draw hordes of spectators to Fifth Avenue each winter. The company estimates that more than 10,000 people per hour pass by the windows during peak holiday shopping hours.

This year’s displays will be unveiled Thursday, Nov. 21 at the Macy’s at 151 W. 34th St. They’ll be open for viewing through Jan. 1, 2020.

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