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Chi Lives: more than just window dressing



For the last 16 years, Marb Jones has designed the window displays for Tiffany & Co. on Michigan Avenue. An artist whose medium is retail merchandise, Jones's job has essentially stayed the same through the years and after the store's recent move across the street. "I make you smile as you walk by," she says. "Maybe you don't come through the door, maybe you never buy anything, but I make you forget you have a toothache."

Until recently Jones used mainly strange and hard-to-find props for her dressings, items that appeared incongruous beside expensive jewelry and crystal. She became adept at tracking down just the right object, gaining not only a lot of obscure practical knowledge but also amassing a bizarre collection that has filled the storage space in her apartment. "I have 50 eggbeaters back home, a four-foot-tall champagne bottle, a rubber snake, the arm of a skeleton," she says. "If you look hard enough you can find anything. Red cock feathers come from a guy in New York, but he'll only sell them by the pound."

Yet the desire to stay fresh has caused Jones to rethink her concept--she's going minimalist. Take the windows that went up December 25. The theme is travel, and she's relying on the simplest of gestures to convey it. "The old Marb would've schmaltzed it up," she says. (Marb is pronounced like "mare" with a b at the end.) Now she's focusing on the simple: the subtle element of pure magic.

In one window a few miniature palm trees sprout from a suitcase full of sand, an idea that came to her after an earlier one didn't pan out. Jones had gone to O'Hare to ask a porter for some luggage tags with the three-letter destination codes, but she was told that misusing them is a federal offense. "The things I learn on this job," she shrugs.

The technical term for Jones's occupation is "window dresser," but she rarely uses it. "Window dressing" implies an irrelevant or extraneous function, a secondary role to selling goods. The windows occupy the space between the private and the public, between the store and the strollers, most of whom will never make it in to shop. Jones's Tiffany windows--full of variety, innovation, and humor--are about more than presenting the merchandise as a commodity. She calls it "street theater."

Jones gives credit to Gene Moore for making window dressing an art form. Moore began doing windows for Tiffany's in New York City in 1955. "I learned a lot from Gene," she says. "He told me some secrets for lighting that I always come back to." During his more than three decades at Tiffany's, Moore brought an artist's sensibility to a pursuit that had always been strictly functional. In his lavishly illustrated memoir, Windows at Tiffany's, Moore writes, "I love to play tricks with scale, to manipulate the viewer's perception of reality." A fairly typical artistic creed, but another comment reveals the constant tension between art and commerce: "Spotting the merchandise in the windows soon became a window-shopper's sport."

Above all, Moore demonstrated a single-minded devotion to his craft, once sticking 12 stuffed South American hummingbirds in his underwear to get them past customs. He collaborated with Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and James Rosenquist before they became famous. Jones is following in Moore's footsteps, commissioning little-known artists to execute her designs or borrowing their works for installations. She's collaboarted with Lori Hough, a papier-mache artist, and Aaron Kramer, a sculptor who specializes in spherical objects made from junk. For her Christmas windows, which featured miniature beds with clay bedspreads, she worked with locals Dan Crowley and Chris Royal.

In addition to doing the windows for Tiffany's on Michigan every two weeks, Jones also works for the Tiffany's in Oak Brook, Hermes, and Sara Lee's corporate headquarters. She culls her ideas from a variety of sources, from classical and recent art to other windows around town. She knows the other designers working in the city and admits to a certain level of friendly competition.

Lately she's been impressed with the fashionably dressed invisible men in the window at Paul Stuart. Wires suspend each piece of clothing to convey such a strong sense of movement you forget there aren't any figures there.

"Flying is a lost art," Jones tells me. She reaches for an orchid on the table in front of us. "I could fly this, but it would take hours. You paint the filament so it doesn't reflect." So that's how they do that.

--Mark Swartz

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Marb Jones and window photos by Cynthia Howe.

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