Nora's Notables: Holiday Edition - Tom Lee Window Displays

Tom Lee Window Displays

After reading a recent New York Times article about New York City’s holiday window displays, NYSID archivist Nora Reilly was reminded of the window displays of designer Tom Lee, whose archives are housed in the NYSID Archives & Special Collections.  Here is some information about him and his work.

Chances are good that if you were walking around Midtown somewhere between the years of 1936 and 1959, you encountered Tom Lee’s handiwork. Before hotel interiors, Lee was a well-known designer of window displays for the likes of Bonwit Teller, Bergdorf Goodman, Macy’s, Lever Brothers, R.C.A., and the New York Savings Bank.  

Lee was director of display at Bonwit Teller when the department store commissioned Salvador Dali to design two of their windows. (You can see them on Museum of the City of New York’s (MCNY) website, here.) Lee worked with Dali on the displays, describing them later as “very psychological.”  Unfortunately, management deemed the work too risqué and modified them, without notifying Dali first. This enraged the artist, and his behavior got him thrown in jail. A 1939 New York Times article detailed the whole ordeal in, “Art Changed, Dali Goes on Rampage in Store, Crashed Through Window Into Arms of Law.”   

Lee was also frequently hired to design sets and exhibitions, including sets for the 1940 Broadway production of Louisiana Purchase. Shortly after returning from serving in WWII, he designed the R.C.A. Exhibition Hall.  This 1947 exhibition hall, which was the first introduction the general public has to the television and the technology behind it; and it became a popular tourist attraction at Rockefeller Center.

The Christmas window displays that Lee created at the Lever House were probably his most popular. Shortly after Lever House was constructed, he was hired to create displays for the building’s massive street-level windows (the building is still located on Park Avenue and 54th street). For the first holiday season, Lee designed a moving carousel fitted with whimsical holiday creatures, all planted with a variety of Lever Brothers home-cleaning products. The carousel became a tourist attraction in itself and was recreated with a different theme over the next 10 years. Tom Lee called himself “the invisible man” in a 1959 New York Herald Tribune article titled, “The Man Behind the Scenes.”  He said, “Not many people outside the trade know about me, “but I’ve been affecting women’s looks and lives for over 20 years.” 


See more photographs from Tom Lee’s collection here.


Phyllis Greer