A Glimpse at the Artist Behind the Window Displays at Thornes Marketplace

 By Rich Madowitz

A Glimpse at the Artist Behind the Window Displays at Thornes Marketplace

Artist Carrie Lenard

The window displays in front of Thornes Marketplace always catch the eye, but never so much as when artist Carrie Lenard is inside them, bringing her concepts for a new month to life.

“When people happen upon me working in the windows, they’re always surprised. They say, ‘Oh, you’re the person who does the windows!’” Carrie says, noting that many passersby strike up a conversation with comments, compliments, and questions. “I will stop and chat if someone is interested in how it happens. It’s an amazing compliment.”

Otherwise, Carrie goes all Zen as she creates, focusing on her hand-painted backdrops, props made from recycled materials, and other display items. The idea is to turn heads, and transform bystanders into buyers.

Since 2006, Carrie has been brainstorming and executing the Thornes Main Street window displays, swapping them out every month, mid-month. She works with Marketing Manager Jody Doele to plan which businesses will be featured, following a rotation that ensures each merchant inside the shopping gallery gets attention.

In late January, Carrie will install the annual Valentine windows—transitioning the holiday displays to something totally new. “I like to experiment with hand-painted backdrops, sculptural elements, unexpected materials, pattern, and vibrant color combos,” she says, adding, “My process is pretty unconventional for a window dresser—leaning more toward art installation, with a nod to the changing seasons.”

“I love to experiment,” Carrie adds. “The process is liquid—a different experience every time. Different merchants, products, themes, and challenges—one installation to the next. And it’s never boring.”

Working with individual merchants prior to their turn in the displays, Carrie is pretty much afforded carte blanche when choosing which merchandise makes the windows. “My job is to tell a story—to present a fresh outlook,” she says. “I do my homework regarding current trends in display, color, and lifestyle. I usually have the full year mapped out regarding displays I think will work for the Thornes brand. When it’s time to install a window, I have a final design in mind and describe my rough concept  to each merchant. From there, it’s a matter of adding and subtracting—switching props and merchandise—in order to achieve a balance.”

People often ask how she comes up with new ideas month-after-month, year-after-year. “I am a constant collector of visual ideas,” says Carrie. “I’m always researching what retailers are presenting in Paris, Milan, New York, London, and the West Coast. When I travel, one of my favorite activities is to photograph retail windows at night.”

Pulling from her training as a visual artist and graphic designer, Carrie grabs inspiration from many different sources, such as interior design, theater and stage design, and the materials, and methods used in the building trades. “Window displays are like putting together a giant puzzle. It’s important to have a lot of different skills. I try and keep an open mind about each display and will use any method or material to achieve my goals. I call it no-fear merchandising.”

Carrie grew up in western Massachusetts and always wanted to be an artist. “I was extremely lucky to have grown up in a time when the arts were an important part of public education,” she says. “My high school had a comprehensive program in place with five art instructors and a full roster of full-time classes. My senior year of high school was dedicated to art training in photography, drawing, printmaking, ceramics, and art history. Just amazing.”

Carrie earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Portland School of Art in Portland, Maine, (now Maine College of Art.) She became a graphic designer after graduating and got absorbed in a world of advertising and art directing. “My experience at Portland School of Art was a much more intense immersion into studio arts and the practical world of working artists. The visual training I received there has definitely shaped the way I approach my art—in all its forms.”

After roughly a decade of agency life in Maine, Carrie moved back to this area to be closer to family. She took on the role of visual manager for (the former) Filene’s Department Store in Worcester. She had a staff and was in charge of designing the windows, all department mannequins, and interior displays. “It was a large dinosaur of a store,” she says. “Budgets were huge in the day. It was during the time that department stores were installing Ralph Lauren POLO shops within departments, and the work—though grueling—was exhilarating.”

Soon after her time at Filene’s, Carrie was tapped to help with a start-up catalog for a local Archival Products company. The Mac SE computer had just been invented and companies were scrambling to bring design in-house. “It’s hilarious to think about how we taught ourselves computer skills for full-color catalog layout—all while looking at a nine-inch, black-and-white monitor!” she remembers.

Carrie also worked closely with marketing and product development innovators, studio photographers, and branding experts in her capacity as an art director. The skills honed during that time of exploration shaped her career path.

Carrie soon realized that she had a lot of ideas and experience to offer, and started her own agency, Lenard Design Group, in 1990. Her clients range from organizations in the education realm to Fortune 100 companies. Her specialty is to help companies, large and small, create and maintain their brand.

A friend connected Carrie to Thornes after I became the owner. She pitched her plan, and ever since, has designed the windows along the Main Street entrance of Thornes, as well as some interior graphic design projects, and the yearly holiday interior displays.

“I have the greatest job in the world,” Carrie says. “The amount of support and creative freedom I’m given at Thornes is what keeps me excited about each installation. I enjoy working directly with the merchants, and appreciate their trust in me. If my windows are a success, it translates into sales, and that is truly my job.”

Thornes Marketplace has been the cornerstone of downtown Northampton and at the center of the Main Street shopping district for more than a century. Built in 1873, it holds 55,000 square feet of space for merchants and includes features like pressed tin ceilings and hardwood floors.