Collection Highlight: The Invisible Window
“When the Invisible Glass Company of America cleared its last patent, nothingness—non-existence—suddenly became a piece of merchandise.”—Apparel Arts, 1936
Visitors passing through The Wolfsonian’s ground floor elevator lobby may very well not notice the two unobtrusive bronze window frames installed there. This absenting is appropriate, as retreat from the immediate visual field has always been the objects’ aspiration. Meet the Invisible Window.
The story of the Invisible Window begins in the late nineteenth century with the rise of a new mercantile model known as the department store. These retail venues offered a wide range of goods under a single roof to an increasingly affluent customer base. Innovative merchandising developed in tandem with the spectacle of mass commerce. The department store fashioned itself as a site of desire (or a font of commodity fetishism, as you prefer), with the modern storefront show window playing a principle part in the mobilization of consumer want. These systems of display were and are a foremost means of placing goods in public view such that the citizenry may encounter them casually in the course of daily life. Dispensing with many vital years and details brings us to the 1935 founding of the Invisible Glass Company of America, which acquired the United States patents for the commercial production of invisibility, viz. the Invisible Window.
Plate glass in itself is transparent. The same glass becomes visible when light contacts its surface and is directed back into the eye, conveying both its own substance and a retinue of reflected images. “These non-merchandise images,” explains a 1936 Invisible Glass Company trade catalogue, “become more prominent as the sunlight increases until the climax is reached when the transparency of the glass gives way completely to its mirror-like tendencies.” The Invisible Window eliminates this vexing phenomenon with a precisely curved plate glass surface that gathers all reflections to a single point and deflects them from the eye into a recessed well known as a baffle. All obstructions are neutralized and only the image of the merchandise remains.
While the Invisible Window enjoyed particular prominence among department stores, especially for the exhibition of clothing mannequins and jewelry, the Invisible Glass Company also marketed it for the display of furniture, fine china, automobiles, pianos, floral arrangements, luggage, liquor, lingerie, bathroom fixtures, and every other imaginable consumer ware for which a show window might enhance sales. The New Yorker reported that Doris Duke and James Cromwell, seduced by the magic of the Invisible Window, planned to have invisible glass portholes set into the dining room aquarium of their Hawaiian retreat.
Widespread allure and application notwithstanding, the Invisible Window venture failed. The manufacturing requirements of custom-made curved plate glass proved too costly and time consuming in light of the product’s limited distribution. The mechanism, moreover, turned out to be rather hazardous. There are reports that a Great Dane became trapped in the baffle of an Invisible Window at Gunther’s Department Store in New York City and that the same fate befell a young girl seeking to recover a lollypop from the baffle of a Lord & Taylor window. The manager of the William Hengerer and Company Department Store (wherefrom The Wolfsonian’s frames derive) reported that, at night, drivers would stop to grab at merchandise thinking there was no protective barrier; by day, enchanted pedestrians would touch the glass with such frequency that store personnel could not keep it clean. The curved surfaces were replaced with conventional plate glass after only six months.
The frames of the Hengerer show windows now reside in Miami Beach. Those who look through them today will see a large ceramic vessel in each (neither is for sale) and, reflected in the very much visible glass, a plaster model of a mausoleum, a pair of bronze elevator doors, an Art Deco post office box, and themselves.
—Matthew Abess, assistant curator, The Wolfsonian
Window frames, 1937–38
From William Hengerer Company Department Store, Buffalo, New York
Starrett and Van Vleck, renovation architects
Invisible Glass Company of America Inc., New York City, manufacturer
74 x 46 in (188.0 x 116.8 cm)
The Wolfsonian–Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida,
The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
Photo: Lynton Gardiner