Magic hurts. Just ask visual merchandiser John Kerr, the man who for the past 19 years has overseen the iconic Myer Christmas windows.
Five weeks ago, just before the opening of the windows, Kerr had a major accident at the studio. “I was doing the last of the snow flocking, (which is) a paper pulp and you spray it with this big gun thing and it looks like snow. It gets atomised with water and gets really wet and slippery but then sets like a rock.
“I was there at one in the morning and the floor was covered with wet flock and I (fell) and knocked myself out. I was there by myself. The studio was locked. I came to. I’d landed on another client’s gingerbread house. So I felt like the wicked witch of the west because I’d landed on a gingerbread house and smashed it, flat on my back.”
The queues of people lining up to see the Myer windows – this year the theme is Russell the Sheep from the children’s book by Rob Scotton – are witnessing the magic of John Kerr who, for 19 years, has found the book upon which to base the windows and managed a team of as many as
45 artisans working for nine months, right up until opening day in the first week of November.
Kerr’s future was rather pre-ordained. “At age 11 I stood in front of the Christmas windows as a true Melburnian and said to mum, ‘This is what I’m going to do’. I was a kid who always worked with shoeboxes making scenes with cotton wool, cellophane over torches. This was just the bigger model.”
The Myer department store has produced ornate windows based on a theme – often around Christmas – since 1956. The first was Father Christmas arriving in the Olympic stadium.
For a window dresser it’s like having a production on Broadway, with thousands passing by each day. But in year 10, the Myer windows were just a dream to strive for.
Kerr enrolled in the Melbourne College of Decoration and studied visual merchandising. “The minute I walked in there (was) the smell of paint, cardboard, foil, screen-printing ink. I knew this was it, this was just magic.” He was dux of his year.
Kerr started work at Suzanne’s as a window dresser, moved to David Jones for a year and moonlighted dressing windows on Whitehorse Road, Balwyn. A retiring window dresser got in touch. “He’d spotted me and my talent so he gave me his run of windows, which was about 50 stores,” Kerr says. “I took the leap at age 20 and went out by myself.”
He formed a company, Stage One, a highly specialised production house of which he is creative director.
“I’d been knocking on Myer’s door since ’91 trying to get the gig,” he says. “My first gig with Myer was in 1991 to supply a Valentine’s Day package to Myer Melbourne. Quilted love hearts. And that grew to every surburban store. That got me in the door at Myer.”
In 1993 he was invited to tender for the Christmas windows with the theme The Wizard of Oz. The audition didn’t go well. “I went to all this trouble of producing these scale models, presented it in the old oak boardroom in Lonsdale Street. I found out years later I had a screw hanging out from under one of the scale models and I scratched the old oak boardroom table, gouged it. It had to be totally disassembled, taken out of the building and French polished. Hence I didn’t get the job. It was only six years ago that (a Myer executive) broke the news to me.”
A year later, aged 25, he got the job. His first theme was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
We are talking in an office inside Myer, having dodged eager children enjoying Santaland – the area he designed for children, including a ride-on train – to get here.
Kerr describes the long process towards opening day. In late November the search for a theme begins. “We’re scouting for books at the moment,” Kerr says. “It’s always been based on a book. In the past 10 years it’s been a Christmas theme, which makes it quite hard because there are not that many Christmas-themed kids books out there but we somehow find something new each year.
“I come up with about 10 options. I have a list of my favourites which I will keep pitching until I get it.”
Last year he felt he had scored gold when he discovered a children’s book called Russell’s Christmas Magic. “I saw it in a bookshop, grabbed it and thought, ‘Ooh, hello’. I was so excited I rang (two Myer executives) and said, ‘Coffee, now’.”
In December it’s narrowed down to two options. He presents hand-drawn illustrations. “Once we’ve got artists’ impressions and a sign-off from Myer and everyone’s happy, it’s into production we go, and that normally kicks off about April.”
Kerr needs to apply for copyright with the publishers. “It’s not hard to get but it’s about finding the right person,” he says. “This year we were in contact with HarperCollins, New York, and then the author direct.”
The copyright process takes two to three months. Only once were they required to pay royalties, and that was to a charitable foundation which owns the rights to the Gumnut Babies.
And then Kerr immerses himself in the book. “I’ll read that book over and over again. I’ve got a sign next to my desk which says, ‘Close your eyes and see’. It’s true. As when you’re designing for stage you have to embed that story into your mind. And then you just let it sit there and forget it, and the ideas will start coming at two o’clock in the morning. Up I get and start drawing.
Then a team of 45 artisans start work. Among them are creative, technical and digital production managers, set builders, scenic carpenters, set detailers, scenic artists, sculptors, casting and mould technicians, costume designer and make-up artists.
“At any given time there are 20 staff working on it, for six months a year,” Kerr says. “It’s a big undertaking.” How much does all this cost? “I always answer that because it’s Myer’s gift to the public, it’s rude to ask what a gift is worth.”
It’s a boon for the author of the book upon which the window is based as sales increase because of the promotion. “I went over for a visual merchandising conference and had dinner in New York with the publisher.” Kerr called this “an appreciation dinner”.
Sometimes an author gets quite involved. “Rob Scotton, this year’s author, has been monitoring all the blog sites and feedback sites and he’s been in there talking and responding.”
Kerr says a window themed around Olivia the Pig three years ago was his most difficult. “Technically it was a huge job. I was watching it on YouTube just the other day and I thought it really was spot on. But there was mixed reaction from the audience. Anyone who knew the theme loved it. But for the passerby – or what I call the streakers, streaking by who just take a quick glace – what they see is a very plain stylised window and didn’t get it.”
How does he know? “Blog sites. People can be nasty.” How did he feel about that? “I guess they’re allowed to have an opinion.” Does he take notice of it? “Oh it greatly affects me. Things like, ‘The budget must have been cut’. Well, no, it wasn’t. If you have a look at it, it is so complex and so detailed and is so faithful to Ian Falconer’s work.”
At 44, Kerr says he wants to keep doing the Myer windows but it can be quite a physical challenge. “The windows are a really tight environment. You have to put your legs over your head and twist and contort to get in and around things. At some point I’m going to do my hip or something. Imagine putting a disc out and going, ‘Oh no’, stuck in the middle of a window.”
The characters might look cute but they can be dangerous. “We’re working with a lot of chemicals to create magic. The characters are produced from urethane. We run a safe studio, but at the end of the day it might look pretty but don’t chew it.
“A lot of people ask what happens to the sets and characters afterwards, and that’s the problem. They are a little bit too dangerous to be given away to children to chew on. Some characters are archived; we and Myer both keep a set.” Fabrics and glitter are made available to school teachers.
The windows are a big operation. Kerr also oversees the Myer windows in Brisbane and the Santalands in five other cities around Australia. “That all opens the same day. Then you’ve got every other retailer in Melbourne wanting their windows changed. I’ve definitely built an amazing niche market but it’s also a very cyclic niche market, and when retail wants a change, it’s full-on.”
Kerr sometimes goes out into Bourke Street to listen to what the people in the queue are saying. “The other night I was running in and out of the windows, we were doing some fine-tuning with programming … and people were stopping me and congratulating me and I thought, ‘How does everyone know who I am” and Emma (Myer executive) was there and she said, ‘John, you are covered in glitter’.”
“The magic has to disappear,” he says. “More and more with retail we are night-display gypsies. When everyone leaves we are coming in and doing the night shifts for things to magically appear the next morning. Making magic’s not easy. That’s what I keep telling everyone.”
It’s not the only project Kerr works on, but is the one that takes the most out of him. At the end of the cycle he suffers from what he calls “the post-window blues”.
Kerr and his partner Brendan will next month celebrate 25 years together. “We’re planning an intimate dinner for 50 friends.”
Away from work he winds down with his garden. “I have a beautifully manicured Japanese garden. Japanese gardening is very much like window dressing. It’s so anal, and it has to be perfect and it suits me perfectly. When you’re sweeping away cobwebs off your dwarf pine trees …”
How many more windows will he do? ”I’ll keep doing it until some little young buck knocks me off my perch.”
His motivation lies in the dream he had as a child. “I strive to excel each year. That feeling I got when I was 11 years old standing in front of the windows, that magic that I felt. I still want to get back to that point, and I’ve never got back there. And that’s what drives me; to improve the window, to get to that point where I can go, ‘Wow’.”
Celebrate » The Myer Christmas windows can be viewed in Bourke Street, city. This year the theme is Russell the Sheep from the children’s book by Rob Scotton.