From Store Windows To Weddings, Display Artist’s Customer Base Is Unconventional And Growing

By Elisha Sauers The Virginian-Pilot

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) After creating window displays for chains Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, Nikki Leone struck out on her own last year and launched "Poplar & Pine Studio."


A few days ago, Nikki Leone posted a photo on Instagram and something about finding studs.

In a modern context, one might imagine such words accompanying the selfie of a celebrity, posturing in a mirror with a come-hither pout and platform shoes.

Though recently Leone has come pretty close to A-listers such as Kim Kardashian-West for work, she's using social media to reach a broader audience for her new Virginia Beach-based display business.

The picture showed a massive chandelier she made out of salvaged wine bottles and hung in a Bohemian-chic clothing store. The studs, by the way, were load-bearing.

After creating window displays for chains Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, Leone struck out on her own last year and launched Poplar & Pine Studio.

While she continues to consult with shops, such as boutiques in the Selden Arcade downtown, she's found clients in unexpected places. She's not just dressing store windows, but people's homes, corporate events, restaurants and weddings.

"It doesn't surprise me that this individual has been able to cross over," said Michael Mamp, a professor at Central Michigan University who heads a fashion merchandising and design program.

Thanks to Instagram, Pinterest and the rise of blogger culture, everyday folk are more exposed to a "curated lifestyle" and want the showroom for their living room. Before, they were pressing up to the glass of a 5th Avenue storefront; now they can reach in their pockets and tap their phone screens.

"Everybody wants to live an Insta-fabulous life," Mamp said.

Social media helped Leone land her highest-profile gig in July. Virginia Williams, the bride of hip-hop artist Pusha T, hired her to design large displays for their Cavalier Hotel wedding.

The guest list included Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and Pharrell, among other music industry elites. In addition to building a custom LED-lit backdrop for DJ Clark Kent, Leone used about 1,200 oversize balloons to decorate two cars flanking the front of the venue.

Williams, who admired the work of French artist Charles Pétillon, had an idea to use her father's restored vintage cars at the wedding. She had saved a photograph on Pinterest of one of Pétillon's installations: a rusted-out station wagon filled with white balloons. The effect is a feather pillow bursting at the seams or packing peanuts rupturing from a cardboard box.

She had the inspiration, but Williams had no idea who could execute it. What would she even type in a browser search? Her graphic designer friend had seen some of Leone's display work online and suggested Williams contact her.

"I sent her a direct message on Instagram and it was a wrap," Williams said.

After photos of the wedding were published in Brides, People, US Weekly and other national media, one would assume Leone braced for customers by spiffing up her website -- maybe even writing a bio or an "about" section.

Instead, customers who got to the page were greeted with this: "We are building a new thing."

Below it was a link to her Instagram account and an email address.

Writing is not her "thing." Perhaps that's why when it came time for Leone to compose her master's degree thesis at the University of California Santa Barbara, she turned in a 64-page paper on "the failure of language." The first draft had just a handful of evocative words and images demonstrating fine arts theories. She included sketches she scratched out in her notes that illustrated the lectures.

"I don't listen in words," she said. "I have to interpret them into a visual presentation so that it sticks. Otherwise, the words just kind of slap on my forehead and then slide off into nowhere."

The nearly wordless thesis didn't fly. The department chair sent it back for a rewrite, but even the final version, "Tautology. Period," lacked a traditional narrative.

Leone's love for display began long before college. She had a friend who owned a sneaker boutique in Baltimore, Md., who, Leone observed, was visionary. For new seasons and shoe releases, he'd revamp the entire look of his store and throw parties. A friend who did windows for Neiman Marcus helped with the displays. "And I was just enthralled by it," she said.

For six years, she honed her skills while working for major retailers. Her decision to start her own business was spurred by the birth of her daughter. Striving for a better work-life balance, Leone hoped some of the freelancing she had done on the side would translate into clients. Soon Olivia, now 2 1/2 , was handing her screws in the workshop and asking "Mommy, can I build with you?"

Leone has frosted the downtown windows of Smooth boutique and created an Amsterdam-esque gingerbread village. She has built wooden modular pieces for Bottlecraft in Hilltop.

She has taught entrepreneurs how to make their signs pop with an accent color and urged them to use plants in their stalls -- live ones.

Carreyann Weinberg, manager of Selden's retail incubator, said since Leone helped the shops with their initial designs last fall, some of the businesses have continued to trust her eye as they've made tweaks.

"Any time she's here, she checks in with those original tenants and says, 'You know what would be awesome is if you moved this piece over there,' " she said.

But even in the Information Age, not having a five-minute elevator speech for your business can be an obstacle. Social media perhaps has led to the democratization of display art, but most consumers still don't know what it is.

In the previous century, department stores had display staff to decorate and trim their windows or create vignettes on their sales floors. The purpose was to make an environment that might compel people to buy stuff, but the practice wasn't formally linked to sales and advertising until the past 30 years or so.

Today visual merchandisers develop a color palette or theme around the products, and the display artists collaborate to design and build art and fixtures for them. That's a nuance that likely alludes the general public.

Even the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics uses a catch-all category for those occupations -- and doesn't anticipate much more than 3 percent job growth over the next decade.

At a time when Amazon is squeezing out brick-and-mortar stores, there is concern that retailers will cut back on their display budgets.

To the contrary, Mamp says, the businesses that are thriving now tend to be the ones providing an entertaining shopping experience. That means some chains and big-box stores that previously focused on bargains are investing more in their environments.

Target, he uses as an example, recently established a 90-person visual-merchandising team to up its game.

Despite the obvious overlap of showmanship with display, Leone, at 37, is more stagehand than theater. On a recent client consultation, where she met with the owner of an upcoming restaurant and two stylish interior designers, she entered the hollow space with her hair in a crown braid and wearing boots and a black logo-less T-shirt. Her only eccentricities were the graying French bulldog Napoleon who trailed behind her and the orange-carrot-turmeric juice she sipped instead of coffee.

After examining the future site of The Stockpot, Leone discussed a sculptural element to suspend from the ceiling in front of a large window that would combine brass, cane and tassels of rug warp. The installation is intended to be eye-catching from the street, but also utilitarian: The material will deaden the acoustics in the cavernous building.

This is the kind of work display artists can do that sets them apart from traditional interior designers, she explains later.

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