Falling for FAO Schwarz

The elevated plaza at 5th Avenue and the South East corner of Central Park is home to two very high-end stores; the eerily church-like Apple Store and the very prestigious toy store FAO Schwarz. Both stores are so revered that it often makes the plaza feel as metaphorically elevated as it is physically. However, it is only the former that receives attention in the design press. But through some observation and investigation, one will quickly realize how false the assumption is that because toy store’s target market is generally children that the stores are not designed. In fact, not only is FAO Schwarz highly designed, but it is also designed primarily with adults in mind.

When you enter the store, you are surrounded by stuffed animals of every type and scale. Among them is a brown bear larger than most armchairs, a snow leopard as long as dining table and a giraffe as tall than most grown men, which all stand proudly on their high shelves. These “jumbo-sized” products are on sale for between $600 and an incredible $2,500 but are primarily used for visual impact and to create a jungle-like environment. Most are available in much smaller sizes at much more reasonable prices. All of these stuffed animals are FAO Schwarz’s own brand and have the ‘FAO’ logo on their paws. That FAO Schwartz has their own brand of products adds to the prestige of the company, reminding customers that the store is an important brand in itself and not just a place to sell Mattel or Lego.  As the logo proudly states, the store was established in 1862 emphasizing its longevity and tradition. But children generally don’t care about tradition; this emphasis is purely for adults.

The adjacent shelves contain smaller items such as tin robots, wind-up trains and solider nutcracker ornaments. These toys are beautifully crafted but I suspect appeal a lot more to parents than children. They hearken back to a past time when toys were constructed from wood and tin, not bytes and pixels. In many ways, they’re trying to reassure parents that their children are growing up in the same world that they did, which of course is not true. This nostalgia seems to have informed a lot of the store’s toy choices, including the Make-Your-Own-Muppet. I couldn’t help but wonder if children even watch The Muppets anymore? Surely they would prefer a make-your-own Dora the Explorer friend instead.

Design is not just about decoration, it is often about selection. FAO Schwarz’s toy selection is so careful, that it feels almost curatorial. And like their desire to be seen as long-standing and traditional is seen through their logo, their selection process illustrates their desire to be associated with an older time. The large stuffed toys that are beyond most people’s financial reach keep the luxurious allure that makes it a high-end store. There are so electronic hand-held devices or computer games. Instead the store is filled with the outrageously expensive collectable Steiff bears, limited edition Barbies such as Mad Men or Flashdance dolls that clearly don’t appeal to children and Frank Lloyd Wright Lego structures. These products are counterbalanced with child-friendly board games, an array of dress-up dolls and toy cars, but the ratio is very much 50/50.

I really enjoy going to FAO Schwarz but I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t just appeal to the child in me, it appeals to almost all of me. Sadly, FAO Schwartz is no longer fully independent as it is now owned by the toy Toys R Us conglomerate. But Toys R Us clearly see the benefit to keeping the store as it always was, realizing the importance of making a store as appealing to parents and as it to children.

This is not to say that children will not love FAO Schwartz. Every single detail is wonderfully designed from the stanchion posts filled with bright candy, to the giant light-up piano, to the giant solider made of jellybeans with FAO logo painstakingly detailed on the back of his jacket. These details make it feel magical and unique.  I just suspect it may be the children that get tired and want to head home before the adults, especially those that only want an Xbox game.


2 Responses to “Falling for FAO Schwarz”

  1. 1 clicksey December 8, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    I really enjoyed reading that, you analysed it really well!

  2. 2 annakealey December 11, 2010 at 1:53 am

    Thanks, Aisling. That means a lot to me. It’s so great to hear you’re getting involved in Focus. I see on your page you did portrait photos with Phil Kenny.

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