Fine Art: How Optical Boutiques are Drawing in Consumers


By Delia Paunescu: Assistant Editor

NEW YORK—Modern technology and the current economic climate have created new expectations from consumers and thus, new requirements for retailers.

The world of eyewear dispensing now includes many more community and cultural involvements. An ever-increasing number of retailers and ECPs are partnering with the art community both because of the cultural ties the collaboration brings to their business and the wide marketability of such events.

In an age when consumers are looking for enhanced meaning in their purchases, retailers host gallery-style shows within their stores to bring attention to the artwork as well as to their product. Actual works of art—whether traditional paintings, photographs, sculptures and even non-traditional forms such as puppetry and performance art—are created as a means of expressing an alternate point of view. Alongside the artwork, customers look at the eyewear collections inside the display cases with a fresh perspective. By creating art collaborations, boutiques are bringing a new dimension to their brand and reaching out to new constituents, VM has learned.

From creation and design to selection and fitting, it is easy to see why the connection is often made that eyewear itself is an art form. “The great thing about eyeglasses is that they are a piece of art already,” said Sophie Raubiet, vice president of U.S. retail for Alain Mikli, which has been incorporating art from neighboring Madison Avenue galleries into the designer’s New York boutiques.

“We’ve always wanted to emphasize a very large and expansive concept of vision that is beyond the frame. And artists teach us to look at the world differently,” explained Brent Zerger, director of communications and retail operations for l.a.Eyeworks. The California brand has been entwined with the art community since their first store opened on Melrose Ave. in 1979. “That’s part of the journey that we want to take our clients on,” he said.

“By showcasing art, you also have the opportunity to showcase the more artful frames,” explained Brad Bodkin, OD, owner of The Vision Center at Seaside Farms in Mount Pleasant, S.C. His single-location practice recently incorporated paintings and jewelry from local artists as part of their one-year anniversary celebration. Bodkin related that the positive response from customers inspired him to consider more art shows.

Vision Monday spoke to retailers and ECPs throughout the country who have incorporated artistic projects and special events into their businesses. Among those, some have long-established art series, so popular that they describe the eyewear as competing for attention with the works of art which draw customers into the shop. Others are just starting out, feeling their way around the unfamiliar world of in-store art installation.

Regardless of the history behind various art affiliations, it’s becoming clear that optical retailers throughout the country are opening their shop doors for more than just eyeglasses. Following are a few examples of how some ECPs have incorporated art into their business.

CHICAGO—Early in 2008, Spex, a 14-unit retailer based here, began its “Art+Vision” series, which has evolved from a small cocktail party into what Spex describes as “a platform for local artists to show their work in a retail environment with diverse public exposure.”


Marketing director Marilyn Frank said the idea originated at Spex’s Highland Park location when that store’s manager requested to change the 10-year-old artwork in the space. “I thought, ‘What if we had a local artist come in, put up their stuff and throw a party?’” In the past two years, Frank said a total of 30 Art+Vision partnerships have taken place at Spex’s 14 Chicago-area locations. The show has evolved to include trunk show pairings.

For their program, Spex allows the invited artists—who have included Kate Friedman, Angie Garbot and Tom Blandford—to determine how their art should be featured in the store. Once arranged, a gallery-style opening night is planned and guests are invited via in-store flier and e-mail alert. The reception often involves cross-marketing with local restaurants. According to Frank, the art remains on display for four to six weeks during which time customers can purchase it.


Spex’s West Loop location during an Art+Vision event (top) and artist Jill Dunbar at her Spex showcase (bottom).

However, Frank insisted that Spex is not involved in selling the art. “We refer the purchaser to the artist,” she said, adding that artists are encouraged to leave promotional material which Spex staff distributes to interested parties.

Frank admitted her original expectation was to increase business. “You can’t do something like this and have people respond in a negative way. I don’t think that anybody could walk in and scoff that we’re supporting local art. It’s a good thing,” she said. However, she added that the series has gone far past that in increasing awareness of the Spex brand, bringing in new customers and generating loyalty. “I didn’t realize that things would snowball by word-of-mouth or that people would be so enthusiastic. That was a nice surprise,” she said.

“Spex is civically minded, culturally aware and conscious of the importance of creativity. We understand the necessity of extending creative pursuits in our communities,” she said. As an artist herself, Frank said it’s important to let Spex clients know that the company is in touch with their customers beyond the “run-of-mill optical sale.”

Spex recently partnered with the Chicago Loop Alliance for their largest art collaboration (both in size and exposure) to bring the public art project, “Eye” from visual artist Tony Tasset (a past Art+Vision participant), in the city’s Pritzker Park. The collaboration was promoted through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and was featured on local television stations. Frank said Spex will continue their involvement in community art with Pop-Up Art Loop, a project which finds empty businesses in downtown Chicago and uses their space to house the work of local artists.


COLUMBUS, S.C.—When Mark Plessinger opened his optical boutique Frame of Mind, The Art of Eyewear (FOM) here three years ago, his goal was to impact people’s lives through eyewear. “This isn’t about putting glasses on the masses, but about affecting people on a much smaller level that makes them feel better when they walk out the door,” he said.

Local wine shop Cellar on Green sponsored the March 4 event and Jenny Mae Hill’s “sock oddities” on display (right).


After six months of “figuring out how to get the name out and people in the door,” Plessinger, an optician, decided to use the store’s loft space upstairs to showcase art. He tapped into Columbus’ art community for the first show and has done so ever since.

Today, the monthly FOM series spills out of his 1,000 square foot location and onto the sidewalks of Main Street, Columbus, where, over the years, Plessinger has convinced neighboring businesses to host their own art events on the first Thursday of every month.

“I’m putting on events that maybe cost me $200 and I’m getting a minimum of 50 people in the door who never knew I existed,” Plessinger said.

As for the series he created, Plessinger said: “It has defined who we are and what we are. It’s given us way more brand recognition than we ever could have imagined. Now when you say ‘FOM’ people think of art. The series has brought us to the forefront of people’s mind.”


MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C.—The Vision Center at Seaside Farms first incorporated art into its location as part of the practices’ one-year anniversary. Brad Bodkin, OD, Vision Center’s owner and president, invited artist Laura Martindale to display her paintings during the day-long celebration. The event was advertised on the practice’s website and Facebook page.


Painting by Laura Martindale (left) and the celebration which included local jewelry artist Jaycie Rappold (right).

“By showcasing art, you also have the opportunity to showcase the more artful frames,” Bodkin said. “We’re definitely seeing a trend in people being more artistic with the frames—more colors, more characteristics.”

Bodkin said having the artwork enhanced the office and generally made the walls look better, giving the public another reason to come in. According to him, Vision Center is in the process of starting a more regular art series.

“We want to drive a new customer base to the office. If word gets out and [the events] become a success, hopefully we can also show our office secondary to the art and it’ll bring these art visitors in as customers later,” he said. “We want people to think of us as a culturally relevant place that showcases beautiful things as opposed to somewhere they just get their glasses.”