Meet the man behind Auckland’s most famous Christmas window display

by Johanna Thornton / 03 November, 2017

Pirate puppets in this year’s display.

Christmas cheer

Christmas window designer David Poulton has created 11 years’ worth of quirk-filled Christmas magic for Auckland department store Smith & Caughey’s


How did you first get involved with Smith & Caughey’s window displays?

My whole life has been leading to this. When I started school I began to stutter and stammer quite badly, and I got teased. So I decided after three weeks of going to school that I would stop speaking, and I became an elective mute. For three years I didn’t speak a single word in public. It wasn’t until a teacher put a puppet in my hand that I started speaking, first through the puppet and eventually on my own. My parents were delighted and bought me some puppets and I began to do puppet shows.

My puppetry grew to concerts and eventually my wife and I became professional puppeteers, touring in Australia, England and Europe, before coming back to New Zealand in 1972. Basically my whole life has been puppets. I even worked as Blinky Bill for three years, who was a puppet.

What happened next? In 2006, we were in Taiwan when a major earthquake struck and I thought ‘I’ve had enough of touring’. So I set up an animated windows display business in Noosa, Australia.

How did you learn to make puppets?

In 1971 my wife and I lived in London and went to every puppet course there was, and in 1983 I won a Goethe Institute Award and went to Germany for a year to study with the world’s greatest puppeteer, Albrish Rosa.

How did the connection to Smith & Caughey’s come about?

The first big department store we got was David Jones and after that I came to Auckland and made some cold calls and I met Kevin Broadfoot (special projects manager of Smith & Caughey’s). He knew what we did because he’d seen our windows, so that’s how we started. Smith & Caughey’s is really a client from heaven because they are artistic, they care about the content of the window, there’s no commercialism whatsoever. It’s a gift to Auckland, and that’s their approach.  What they’re trying to do is create a memory, of how great Auckland is at Christmas. It’s creating a bit of magic.

What’s the process of their creation like? When do you start work on them?

We start working on next year’s windows in October. In January when I return to Auckland to take the windows down we will have a shortlist [of themes]. Then in February we will start negotiating with illustrators, generally that’s reasonably quick. I will have done my initial drawings, by hand. I still cut and paste. By February we’re into it and the Smith & Caughey’s team will come over to Australia twice to look at storyboards and make any changes, in May. Sign off in August.

We then run the windows to test them in August, ship the fully created windows over to New Zealand in September and they get here in October. They get installed in the last week of October.

How long does it take to create one?

It takes 1500 hours, which includes the carpenter, puppet maker, artist and designer. Then we have to get the windows and puppets animated. We use French mechanical theatre, so we have rockers and string to make the puppets move. Generally the puppets have 8-10 strings each.

Has technology changed these window displays?

Around the world, the best department stores are half traditional and half electronic. Electronic is more expensive and less reliable. Lafayette in Paris is traditional, so is Lord & Taylor in NYC. I’m a traditional puppeteer and I love the magic of theatre and string puppets. I’m a marionettist. Our movements have quirk in them.

How many helpers do you have on these projects?

I do the design, and as well as me I have a carpenter, puppet maker and artist. Most of the guys that work for us are kiwis.

How do you come up with the concept?

Smith & Caughey’s have chosen a book for last nine years. We now have publishers chasing Smith & Caughey’s to do the windows, the authors love it.

How much creative control do you get?

It’s become a partnership. Smith & Caughey’s is artistic, therefore they want input and it’s valuable input. There’s also a lot of trust. But we discuss quite thoroughly the movements and the mood.

Where do you get your inspiration for these creations from?

I’ve always been a drawer and I can see 3-D from a sketch. So I can create a drawing or an outline in the lift up to a meeting.

What’s the best part of the process, is it seeing people’s reactions to them?

The highlight for me is mingling in the crowd and not identifying myself and listening. Later, hearing people talk about the display and finding out what people think about things.

What have been some of your most memorable displays?

Generally the last one I’ve done is my favourite. I did like doing one called Russel the Sheep by Rob Scotton - that was a wonderfully challenging one to do. And I did love Grandma’s Kiwi Christmas - that was like Henderson to me in the 1950s, I loved it.

Can you tell us about this year’s display?

It’s based on A Pirates Night Before Christmas by Sebastian Serra. Pirates are asleep in their beds and they’re all dreaming about what their Christmas present will be – will it be jewels, diamonds. A little cabin boy spies Father Christmas, who happens to be a pirate, and the pirates get excited about his arrival. He gives all the presents away and then there’s a big party. Right at the end the little boy gets a treasure map. We condense this 44 page children’s book down to 12 windows.

How do the window displays get constructed?

They arrives totally made and gets reassembled from being packed. We test them and test them and then basically the team here maintains them. The window is blacked out while the team works behind the scenes assembling the windows.

Do you get sick of Christmas?

No! I don’t! I get tired of wasting time at airports. I’m a bit touchy about delays. I do believe that Christmas is an international time of peace and goodwill and forgiveness, you forget the problems of the year and make friends with your neighbour. The joy of Christmas to me is not religious, it’s about forgiveness and goodwill and I wish we had it a few more times every year, particularly now.

The Smith & Caughey’s Christmas window is on display until 2 Jan 2018, 253-261 Queen Street

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