To many Lexington residents, Cormans has always been about Christmas. So it may come as a surprise to learn the company on Floyd Drive that has sold classy Christmas décor for decades, save for a year or two at the height of the recession, is far more into manufacturing store displays and fixtures than decorating trees and homes.
President Ted Corman said it's a common misperception of the company, which generates only about 10 percent of its annual sales from Christmas retail. In fact, the vast majority, 80 percent, comes from manufacturing displays and fixtures for everything from gift shops at national parks and distilleries to stores at hotels and next to amusement park rides.
It's a business, though, that's been evolving for some time, as the company that once was an artist's paradise has turned into a center for artisans.
Trip to the city dump provided the spark
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What is now Corman and Associates began in the late 1940s, when Ted's father, Dan, gained fame locally for holiday store displays he created as an employee at the downtown Wolf Wile department store.
Cormans was born when he left Wolf Wile because many of the stores along Main Street recruited him to handle their displays during the holidays and throughout the rest of the year.
In those first years, Corman took items from elsewhere and fashioned them into eye-catching displays. But the story goes that he was in the middle of a church service when he stumbled upon the idea that would give him decades of success. He headed to the city dump after the service and grabbed cardboard. What one person saw as trash, he converted into faux brick panels that were textured by gluing sawdust on to them.
"It was the start of visual merchandising," Ted Corman said.
The company gained fame nationally as it built elaborate store displays such as castles, and plenty of those first fake brick panels for malls, department stores and other major retailers.
But times change.
"Dillard's was the first case where it was really obvious to me that they were moving from lots of visuals and props and displays to having a mannequin and an artificial plant," said Ted Corman, who took over the business from his father in the late 1990s. "That trend away from visuals really swept through the whole department store industry.
"As the chain stores, the Wal-Marts and Targets and all of those, started putting pressure on department stores, they had to cut budgets and do it with more merchandise presentation in mind and less 'wow' and 'aah' and 'isn't that cool.'"
Earlier this holiday season, when Saks unveiled its Christmas windows on New York's Fifth Avenue, Corman recalled how the company once made those for them.
"But those opportunities have just gotten so few and far between that we really had to start branching out and look at specialty stores and specialty industries," he said. "We needed to be woodworkers. ... The writing was on the wall that we needed to be a store fixture manufacturer and do our unique theming that could make custom looks and custom functions for people out of what would be considered normal engineering and fixtures."
Business moved from artists to artisans
Walking through Cormans today is like a trip through time. First up is the Christmas retail store. Behind that is a space devoted to common store fixtures such as size hangers and mannequins. For a time, Cormans replaced its Christmas offerings with a full retail space devoted to "all the little things that stores and retailers need," Corman said.
But the Christmas store returned this year to "go back to the traditions that we had here for the last 40 years," Corman said.
In the basement sits a growing number of Cormans' past products, everything from cardboard boats to no-longer-functioning animatronic snowmen. The company has been collecting the items from throughout its space and is preparing a small section for customers to peruse the older items.
"A lot of people don't have a budget to buy something new," Corman said, in explaining the addition.
Back upstairs, he walks over to the company's factory in a building next door but first traverses another sign of the times: a room that once housed the company's airbrush artists. Years ago, the room bustled with gifted artists decorating the various displays. But with the advent of digital printing, the work became automated.
"We used to have a lot of artists, but now we have more artisans," Corman explained, noting they make furniture-quality merchandising fixtures that are designed to ship as compactly as possible and be easily assembled.
"Not a lot of stuff is made out of foam and cardboard anymore," he said.
Instead, when you look around the factory, you see wooden shelves being assembled and painted for delivery to hotel gift shops or tables being prepped for, say, a college bookstore.
Thinking creatively about fixtures
Among the company's strongest customers are the tourism and amusement industries.
Cormans "comes up with real creative ideas and solutions," said Karen Peters of Eastern National, a non-profit organization that runs educational stores at national parks throughout the Eastern United States.
At a recently completed store in Hot Springs, Ark., the organization wasn't able to punch through the floor to bring electricity to the fixtures.
"They came up with a battery-operated lighting system for each individual fixture and it's rechargeable," said Peters, the non-profit's store design manager. "We're in a very dark space, and it's just perfect."
Among Cormans' current projects with the group are gift shops at Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee, which will soon celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle there, and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.
Also closer to home is work the company has done for Maker's Mark's distillery in Loretto, where it helped the company redesign its gift shop.
"They came up with a really great Maker's Mark bottle display that's the shape of the Maker's Mark," said Sydina Bradshaw, director of visitor relations for Maker's Mark. "That was fun."
Looking forward, Corman hopes to expand the company's presence in those specialty markets, as he expects even more change in the mainstream retail world, where "the pressure from online will be too much for all of those to coexist."
"That's why we're focusing more on specialty markets," he said, "because there's an experience involved there."