Noe Valley Voice November 2011

Window Art Attracts Constant Looks

Neighborhood Loves Eye Q’s Optical Illusions

By Heather World


An eight-armed baby in a spider web was the showstopper at Eye Q Optometry this Halloween.    Photo by Beverly Tharp

The scene is straight out of a horror movie: an eight-armed baby waving her limbs in a rickety Victorian pram while a spider looms ominously from a web above.

But the setting is far from Hollywood. It’s the picture window at Eye Q Optometry, Dr. Kimberly Tom’s handsomely appointed office at 4017 24th St.

The frightful Halloween tableau is the latest of a revolving display that delights passersby and draws attention to the shop’s eyewear, ranging from humble to haute couture. Surprisingly to some, the artists behind the window are the same women who handle your insurance and fit your glasses.

Kathy Chinn, Eye Q’s office manager since 1999, and Carmen Dunham, an optical assistant since 2002, have taken turns putting together the elaborate, talk-of-the-neighborhood displays for about 10 years. The windows are always inventive, but it is the spectacular holiday displays that attract fans from across the city.

“People are always asking, ‘When is the next window?’” says Chinn, a resident of Glen Park.

There was the descending swirl of origami cranes in January 2009, the dead twins from The Shining bursting through a door for Halloween 2009, and the snow-covered workshop of elfin mice making glasses for Christmas 2008. The rooms in the mouse workshop had all the bells and whistles, including a tiny world map for the “distribution” room and fingernail-size stockings on a mantle in the “production” room.

The project took more than 60 hours, says Dunham, who begins planning the Halloween windows as soon as the last one comes down.

She and Chinn gather their materials from Craigslist, antique fairs, and whatever was kept in the storeroom from previous displays, says Dunham. They typically spend up to $300 per window, though sometimes they spend nothing but time.

Windows change every few months, but there is no set schedule except for Halloween and Christmas, says Chinn. “It’s whenever we think of an idea,” she says.

There is no shortage of creative ideas—everyone in the office pitches in. However, the window designers do work under certain constraints.

“You have to make sure it relates to glasses, which is hard,” explains Dunham. Also, the glasses are small. “You have to think on that scale.”

A former clothes designer, Dunham says her favorite past display was the Poltergeist-based window she did for Halloween 2006. In that window, the Carol Anne figure sat mesmerized in front of a static-filled TV while toys and chairs flew around the room. Never mind the technical feat of balancing flying objects—finding a TV old enough to show static was its own challenge, Dunham says. She recorded a loop of static with intermittent pictures of glasses.

“Those flashes of glasses kind of freaked people out,” she recalls.

The cranes remain one of Chinn’s favorite windows. The project required her to fold nearly 1,000 pieces of colored origami paper, then hang 1,000 cranes in an evenly descending circle, shading from one color to the next.

“Oh man, it took forever,” says Chinn, who holds a degree in industrial design and creates enormous stained-glass windows in her free time.

Dunham, who studied forensic anthropology, has made nine Halloween windows, all based on horror movies. This year, the “horror” is more tongue-in-cheek and closer to home: six months ago, the Mission District resident took leave to have a baby, now three months old.

“I call her ‘my little monster’—endearingly,” says Dunham. “I thought, I’m going to put a monster baby in the window.”

Between feedings and diaper changes, Dunham spent her postpartum days learning to make the four knots required to create a spider web and then creating a mock-up. Her husband Dan, who designs any mechanized elements for the window art, helped her assemble the scene after the shop closed, with their daughter wailing in the background.

“After the dust settled, my initial reaction was, ‘Wow, that eight-legged baby is a little disturbing. Mission accomplished,’” says Dunham.

She says that often when she’s working on a window after hours, passersby see the lit window, then knock on the door or pass notes through the mailbox to show their appreciation. One person leaves beautiful thank-you notes written in calligraphy. The next day, more than a few people poke their heads in.

“They’ll say ‘I like the windows’ or ‘Man, your windows are so disturbing—I love them,’” says Dunham. The comments are very gratifying, she says.

So what happens to the displays once they come down? The props are recycled or given away, says Dunham, who has a selection of doll heads rolling around in the back of her car.

“When we’re done with this Halloween, if anyone is interested in the Victorian carriage in the window, it’s up for grabs.”