The Shop of Priceless Things: an interview with Adrian Riley

Adrian Riley is one of the designers of The Shop of Priceless Things, an example of how creativity can influence positive change in the community and environment by introducing art into the public realm. In this short interview he talks to Neelam Shah about the impact of the project and what made it successful.

1. What made you design the project?

Rotherham District Council wanted to do something about the empty Burger King building in the centre of the town and put out a shout for ideas via Rotherham Open Arts Renaissance. The brief was basically ‘do something with the windows’. It was in the lead up to Christmas and poet John Wedgwood Clark and I put our heads together and came up with the idea.  We wanted something that reflected on the time of year when so many people are focused on shopping – could we offer something that brought a different perspective to the commercial hustle and bustle whilst still appearing to speak the same high street language?  We asked ourselves “what are the things that money genuinely can’t buy?” and then thought “what if there was a shop that actually sold them?” (although by its very nature, those things would not actually be for sale). And so ‘The Shop of Priceless Things’ was born.

2. What made the project work?

The key was asking the people of Rotherham to tell us about their priceless things. It wouldn’t have had the same impact nor been an authentic artwork for Rotherham if it had been the things that John and I valued. So a day was spent in the town centre stopping shoppers and asking if they would share the sights and sounds they value, evocative smells that trigger memories, things that are special to touch. That formed the ‘stock’ of the shop – the phrases on the windows are pretty much as they came out of people’s mouths and there’s some really special and quite touching stuff there. John also wrote a poem that explained the shop, which we put on one of the windows, but we both think there’s genuine poetry in the things the people of Rotherham shared.

Our initial instinct was to design the vinyl on the windows as if it was a high street store mimicking existing logos and ‘sale!’ notices so that you’d only realise it wasn’t a real shop once you stopped to read – a kind of visual joke. Then we thought that these cherished thoughts ought to be treated with more respect, and arrived at something partway between a high-end furnishings store and graphic artwork. I think we made the right decision, as it has strong visual impact and yet a simplicity and purity that you rarely see on the UK high street. I’d have felt bad if the end result had appeared to cheapen the words by using commercial or discount visual language.

3. What impacts will your project have on society in general? Do you think people/website users who see your project will think differently about words, design and architecture in an urban society?

Well, our main audience is the people of Rotherham and we wanted to give back to them something of themselves. Beyond that, there’s a bit of tension between putting something positive and, we hope, beautiful into the middle of town and the property remaining empty. In an ideal world the building would be put to commercial use as the town becomes more prosperous and permanent public artworks be commissioned as part of intelligent thought about urban space (or even better – artists invited to be involved in the design of urban space). Whilst I’d rather see empty shops put to creative use than just stand there unwanted and unloved, temporary projects like ‘The Shop of Priceless Things’ ultimately draw attention to a society and economy where the town centre needs to rediscover a role beyond just being a collection of shops. Town centres have to become an environment where people can also play, dream, be culturally enriched and just enjoy being a community.

You can read a case study of The Shop of Priceless Things on the A Place For Words website.

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