Opening a Useless Store

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Adrian Wilson is a photographer, archivist and collector of rare and unusual ephemera. He uses his collections in his art. He has created and given this art away for exactly 10 years this September. His art began a decade ago exploring why art painted on cotton canvas was legally protected and revered, whilst art painted onto cotton t-shirt material was not. Many times he would buy clothing from stores as varied as Prada and Old Navy, create art on it then place it back on the shelf for an unsuspecting customer to buy. To mark the anniversary Wilson decided to create his own New York store, The Inutilious Retailer, 151 Ludlow Street, that will open on Sept. 1. The store will sell nothing … but I’ll let Wilson tell you more.


What is your goal with The Inutilious Retailer?To continue the tradition of giving away my art but with many more levels of questioning. Art, commerce, value, consumerism, manufacturing and expectations are key themes of the store. If and when I retire, I would like to think I could go to a store every day, tinker with something, meet interesting customers and just enjoy, not really having to make a profit any more.

The simple goal is that I am trying out my retirement idea to see if it suits me. The wider goal is to provide a seemingly lost window into the idea that, like walking on the Highline or having a plant in our apartment, we as humans all like to do something that isn’t anything to do with money or ego.

What does Inutilious mean?Pataphysics is a theory I very much relate to as it suggests that the universe is determined by events that do not follow rigid rules. I am a member of the Collège de ‘Pataphysique in Paris. There are over 100 definitions of Pataphysics on Wikipedia but one of them is that it is “Inutilious Research,” meaning “useless” research. As the store does not sell anything, it is very much a useless store, yet opens up a whole universe of ideas.


The soon-to-be Inutillious Retailer on Ludlow Street

How will you conduct business?There is a front and back portion to the store, divided by a wall with a door in it. The front is monochrome except for a dozen umbrellas which are poking through the wall. Hung on the umbrella handles are items of clothing that have been purchased at stores which have a history of copying fashion designer’s work. I will have bought mass-market clothes and created one-off art on them, taking ideas from the big retailers and making them unique. Each garment will have a label stating the original store and will have a price.

There will be no sales assistant but a mirror in the dividing wall enables the potential customer to see in the rear workshop. If they can attract my attention and after a chat through a hatch in the door, I believe they have good intentions, they will be given the garment free on condition that they enter the workshop and create a new piece (from clothing I have bought from the Salvation Army) to replace it. Their piece then goes on sale and the cycle repeats.

It is doubtless costing you money—can you recoup?Some people spend money on making their car hop up and down, some people take cocaine, some people fly to Atlantis to swim with a dolphin. Nobody ever asks them how they will recoup the money it cost them to do something they enjoy that I wouldn’t waste my money on. Remember when we just did something in our spare time for the pure enjoyment, not even thinking of selling it on eBay or Etsy? The store is a celebration of my 10-year hobby. I will recoup more than any money could equal.


Making t-shirt art from Indian textile engraving blocks.

Do you consider this a performance piece?From your first screech as a baby to your funeral, life is a performance piece. Pataphysics is all about realizing that things which do not fit into any box are the things that make us think the most. It is whatever anyone takes from it. I am opening it with no expectations and no agenda except maybe that someone at my funeral might remember me as the type of guy who once opened a shop in New York that didn’t sell anything, just for the sake of it.

Are there any models or precedents that you are following, like say, Oldernburg’s Maus Museum?I heard a month ago that there was an artist in Switzerland in the 90s who built a fake travel agency. There is obviously Marfa Prada too, but neither were an inspiration, nor do I feel they are similar.


Some of the hundreds of vintage textile blocks used for artwork.

How long will you stay open?I have a long lease into 2016 and will stay open as long as I can afford to, or until I realize I don’t enjoy it.

What will be your measure of success?That I find out if I should run a quirky shop or not when I retire and that somebody smiles at my funeral.


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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →

Posted inThe Daily Heller