The project is a collaboration between me, Paul Spooner and Gary Alexander, who were
in the Meadowhall ‘Ride of Life’
project, and also Max Alexander (Gary’s
daughter), Tim Spooner (Paul’s son) and Graham Norgate (who helps with most of
my projects). Paul did drawings for the initial presentation, and then produced the Confers
Status range, most of the Little Scholar range, Financial Aereldite, and various
other products. Gary produced all the videos apart from Rash Cosmetics (a collaboration
between Tim Spooner and Paul). Max produced the gangster range, helped with the website and filled the
shelves of the false perspective.Graham helped build the perspective and the electrical control board.
The psychology of shopping, persuading people to buy
things, is a fascinating subject. I realised this a long time ago when I
researched a cartoon about supermarkets for the Observer Sunday newspaper.
In 1990, Cabaret Mechanical theatre was invited to build a large feature
for Sheffield’s Meadowhall, the first large mall in the UK. Eventually
this feature, the ’Ride of Life’ never got installed but it brought
together a great bunch of people, and
we had some great parties, thanks to Sue Jackson (Cabaret’s
owner). I remember being very excited discovering the concept of ‘retail
therapy’. One of my contributions to the ride was a ‘Retail Research
Lab’. It included a machine for green-washing products which was at
least 10 years ahead of its time.
The other main inspiration for Seriously Solutions is
Private Eye (the UK satirical magazine). Every Christmas it features a
selection of ‘House of Gnome’ adverts for fake gifts. It never fails
to bring tears to my eyes, laughing so much.
The empty TKMaxx window in Bedford's Harpur centre where Seriously
Solutions will be situated
Although I’m a keen consumer (I buy lots of tools
and parts for the machines I make, mainly online) I never visit shopping
malls or supermarkets. I buy my clothes from thrift shops and markets and
my food from local convenience stores.
This was an advantage when starting this project.
Visiting malls I felt like an anthropologist exploring new territory.
It’s much harder to see that anything is bizarre or funny if you’re
immersed in it every day. The downside was I was worried about being a
snob, laughing at all the people who use malls regularly.
Fortunately I soon started to enjoy shopping in
the malls myself. I bought a really cozy winter coat at TKMaxx. Then I got
hooked on the £1 shops. My local one in Lowestoft has an infectious jolly
atmosphere, full of shoppers and staff all chatting away to each other. On
one visit the checkout ground to a halt while two staff and several
shoppers tried to help a woman with Altzheimer’s find a product that she
couldn’t remember exactly (it took several minutes but they succeeded).
People rightly get cross about the closure of post offices and local
shops, but it heartening that shopping malls can have similar socially
The initial problem designing the look of the
Seriously Solutions window was that most shops in malls don’t have any
windows. They open up the entire shop front to draw you in.
We couldn’t do that, but it encouraged the idea of a false
perspective to give a sense of depth. Fortunately a few health food shops,
jewellers and chemists shops still have traditional windows. Jewellers
windows only display small glittery things and health food shops are
generally dowdy, but chemists’ shops provided a useful role model. They
contain advertising for pills with extravagant claims and bottles of
perfume displayed to look exclusive.
As I built up the displays, I gradually realised the
way to make a product look expensive or exclusive is simply to leave a lot
of space around it (‘more is less’). In £1 shops, everything is piled
high, crammed together as tightly as possible. The chemists’ perfumes,
like the dresses in posh clothes shops, have a generous space around them,
often accompanied by large promotional posters. The extreme of this is the
contemporary art gallery, which sometimes has only one object in a whole
The 1:10 scale model I made to persuade the council that Seriously
was a brilliant idea.
Leaving space around products
THE PRODUCT RANGES
When I started, I had no idea there were quite so
many REAL weird products about. I thought it would be fun to have one real
product on display, but we kept finding that the silly products we
invented already really existed. Paul had finished his Confers Status
range when we found the ‘Status’ light bulbs in QD stores. I’d
already made my home safety range when a friend told me about the infant
safety helmet. Just today, I read about a new motorcyclist’s suit that
incorporates airbags. I’m now confident that though you can’t actually
buy all the Seriously Solutions products at the moment, you will be able
to in a few years time.
IS IT ART
When Banksy installed his pet shop in New York and the
recession led to several UK art organisations calling for artists to fill vacant
shops, I realised that people would be likely to classify Seriously Solutions as
art. I met someone who takes art very seriously. She quizzed me in great detail
about the project. She decided it was essentially turning things on their head.
This didn’t really fit a lot of the products and afterwards I realised it was
an art world thing to theorise everything. This comes from conceptual art, but a
lot of the intellectualisation is quite feeble and humour doesn’t follow that
sort of logic anyway. It doesn’t matter if people call Seriously Solutions
art, but I’m a cartoonist and to me the shop is basically just a series of
THE FALSE PERSPECTIVE
The first job I started on was making the false
perspective, which I enjoyed. It doesn’t show up well on photos or video
but it is very engaging seeing it ‘in the flesh’. No angle is a
right angle – many of the angles are really surprising. Nothing needs
to be perfect, just like drawing a freehand perspective. The brain makes
the best guess at sorting out the discrepancies.
Having the perspective disappearing to a point
looks great, but is too extreme to look completely real. If I’d only
reduced it to 50% at the back I’m sure it would have looked completely
real. I’d like to experiment to find how smalI it’s possible to go
to remain ‘real’.
While working on it, I was often surprised by what worked and what
didn’t. I’d really like to do more stuff like it, to make some Ames
rooms etc. I want to go back to Epcot to see its scaled down houses of
parliament and other world Landmarks.
EVERYTHING ON TEST
The site before installation
Testing the sign
I’d recently bought a Makita rail saw, which is gorgeous. I don’t
think the false perspective would have turned out so well without this
great tool because it made producing all the odd angles so easy.
Before starting to make the products, I was really worried about the
printing fading. Eventually I decided to buy a cheap A4 Epson printer
for the job, as I'd proved their prints last much longer than other makes.
(The Epson is a predictably horrid printer – after a week or two it
slowed down, and ever has since taken over 5 minutes to make each
print.) Bigger prints were done on my HP Design jet and laminated to
reduce their fading.
We motorised a few of the products and wanted people to be able to
activate them working by touching the glass. I found a ’through
glass’ capacitive switch in the RS catalogue which claims to work
through glass up to 20mm thick, though my tests suggest 12mm is more
realistic. I’m not sure if it’s a good idea anyway –
the glass will get dirty very quickly with lots of people
touching it, I just hope it won’t show too much.
There are 4 screens in the shop. Gary was keen to try HD, but the
players and screens are more expensive, so there’s only one HD, the
rest are standard resolution. We used Emprex media players, a bargain at
£25. They don’t auto play, so I had to hack the remote to send them
the right commands to start playing and to repeat. For the HD we used a
Brightsign player, about £280. This does auto play and repeat so needs
no additional circuitry.
There was an existing TKMaxx sign, fitted with fluorescent tubes, so my
initial plan was to put a new face on it. This wasn’t straightforward
so I started playing with LEDs. I found a good lighting effect,
recessing the LEDs in a sandwich of plywood. This made a thin new sign
to bolt over the top of the original one. It
uses 40 metres of self adhesive LED strip which I bought on ebay
from China. Half way through construction, the council told me it had to
be grade 0 fire proof, which involved 4 coats of expensive paint on the
plywood – I hate painting so I got very messy and bored.