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Small Town Mall

Not all malls are dead – the ones moving forward are simply evolving




I’VE RECENTLY TAKEN over the design of two large empty storefront windows at The Upton Mall in Hot Springs, Ark., with the plan of changing them out every two months. I can do that.

But to start, let me give you a little history of my interest and fascination with malls.

First up is McCain Mall built in 1973 (I was built in 1960), in North Little Rock, Ark. My family and I got to see the inside before it opened and, if my memory serves, it was still under construction at the time. In the early ’70s, it was a thing to behold, with my favorites being the movie theater and around the corner, Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour.

The mall was a place where first romances blossomed and wilted, and families shopped for school clothes. You met your friends from school there and rode the escalator up and down and, if you were me, ate giant warm pretzels slathered in port wine cheese from Dunderbak’s German Deli. (I was a foodie, even back then.)

A trip to the mall back then started with choosing your entrance, parking your car and hopefully, upon exiting, remembering where it was in the enormous asphalt moat circling the complex of buildings. As a young adult experiencing independence for the first time, after growing up in the country and “going to town” on Saturdays, a pattern developed. That’s what you did; that’s what everybody did.

As my circle expanded, we would frequent University Mall built in 1967 and Park Plaza Mall built in 1960, both across the river in Little Rock, and very different places. University Mall was spread out over a couple of city blocks, and you had to drive and park several times to get to all the stores. Park Plaza Mall was connected by an open-air walkway in the middle with gardens, waterfalls and fountains. In current day,  it’s totally enclosed and a very modern multi-story place.


After the consequences of the Covid pandemic, the whole retail industry has been turned on its head. The industry’s evolution sped up, and retail culture changed right before our eyes, like it or not. Online ordering was always there, but now there was self-checkout and pick-up stations outside. And delivery to your door if you, like me, had Covid.

Because of this, some malls are dead and gone, and others are thriving. Take for instance the NorthPark Center, opened in 1965 in Dallas, which is the number one tourist destination there. (It’s the bellwether I compare all things to.)

I visited there several times in the last year and was blown away by what they are doing. During Mother’s Day, the parking lot’s a nightmare, except in the parking decks – also during special events like Eataly’s delayed grand opening celebration at the mall. NorthPark’s art collection is spectacular and reason enough to go there. And I swear, that’s the real Santa they have there during the holidays!

Millions, if not billions, of dollars have exchanged hands in that place. I heated up my AmEx card there, too, doing my part. Those experiences inspired me to move ahead with my dream of being a creative window designer. (Another quick plug for other retailers doing it right there: Buc-ee’s and Total Wine & Spirits.)

Some malls are on life-support for various reasons, however, and have to start thinking outside the box – or nowhere near the box at all.

Like The Uptown Mall in my small town of Hot Springs, Ark. The mall management understands that the retail culture has changed and are going after experience and activity options to fill empty storefronts.


I was looking for a space to move my art studio out of my house, and the mall management website listed “free or low-cost rent” to individuals and community groups to fill the spaces. Due to my work with Winston Retail Solutions (New York), I visit the mall monthly, so I knew they had space available.

I had already gone to an event sponsored by the local school districts in a former anchor store that was a brilliant use of that space. It was a celebration of the arts, with dance and music performances, and student artwork covering the walls. Every parent, and every grandparent, of every student was there. And I bet they did some shopping in the mall afterward. Batter-Up has also taken over one of the anchor spaces where you can hone your baseball skills. A philanthropic organization selling apparel also comes in regularly to use another anchor space.

With all this in mind, I knew the management company was already thinking outside of the box to fill spaces, and I approached the with idea of a community arts group taking over a space for an “art annex.” This translates to plenty of space for classes, plenty of school bus parking – and plenty of hot dogs for lunch!

I added my interest of taking over a specific window to create some displays and beef up my portfolio. No better way to gain experience than the real world. And they said yes! I showed them some photographs for my idea of a holiday window using only a black and white pallete, dubbed “Holidays in Black and White.”

"Holidays in Black and White" window display. <small>DESIGN AND PHOTOGRAPHY: Phil Chwalinski </small>

“Holidays in Black and White” window display. DESIGN AND PHOTOGRAPHY: Phil Chwalinski



In this display, even Santa was dressed in black jeans, black high tops and a Michael Kors baseball jacket (borrowed from and accredited to Dillard’s). Even his knapsack was black. Sticking out of his jeans’ front pocket was an old iPhone to stay connected to his elves. But you had to look to see it and all the other little details I put into that window display; I wanted viewers to see something different every time they walked past the window.

And to showcase my artwork, I filled the back wall with my large paintings of black and white trees. Additionally, there were four decorated black and white trees covered in black and white ornaments. One had a black and white parasol as a topper. I hung chandelier crystals from the ceiling and stuck vinyl black and white snowflakes and graphics to the window. I even put checkerboard  black and white self-adhesive tiles on the floor. That much time and effort is fine for the holiday window program, but probably not for every display. Lesson learned.

It took seven hours of hard work to install that window display and place the last snowflake.

For the next window display, I wanted to do a winter wedding theme and had already found a little-worse-for-wear beaded and sequined wedding dress at a flea market where I have a booth. I like props and have since my early days of catering and special events, so it’s not that weird to have both a male and female mannequin in my house. I’m serious about this retail visual merchandising stuff. Did I mention I need more space?

📷: Phil Chwalinski

📷: Phil Chwalinski


Taking down all that holiday décor was quicker than putting it up, but still took some time. It was nice to see the space open up and I was eager to make the change to the next display, a full 180 degrees. The theme was a mash-up of Miss Haversham’s “Great Expectations” and Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” lyrics. I wrote on white-painted, heavy mustard-colored packing paper most of the lyrics.  “Hey Little Sister” scribbled in my serial killer-style handwriting  worked beautifully.

📷: Phil Chwalinski

📷: Phil Chwalinski


The bouquet the female mannequin held was flat paper cut out of flowers. Ropes and ropes of pearls circled her neck and wrists. White bare trees lined her walkway and a broken ceramic bird lay at her feet. Her veil was a vintage net and ribbon tablecloth held with a sequin and beaded headpiece. The window is pie-shaped and has no electricity, but it is lit from the mall’s ceiling fixtures above the window. This theme very strongly showed my personality and creativity, and I was proud of it too.

That white wedding themed window was up for two months and, during that time, someone working at Dillard’s suggested I take a look at the old Victoria’s Secret window for better visibility.

📷: Phil Chwalinski

📷: Phil Chwalinski


I had my eye on that window because of the plaid wallpaper hidden behind half of the heavy dark green floor-to-ceiling curtains still in the window. I knew that dramatic plaid wallpaper would be the perfect backdrop to a spring window. All I had to do was find a large-framed photograph of the ocean, resort clothing, props and some fabric. Once I had those items, the image I had in my head was easy to reproduce in 3-D. Getting the heavy 12-foot floor-to-ceiling curtains down was not so easy. I also had to rehang a panel to block where you could see into the empty store. While I was up on that ladder, I attached the cocktail printed fabric around the column in right corner of the window. The theme for this one is “Resort Where? Anywhere!”

This time, the clothing came from a thrift store, and props came from a craft store. (Speaking of thrift stores and flea markets, I think it would be a great idea if one or more of them moved into the mall. That’s not an original idea, and it’s been done already, but a good idea.)

📷: Phil Chwalinski

📷: Phil Chwalinski


When it comes to windows, a single theme and narrative is just as effective with a few well-placed props to get your message across. Retail visual merchandising has changed so much since I was a young boy reading books published in the 1950s about window decorating. And, when you add e-commerce to the package, it’s a whole new world. But you can’t feel the cloth, or smell the smells, or taste the tastes without a brick-and-mortar store. There’s no substitute as good as up-close and personal shopping.

Another reason I’m doing this is to get other artists and designers to fill the empty storefronts with their creativity and attract customers by giving them another reason to come to the mall. I want more art shows and sculptures lining the open spaces and empty windows. Mall walkers have already commented favorably on my window displays, and even when I was sourcing props (an oversized flamingo, shown above) the cashier who checked me out had seen my recent window at the mall and said she would go back and see the next one. Win-win!

Hot Springs is a resort town, and tourists don’t usually hit the mall, but “if you build it they will come.” You have to start somewhere and that’s my hope. Busses drive by every day, full of tourists going to the lake, so why not give those dollars a reason to come to our small-town mall?

📷: Phil Chwalinski



MasterClass: ‘Re-Sparkling’ Retail: Using Store Design to Build Trust, Faith and Brand Loyalty

HOW CAN WE EMPOWER and inspire senior leaders to see design as an investment for future retail growth? This session, led by retail design expert Ian Johnston from Quinine Design, explores how physical stores remain unmatched in the ability to build trust, faith, and loyalty with your customers, ultimately driving shareholder value.

Presented by:
Ian Johnston
Founder and Creative Director, Quinine Design

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