Strap to come Honest, unpretentious English country pottery has finally made it to the saleroom.
The life of an artist has a curious place in the public imagination. Unworldly, ethereal, unable to engage with society except through the filter of their work, in the minds of many people artists still live in the proverbial garret. They are the nearest thing the secular world has to saints and, as such, are meant to suffer the privations and reap the benefits of saintdom equally. What they are not meant to do, the traditional view has it, is dabble in commerce or make money. At least, not until they're very famous or very dead.

So what exactly is happening in the shops of London? Habitat, Emporio Armani, Nicole Farhi, Harvey Nichols, even Levi's, are paying artists to exhibit work on the sales floor. In itself that's nothing new. Art and shopping are old bedfellows. Indeed, in Japan no self-respecting department store is complete without its gallery. But where art has been displayed in British shops, it has often tended to be middle-brow, middle-class and middle-aged: pounds 250 black-and-white photographs of Namibian tribespeople hanging in the cafe at Liberty's, sub-Howard Hodgkin abstracts, and the tepid watercolours and of Foyle's bookshop gallery in the Charing Cross Road.

Where Habitat and the other shops are breaking new ground, by contrast, is in making space for artists who are young, unconventional and drawn from the undeniably hip centre-ground of contemporary British art, the world of the Turner Prize and Damien "dead sheep" Hirst.

Anya Gallaccio is interested in decay. Last year, she coated the walls of a gallery in chocolate, where it slowly broke down and assaulted the nostrils of visitors. A current piece of hers consists of 1020 scarlet gerbera placed between panes of glass where they slowly wilt. If there's a vision here, it's not one that you would necessarily associate with Habitat's aesthetic of elegant, practical affordable design. But on Tuesday a Gallaccio daisy chain, made from the same flowers, will go on display at the Tottenham Court Road store, where for the next month it will wither in a glass cabinet by the cafe, kitchenware on one side and household lighting on the other.

A few miles away at the King's Road branch, a huge picture by the minimalist painter Gary Hume straddles the stairs up to the bedding department. It's a very decorative piece, not at all out of place among the soft furnishings with its delicate blues and almost cartoonish hands stretching across the canvas. But Hume is no run-of-the-mill interior decorator. "A custom- made candidate for the Turner Prize shortlist," one critic said about Hume's recent show at the ICA. And what's he considering doing next year? Designing a duvet cover for Habitat.

Actually, the Habitat painting is not Hume's first venture into the world of pure commerce. He recently appeared in some rather slick magazine ads for Hugo Boss, posing moodily, a task for which he was paid handsomely in designer-label clothes.

Admittedly, this isn't something that happens every day to an up-and- coming artist, but it does demonstrate two things rather well. First, how glossy and media-friendly contemporary art has become; and, second, how little fear the generation of artists that out of art school at the end of the Eighties (Hume and Gallaccio both left Goldsmith's in 1988, making them direct contemporaries of Damien Hirst) has of engaging with the commercial world.

With public-funding of galleries at an all-time low, and the Thatcherite spirit of entrepreneurship abroad, the class of '88 had to made its own breaks.

They benefited from beer companies with spare beer and property developers with spare warehouses - always, however, on their own terms.

Rather than wait for galleries to ask them, they put on their own exhibitions. Some even founded their own shops, from which the move to working with established retailers doesn't seem such a big leap: just the latest in a long line of alternative venues. So, venture the words, "sell-out" or "compromise" to Gallaccio, and she starts to foam at the mouth: "What's the point of being so precious and starving? In my book, that's just stupid. No one's interested."

It's not hard to see what the shops get from these joint ventures. For a start it's cheap way to a little "edge" to their image, a whiff of something fresh and alternative. As Gary Hume says: "Getting in a young artist would in most cases, I'd imagine, cost an awful lot less than hiring a top-grade window-dresser."

Levi's, which for a year now has had a gallery in its flagship store in Regent Street, holds 12 shows a year, cosing between pounds 1,000 and pounds 3,000 each, a drop in the ocean compared to how much it costs to make, say, a 30-second claymation cinema commercial. Habitat has a bigger arts budget of around pounds 50,000, but it is spread around the country. And Armani, which has regularly invited sculptor's to show in its Brompton Road shop, has no budget at all ("which is really annoying," says one of the artists working for Habitat, "I was really looking forward to being given an Armani suit").

Retailers are also, at long last, waking up to the fact that shopping is a leisure activity. "I think the public in this country is fed up with the stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap mentality," says the curator of the Levi's gallery, Paul Stamper. They want a whole experience. They want a bit of quality time.

n Gary Hume's show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London ends today (see offer below). The British Art Show, which includes work by both Hume and Anya Gallaccio is in Edinburgh toxxxxxxxxxxxxxx then tours. (phone number)

Gary Hume print offer

The first 15 Independent readers to take this coupon to the shop at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1, will receive 20 per cent off Gary Hume's silkscreen print, The Polar Bear, worth pounds 295. Readers clutching the coupon will also receive 15 per cent off selected books.

The ICA is sponsored by Toshiba