I'm reading
Abi Crompton is a teatoweltologist
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Abi Crompton is a teatoweltologist
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Abi Crompton is a teatoweltologist
Pass it on
Pass it on
Conversations
1 January 2006

Abi Crompton is a teatoweltologist

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Rory Langdon

Kate Bezar on Abi Crompton

We had seen and admired Abi Crompton’s Third Drawer Down products for a long time and so, when a trip to Melbourne was in the offing, we thought we’d drop her a line saying it’d be great to say hello. Next thing we know Abi’s invited us to stay and the more we’ve gotten to know her, the more we admire her ‘doability’, imagination, integrity and glorious sense of humour.

Abi is the creative and practical genius behind two great, but very different brands. Third Drawer Down came first. The concept is simple, Abi commissions artists around the world to create works for her that she then prints (in limited edition) onto tea towels, lapkins, table runners and the like. Except people don’t seem to want to use them to dry their dishes or keep them in their drawers (let alone the third down). Instead, they’re treasured as works of art in their own right, worthy of a place over the mantlepiece. Enter Abi’s other business/project, Magnart. ‘What could that be?’ You ask. We say, ‘Read on’

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

DUMBO FEATHER: You describe yourself as a teatoweltologist. I want to know what a teatoweltologist does.

ABI CROMPTON: Teatoweltologist was a term that was coined by myself. ‘Director’ was another way of describing myself, but apart from developing the product for Third Drawer Down I also have a great interest in the social aspect of what people do with tea towels. It’s actually quite an interesting study because I wasn’t really aware until recently that the concept of the third drawer down being the universal tea towel drawer is not actually as universal as I thought, it’s only based in the Southern Hemisphere. So the concept of Third Drawer Down as a brand name has a different appeal to the Northern Hemisphere. Except for the British, they do have a third drawer down.

Did you first get that feedback from your French distributors?

It came through first from artists. When I work with each artist, for personal research I collect information on what they do with their tea towels. I’ve never published it anywhere on websites or packaging or whatever but yeah, a lot of the overseas artists don’t have a third drawer down. The concept of export is kind of a scary one. A lot of people get scared by taking an idea outside of beautiful Australia and how to go about doing it.

To just throw your products into a bag and take it overseas and meet people is one of the friendliest and easiest ways to actually get your product over there.

I was quite fortunate that when I was in Paris I met up with a lovely group of guys who had a store there and they’ve started an agency selling limited edition design products [Ugly Editions]. I’ve also had the opportunity now of being showcased at Maison&Objet in Paris and that has been a really huge stepping stone in terms of where and how Third Drawer Down can expand.

What portion of your sales now are international? It’s really just starting isn’t it?

Yeah, it’s still in bubble-land, but you know I’ve been fortunate enough to pick up a department store in Bangkok which for instance was never on my Richter scale.

Yeah, I’d imagine that it would definitely appeal to an Asian market.

I did a whole lot of research with Japanese people and they don’t use linen because they don’t have wine glasses. Linen was really developed or used as a tea towel to polish wine glasses because it doesn’t have that fluff, that lint; and they’re very absorbent and dry quickly. So the Japanese have cotton tea towels and they’re smaller; they’re half size, because they don’t really need any bigger. But when I look at my web stats a lot of Japanese people go on the site for the art.

Where does your interest in art stem from?

It’s interesting because I actually didn’t study it at school. I wanted to be a psychologist. So I did a degree in psychology and sociology to start with, and during that time I started to draw and realised I didn’t want to sit behind a desk and listen to people’s everyday things.

What were you drawing?

Funny faces, drawings of imaginary strangers’ faces. That’s how I taught myself to draw. My first exhibition I had for my 21st birthday was a series of aliens that I had painted in green. Then I put together a portfolio and studied Fine Art [at RMIT] for five years as a painter, but I was really designing furniture and other objects.

Apart from an appreciation for, and a love of, contemporary art, do you think you gained anything else from art school?

I think it’s process. Fine Art and especially Painting taught me how to look at something blank and to draw marks, or create a space, or a concept and to problem-solve through that. A lot of my painting work was based upon layers and layers and layers until I had resolved the complexity of the space. I look at anything that I develop, or any idea that I have, it always starts from a blank space. So I think it’s process really.

And where did this fascination with tea towels stem from?

It started when I worked for the National Gallery of Victoria [NGV] as their product developer. I did a lot of research about predominantly Australian art and what was in their collection. I had to prioritise the commercial viability of certain products that were, I guess, souvenir-based products to be sold in the Gallery Store. One of the largest-selling products apart from stationery items, postcards etc. were tea towels.

 

As a global souvenir product, the tea towel is regarded as one of the top ten products that people buy. You can go to some crazy little town four hours out of Perth and in the milk bar or general store they'll have their own tea towels they've had printed up. It has such an incredible language to it.

They’re so small, and they flat-pack, and they’re functional and they’re very collectable. So the concept started from there. I think probably one of my driving forces was that my dad had a linen business and was bringing in linen in from Portugal and he made a mistake with a number of tea towels that he’d got dyed. They’d shrunk slightly and he couldn’t sell them – there were about 500 of them. He said to me, “Do you want them?” So I started playing around with them and I created this little character based on Chux Super-wipes. His name was Chuxy and he was this little guy I used to cut out of Chux. I bought myself a sewing machine and I started sewing this little character onto tea towels. I kind of liked the idea of having art tea towels and I suppose that put the connection together. Then I thought how cool it would be to invite artists to do tea towels. So that’s kinda where Third Drawer Down began, it was a natural progression.

How long were you at the NGV before you decided to cut loose from there and do your own thing?

I was there for around ten months so it was a relatively short time. It was an interesting time because the NGV was going through an incredible growth period from having one gallery and expanding to two – the Australian part and the international part. The role of being the product developer there was new and it was really exciting. I was fresh out of art school and I had my own sense of business. I’d worked in a number of retail stores while studying but I taught myself in a short amount of time the processes of development by studying companies like LEGO for instance and the concepts of the stages of development.

Where did you find that kind of information?

Through books. I just read all different types of product development books you can find at Borders or anywhere. I learnt accounting from my step-father who is an accountant and all the other tools came from previous experiences and not being afraid to ask questions.

In that ten months? You must been like a giant sponge.

It was huge. I also learnt about the politics of art and that’s a massive thing. Especially with a project like Third Drawer Down, you have to be so aware of people’s emotions. You’re dealing with creative people and turning their work into a commercial product – it’s a sensitive subject. The art world has such interesting protocols of how to deal with that. I really learnt that by dealing with the curators and it was a wonderful experience. I left in the end because I became fascinated with the concept of being a maker and the micro. Although large production is exciting and it has its different pressures I wanted to start at the basics.

Yet if you’d stayed at the NGV, they wouldn’t have been your products but you would have been their creator.

In a way, but they would never have really been mine. I think it’s that thing when you work for a large company or for anyone else, it’s never really yours. I have always wanted to have my own deal happening.

I think that when I die I want to know that I've used every single last bit of brain space.
Abi Crompton

Because you knew that you had so much to give something? I mean, there’s so much of you in Third Drawer Down, you personality comes through not only the tea towels but the packaging and the website.

It’s very indulgent, very. When I ask other people, “What is art?” it always comes back that it’s really your own perception of it. In a lot of ways Third Drawer Down is my own perception of what art is. It’s not based upon whether they’re a famous artist or someone doing their Honours at art school. There is no territory or jurisdiction to it all.

You don’t have any criteria for choosing the artists?

It’s about the strength of their line work. If we look at the aesthetics of it, the type of printing I do is a very traditional-based printing with food-friendly dyes etc. It has to be a very strong image for it to work so I am governed by certain V types of design principles.

Closer to drawing than anything else?

Very close to drawing. I have worked with a lot of drawing people. I have worked with artists that are photographic-based like Holly Story for instance – it also works. There’s a certain sensibility of the artists that I work with in Third Drawer Down. I wouldn’t really say that they’re political in their overall presentation but I suppose they’d be classed as outsider-based works. There’s a funny sense of humour. I get a lot of people calling up who say, “You do those kooky tea towels.” It does have an eccentric twist to it, but it’s purely what I like.

It’s really important because you’re putting yourself out on the line and I think that’s why I’m not really interested in where or who these people are in any career sense. It’s purely driven by aesthetics and also by how they perceive their work to be, their artist statements and how they perceive themselves.

You have worked with some very established artists like Jenny Watson [profiled in Dumbo feather Issue 2] and Peter Tyndall but also others who the establishment might call ‘illustrators’ or ‘designers’…

I feel really fortunate with the people I have collaborated with. Artists like Peter and Jenny and having a dialogue with Anna Schwartz Gallery has been a really wonderful and supportive environment to work with these artists in.

It all starts when I ask people where they keep their tea towels and it's that dialogue which has allowed me to work with some really incredible people around the world.

Tea towels have got a slang notion to them – a daggy side – and it’s only been in the last couple of years that people have started to embrace the concept that you can have a really beautifully designed piece of material that can be used as a tea towel. Although Third Drawer Down was never really developed to be used, it was always created to be hung on the wall.

Was it? So they weren’t to be kept in the third drawer down at all?

Well they were, but they weren’t. It was an inner dialogue that I was having that went along the lines of, here I am creating a product which is meant to be kept in the third drawer down, but it’s also meant to be hung on the wall. A lot of people don’t use them, they collect them. A lot of people do display them, and that’s the reason why I started my other business which came from the number of people who were hanging them on the wall.

Talk me through that… talk me through the creation of Magnart®.

Magnart® came out of a customer service need. On www.thirddrawerdown.com there are instructions of how to display the tea towels or put them on pine stretchers and hang them on your walls. I noticed a lot of people were going to that part of the site. So I wanted to find a product that was inexpensive, that was extremely easy to use, that was clean-remove so it could be temporary and that didn’t damage textiles. But I couldn’t find anything that I wanted to sell or recommend to anyone on the site. So I started playing around with different types of materials and I came up with a product I called Magnart®.

Because Third Drawer Down is limited edition brand it could never really have a product which was mass-produced so I had to create a whole new company and identity for Magnart® for it to function. I developed it on a very, very small budget. I used existing packaging, it was one-colour print, it was very, very low fi. I went out and met up with some distributors to get their feedback on it and picked up a couple here in Australia. They gave me the encouragement and support to take Magnart® overseas.

In May I took both businesses overseas and out of that came distributors into the UK and the USA for Magnart®. That led me to move production and a whole lot of other things to streamline the business, like re-branding and re-pricing it. It’s now translated into two other languages, Spanish and French, which are the main languages you need overseas. The new graphics for the packaging are kind of 1960s Superman-Pop-kapow.

How big do they think it’s going to be in the US?

They’re really excited by the product. I’m doing a trade fair in April in Boston with it and some of the largest art-supply online and catalogue stores have already taken it on. The amount of positive feedback I’ve had from a number of different markets from hardware through to large chain store photographic-based has been fantastic.

I tell you, it’s going to be the next Post-it note.

In Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion she was really upset that someone else had invented the Post-it Note… it’s something that I hold very dear to my heart.

I always wanted to develop something that would change people's lives.

I think both Third Drawer Down and Magnart® do impact people’s lives but in very different ways. One in a very functional practical kind of way, and the other by bringing art into people’s lives.

Yeah, one’s the absurdist part, they’re almost like these two separate personalities in a lot of ways.

I’d say they were quite symbolic of your own personality. I think you have a very practical kind of bent, you’re very good at just getting stuff done and then there’s an incredible whimsical quirky, limited edition side of Abi. It’s beautiful that you’re able to indulge both those sides.

I think that when I die I want to know that I’ve used every single last bit of brain space. It’s about really stretching as much experience… Third Drawer Down will always, always be my backbone. It’s a vehicle to give me confidence to do anything that I want to do because it started off as a very simple project that wanted to question the boundaries of what is considered art.

It lives on so many different disciplines… For instance next year it’s being exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in an exhibition showcasing the concept of what the multiple is. Then it exists in retail stores as a commercial product. It’s being archived by The University of Wollongong Art Gallery in their prints and drawings area. It’s also been showcased in the design arena because it’s a hybrid-based functional object.

How long ago did you start?

I keep on forgetting. It’s like how I keep on forgetting how old I am. July 2003 I started.

You are starting to, or you already have, branched out of just tea towels. Was it the Artpron first?

Yes, the Artpron came out of the need for a larger canvas – tea towels were too small. It was developed around a rectangle Vand it has a hidden cord system in it so you can wear it three other ways, plus you can hang it on the wall.

Are they limited edition as well? You must have almost sold out of that beautiful Kat Macleod designed one.

Yeah Kat Macleod. I keep on working with Kat.

How did you meet up with her?

Through a friend of mine, and also through 3 Deep Design. She was commissioned by 3 Deep to do an artist book on the study of the bird, and the body and fashion. She was there for a year and all she did was draw pictures of her own liking. I really, really like her aesthetics. I do commission work outside of Third Drawer Down, and I have used Kat on a number of occasions for other types of projects.

So where to next? What are the constraints under which you operate Third Drawer Down – do you have any?

I’m always thinking that it’s based upon quadrants, because I’m pretty much surrounded by rectangles. I’m doing handkerchiefs, they’re being launched in January at Maison&Objet and again, it’s a project which is pretty personal.

That’s the first time you’ve moved out of the kitchen.

Yeah it is! There are a number of third drawers down in the house, so yeah this is the first one that moves out of the kitchen into another room. Again still based on a very rich kind of history. In fact the handkerchief is probably more potent when it comes to the history of how it came about. It’s been around since 1000 B.C. when it was first used by the Chinese. So I’m really excited about that, I’ve commissioned three artists and they’re all embroidery pieces.

I think the logo might be the only printed portion of it. It’s based on the Madeira women, an island near Portugal. The women there are employed to hand roll the edges of fabrics and it’s a very labour-intensive process and it’s so beautiful. I received one of these handkerchiefs one day and I just loved the concept. I suppose that’s the formal part of the handkerchief that I work with; the artwork is non-traditionally based because normally handkerchief art is based in corners.

So where do you find these artists? More and more you’re finding them further afield it seems.

Yeah! Third Drawer Down really started as an Australian project that was to promote Australian art and design to a global market. And I had a hiccup, when I started to talk to overseas stores they all came back saying, “Why would we want to sell this product, it has no relevance to our country.” So it brought out all these incredible questions of patronage.

Interesting. Surely the French won’t just stock French artists. Was that what they were implying?

Well, it was a number of things. I re-looked at my packaging, and I changed two things. In the beginning I had the artist at the top and the title at the bottom, and the country that they came from was in large font. So I swapped over and put the title at the top, then the artist, and then I shrunk the country down to a very small font. And I then wrote my mission, which is on all my printed matter and it discusses the philosophy of Third Drawer Down not being a part of any territory or patronage or any jurisdiction of any kind and it’s based around a global community.

That’s where I really started to look at that concept of what community is about and especially working in domestic product, that it was a really powerful word. People love to know that they’re a part of something larger than what they are. You know if you look at blogs – type a word into Google and all these individuals have these blogsites – it’s an incredible network. I’ve become more and more fascinated with how they work and I’ve met a lot of really wonderful people through blogsites who I’ll be working with over the next couple of years with collections.

So just going back to where you find these people, you find them through blogsites, others through referrals?

I don’t go to galleries but I spend a lot of time on the internet looking at people’s links pages, because you can find out a lot through what people admire in their own works. And then there’s certain people that I’ve always dreamt of having a dialogue with. For instance I’ve approached the girls from Chicks On Speed to do a tea towel for me and they said yes. That’s the kind of thing I get off on. You can be cheeky, and they get into it because it’s well, a fun project.

If someone came to me and said, “Do you want to design a tea towel”, I wouldn’t look twice at it, but it’s the way you’ve done it that makes it so special. It’s got that real personality of it’s own. You’ve got a quote on the bottom of your email – “It’s the individual who makes life interesting and it’s the personal that gives life meaning.”

My inspiration for Third Drawer Down is Aesop [see Suzanne Santos’ profile in Dumbo feather Issue 3], no holds barred. Their generic packaging is the background to the way that the Third Drawer Down envelope was created. The integrity of their product and what they’re governed by is so incredible. It’s just really nice to have folk like that.

What’s the most challenging thing you’ve ever done?

It was probably taking Magnart®, that had the minimal research time in a commercial market of six months, and picking it up and moving it to Hong Kong. And then promising distributors here and overseas that they could have it in an improved design, in a really short amount of time. I’ve learnt some incredible things through it but it’s been really stressful along the way.

You know I just feel like I’ve been playing hopscotch and I’ve created a hopscotch game that’s going to last me at least another two years. I come back to it being a project – that’s really how I want to see it because if I start thinking that it’s a full on business, then I start looking at the money. If I keep it as a project then I’m doing it for something beyond it being a financial situation.

So what are the parameters of success of a project, and how is that different to a business?

I think the boundaries are very different when it comes to it being a project. It is ungoverned, and I think by calling something a project you have to be questioning a number of things, and pushing things further…

It suggests more exploration than an end result.

But it’s twisting things around too. I believe 80% of a product is research and that’s all in the beginning, before you start spending. When you start looking at the concept of what a business is, well I just think instantly think of figures. I remind myself that I’m a fine artist, I come from an art background, I never did business.

I studied economics and I got 4%, I failed because I cheated trying to copy the guy sitting in front of me. I have problems in my mind, I can’t see figures, I need a calculator and that’s fine. I have a very good support system around me. My stepfather is my accountant, my dad is a property developer, he takes risks, and my mum is my inner dialogue. I have these three incredible people that are a part of my life, that have assisted me.

I think I'd be scared if I started really saying, "I have a business." I know I do, but I just don't really want to think about it.

I wanted to talk a bit about your teaching position.

Oh yeah I love teaching. When I was at Craft Victoria…

This was before NGV?

No, this was after, I left NGV and worked for the Victorian Craft Council.

So Third Drawer Down was incubating that whole time.

Yeah, Third Drawer Down started when I was working for the Craft Council. I learnt through that process that a lot of makers don’t have business skills.

Craft, design, art business is so different to any other type of business really because you’re dealing with the left and the right hand side of the brain. There’s not a lot of people out there who have communication between both sides of their brain. Some makers would come in with these beautiful products with little concept of how to market them or how to write an invoice.

So I approached the Center of Adult Education and talked to them about starting up a short course, a five-week workshop in product development that was based around a process that I had put together from my experiences. It’s for people who have ideas in the first place, micro-based products. It’s all about how they can expand their business, and how to market it and to present it to retail. All it is, is having encouragement, that’s all people really need. So it’s very much like counseling and I really enjoy that.

Well maybe it’s the psychotherapist coming back.

Well yeah I think it must be! It’s very ingrained in how I approach things. I think it’s also that encouragement. I think this is what Dumbo feather, pass it on. does, it allows people – by listening to someone else – to believe that they can do it, whatever that they do. It’s quite beautiful. I’ve been in workshops and I’ve watched students clutch Dumbo Feather in front of them, and they talk about the people and their experiences.

That’s what it’s all about. Who knows what they’ll think when they read yours.

Oh god! Who’s that funny girl who does funny things? When I started kind of thinking about what Third Drawer Down is, it’s mine, but it’s actually not, it’s beyond me. I’m a facilitator.

I did want to mention one thing that was a huge principle to Third Drawer Down, and that is going back to Pop Art and the socialist concept that art is an accessible medium and commodity, and it wasn’t regarded as anything to do with the price. It was about the idea of free promotion and freedom of ideas.

Right, because all your tea towels are the same price, no matter how many you print, or who the artist is.

The price is as inexpensive as possible for what it is, so anyone can have it. That was really, really important. If I look at my dogma of why it was created – the socialist concept was quite a big part of it. It allows everyone to be the same at the same point and to enjoy the same thing.

If I look at my dogma of why it was created – the socialist concept was quite a big part of it. It allows everyone to be the same at the same point and to enjoy the same thing.

And it’s not about a trend. Third Drawer Down was never developed to be a trend, it was developed to be a part of tradition.

Was it born out of any frustration with the elitism that’s generally associated with art?

Yeah, art really pisses me off! I look at so much art, and I question why it exists. Especially when you start looking at the value upon some art, you wonder, who did what with who to get it there. I think a lot of art, or artists, are brands. It’s a tongue in cheek thing, putting art onto a tea towel.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Rory Langdon

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.