Sally and Dave began their artistic reinvention of life’s great chore – doing the washing up – in 2008, when they launched tea towel company ToDryFor. They commission both prominent and up-and-coming designers to create their designs, which look equally fabulous hung on the cooker or framed on the wall (see page 27 of Livingetc, August 2010, back-issue fans). They’re launching a new design by Rob Ryan at this year’s Pulse, but what else is going on in the world of tea towels? This husband and wife team talk great design, their creative process and why little birds might just fly through your kitchen window and offer to darn your socks. 

What’s your studio like? Our Oxford office also doubles as a design-led gift shop called Comma. We wanted our place of work to be bright, colourful, fun, and sociable, enjoying the banter that comes from operating in a public space. The kettle is on pretty much constantly, and there’s always a good supply of biscuits to keep us bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. We’ve worked with some incredibly talented illustrators, so when we first got the space they agreed to help us decorate – the sign was painted by Ben Javens, and we have a wall mural in the shop by Gemma Correll. It’s so nice to work from somewhere that we find so inspiring.

And, is there such a thing as your average working day? Definitely not! You wouldn’t think that working with tea towels would create such a wide variety of tasks, but there really isn’t a day that goes by without something new cropping up. We spend our time searching for up-and-coming designers, working on new products, making sure we always have plenty of stock available (liaising closely with our UK printer on a regular basis), and generally making sure that our customer service is top-notch. All that interspersed with tweeting, tea, and cake!

Who or what inspired ToDryFor? We love great design, and seeing what talented individuals can do from a simple idea. Good design is a powerful thing. When you create something, or in our case commission a talented person to do an incredible design, which you then print/package/promote, there is a real sense of purpose about what you do.

How do you get from idea in your head to finished piece? We commission an increasingly varied collection of illustrators and designers and each design has something new to offer, whether it’s the style of artwork or the subject matter, we aim to cater for lots of different tastes (ranging from cat-lovers to allotment owners and paper-cut artwork to simple line-drawings). We both share a passion for all things bold and bright, kitsch and cute, and often designs that are a little bit off the wall. We love it when we hear back from happy customers. It’s great to be able to choose designs that bring other people joy (even if it is whilst they’re having to do household chores).

What are you most proud of? When we first told our friends and family that we were starting a business only selling tea towels, they thought we were crazy. We nervously ploughed on regardless, believing that people would really get it. Luckily for us they did, and we are never prouder than when we get feedback from customers telling us how much they love the towels, and how they have used them – which ranges from drying the dishes, framing them for their walls, and even making cushions/curtains/bags from them.

How far ahead does your masterplan stretch? Beyond a couple of years, and I’m sure we have enough work to keep us out of mischief for that long, but in fact our long-term business plan winds its way as new opportunities are presented to us. In one sense it seems bad to change your plans, but I think this flexibility is what gives small businesses the chance to do something truly unique.

What do you hope to get out of Pulse this year? Last year was our first time at Pulse, and it was a real eye-opener. We only chose to go about a month before the show date after a conversation with Mike Burgess, Deputy Chairman of the Gift Association –he suggested it might be a good idea, and it really was. So, this year, we’re looking forward to showing our existing stockists how we have expanded the range in the last 12 months, as well as meeting lots of new stockists who might want to give our products a shot. We’re launching a stunning new Rob Ryan tea towel [see above]. It’s called Small Brain, and it has inspirational words to help you with your pots and pans after dinner… If only these little birds could actually fly in through your window and help to darn your socks and wash your pots. We’ve also recently launched two other designs, too. Keep On Truggin [after the click through] is about how we love vegetables, and so does this trug-toting tattooed-trucker. The designer, Nicholas John Frith, is an illustrator, printmaker and writer who grew up in the Chilterns. He now finds himself residing on the south coast of Dorset where he is no longer keeping his drawings to himself. The other one is Jonah [see top] by Peter Slight – a quirky take on recent nautical trends and the cutest way to dry your dishes.
Peter’s style stems mainly from his love of children’s books and illustration from the Sixties and Seventies; he is heavily influenced by folk tales and fables, which lend his work a strong narrative feel.

Other than ToDryFor, what makes you happy? Food! If we have a good show, you might catch us eating a celebratory burger at Tom Conran’s fantastic Lucky Seven diner near Paddington afterwards.

How would you spend your perfect weekend? We live and work in Oxford, which is pretty much geographically the furthest from the sea that you can possibly live in the UK. I think it’s this reason that any perfect weekend would involve going to the seaside for fish and chips and a paddle in the waves.

Tell us a secret. Dave and I just had a our first child, a baby daughter called Heidi Rose, born seven weeks early on 3 May. We were hoping that she’d arrive after Pulse, so if we look a little weary and are bleary-eyed, that’s why!