As I walk through the door of Abigail Crompton’s studio in South Melbourne, I know I have officially stepped into the coolest workspace I have ever seen. Along the right hand wall is an array of desks, cluttered with funky ornaments, coffee cups, computers, paper and knick-knacks, and on the other side, shelves and boxes stocked to the brim with art pieces and materials, with every kind of colourful fabrics, textiles, and crafts you could think of. In a circle to the far side of the room is a group of studious and creative women with their heads down, discussing all things art. They all greet me with warm smiles, coffee, and seat on a very cosy purple couch. The creative energy in the room is palpable; and to top it off, they even have an office dog – does it get any better than this?
Sitting with Abi, the Founder and CEO of Third Drawer Down, felt like reuniting with an old friend. She is a woman who knows everything there is to know about the world of art and business, and I found myself going from laughter to awe all the way through our interview. Welcome to the crazy, inspiring life of Abi Crompton.
In that room behind you is everything we’ve made in the studio, that most people, unless you are at places like MOMA or the Whitney, wouldn’t know that we did that here in Australia.
The first custom project that I did was in 2008 with Louise Bourgeois. The Tate invited me to make products for their gallery, and the day before I met with them I went around the Tate Modern and wrote a list of every artist that I was inspired by and wanted to work with – like my dream list. And then when I went to the meeting I said, “I’ve got my list, and on the top of my list would be to work with Louise Bourgeois,” and these buyers looked at each other and went, “Oh, that’s actually who we want you to make for – Louise”. And so I went to New York and met Louise, and she actually wasn’t that interested in me (laughing), she had an ear infection and so I don’t think she really heard me yelling out to her that I thought she was amazing.
Subsequently from that exhibition, we’ve been working with Louise Bourgeois and the Easton Foundation, and we’re the exclusive makers of her products in the world. We’ve got business development agents and distributers overseas who distribute everything that we make. So then I kind of continued my art crushes; just over the years when I’m inspired by someone I approach them and tell them how much I think they’re awesome. From that I have continued on working with the most incredible artists – predominantly women artists. Hence how the Guerrilla Girls came about, as well as Yayoi Kusama and Marilyn Minter and yeah, its fun. And to top it all off, I have a store!
It’s really wholesale custom retail. The store is in Fitzroy; I did have one in Prahran but I didn’t want it anymore. I’m not much of a retailer, I don’t want to have barcodes on things and become serious about it. It’s more a place of things that we make and things that we like.
So what’s your background in all of this? Did you study art at uni and decide this is the thing for you?
So I actually did two degrees – from being at boarding school I realised there were a lot of messed up people, so I thought I’d be a psychologist.
I did not expect that!
I know! (laughs) so it got even worse, I wanted to be a Corporate Psychologist, but then I got sprung cheating in the economics test. There was a guy in front of me who looked really business, so I copied all his multiple choice answers, but they had three different multiple choice test papers out and I failed economics. And then I got to the point where I asked myself: ‘Why would I want to be a psychologist? I don’t want to listen to people’s troubles my whole day.’ So I then crossed over and became very selfish – I became a fine artist.
So I studied at RMIT and had never done art at school, so I did a TAFE course and got escalated into the degree and went on. I really wanted to be an artist. Then a job came up at the National Gallery to be a product developer, and I was like: ‘That sounds really cool, imagine sitting in a room of awesome artists work and turning them into merch.’ And so I worked there for a while and realised that was my stick. I was still totally engrossed in the art world and couldn’t afford most of the things that I was working with, but I could mass produce them and have them as functional objects at home. That’s so cool. So that was kind of where I realised that that was my thing.
I’ve read that the name for Third Drawer Down came about because that’s where people keep their tea towels. Is there anything that you could sort of expand on about the name and how it came about?
So, Third Drawer Down started almost as a mistake. When I was at the NGV I was really fascinated by the sixties, Warhol and art multiples – I liked the principle of it, I thought it was really great. My Dad had a linen business, and he accidentally shrunk a thousand tea towels, and he was like, “Hey Abi, do you want these?” and I was like, ‘What would I do with a thousand tea towels Dad that’s stupid.” So I made a couple and it was boring, but then I thought: why don’t I actually get artists to do the tea towels? And what is art? And I suppose at that point limited edition prints on paper were the trend, and I thought why don’t I do them as tea towels? And so then I started thinking of a name, and I went around to places like Revolver and I’d ask people on the dance floor: “Hey, where do you keep your tea towels?” (laughing).
Third Drawer Down was a really great name because roughly around the same time Jimeoin wrote about the third drawer down as the place “where your shite goes”, so I thought: ‘Oh cool, its kind of an absurdist space too’, like it’s not just for textiles but all the other crap that people put in there. And I thought that it fit well. So then I brought out four tea towels and it just kind of grew from there.
Did you see it becoming as successful as it is today?
No because it was purely a project. If someone sat with me and said: “Hey, I’m thinking about starting a business making limited edition art tea towels as a career”, I’d go: “That’s stupid, that’s really dumb, like how could you make money from that?” But because I was working at the time at Craft Victoria and started it off as a project for the first couple of years, I really did whatever I wanted to do because it wasn’t about making money, it was actually more about exploring an idea and as a hobby. So I never wrote a business plan, I just kind of did it because it was fun and I could actually connect with people. I was more interested in connecting with people and having a conversation than anything else. I did another project on the side that I’d got into a little bit of trouble for, it was called Art is Art and I was really frustrated because I was working with really amazing artists but I actually wanted to work with like hard core artists – I wanted to work with Tracey Emin you know, I wanted to work with Sophie Calle, and I was really nobody at that stage. So I made these products as homages to them, and I was selling them at Colette in Paris, and a couple these artists wrote to me asking: “Hey, how come you made these products with my work? That’s not your work that’s my work.” So I then realised if I want to be really serious about this I need to try and work out a way of working directly with these people. And then the Tate came along, and I suppose Louise Bourgeois was really my introduction to working with anyone that I wanted to work with.
So I read that you grew up around your Mum’s business?
Yeah so my mum had five retail stores, so I started retail when I was nine for my Mum and I worked for a place called Heaven which was an American candy and smutty card shop.
My job was to sort all the smutty cards back into the right thing, and so I was totally warped in my sense of what a man was because I was like: ‘Wow look at all these great images’ (laughing) and so I loved that job, it was really great. So I kind of grew up in retail, which is also why I can never retail very seriously. I was kind of raised in a commercial mind, and my daughter’s the same. She’s nine and she’s pretty much building her own website, getting an ecommerce store going. In the shop when she serves people she goes up to them with cartwheels as a way of introducing herself when she’s working. I think being raised in an environment where your kids are actually working in it in some capacity is really cool. I encourage it, just to show them this is what work is like and that sort of thing.
If you had just one piece of advice for someone trying to make their creative dreams a reality, what would it be?
I think one of the biggest questions to refine, is whether you want to be part of a trend, or whether you want to be part of tradition, because it totally changes what you are making and how you do it.
What are some of your favourite artists? I’ve heard a few big names so far, but if you had to pick maybe three?
If I had to pick three, I would have to say Louise Bourgeois, David Shrigley and the Guerrilla Girls.
So you’re actually launching two new products with the Guerrilla Girls, what can you tell us about them?
So we’ve just released a really beautiful clutch with ‘The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist’, and we had Abbey Rich who is kind of like our Guerrilla Girls ambassador for that piece. And then we’ve done a post card box set of a historical view of their work, from posters all the way through. We’re in the process of bringing out another three of their products, including a tote bag which is of the Guerrilla Girls mask, but you can cut the eyes out and actually wear the tote bag as a mask.
I love the Guerrilla Girls and have been following them for a while now, but for people reading that may not know anything about them, what kind of background could you give?
So the Guerrilla Girls started about 32 years ago in 1985; when we launched out first collection with them it was actually their 30th anniversary. They originated as pioneer protestors. Their first protest was out the front of MOMA, and these women wore masks, no one knows who they really are behind them, with pseudonym names of important women artists like Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz, and their main objective is to amplify the fact that museums in general do not have any or enough women artworks represented in their museums. And this has been going on for 30 or so years now and even now it’s still pretty much a political mountain for museums to really take it on. Over the last couple of years Guerrilla Girls have become I suppose the pillar of political women agenda in the art world and the amount of shows that have been happening in the last 18 months is crazy. Museums are really wanting to make changes, and it’s really great to see. It is shifting, and even if it’s not as much in their permanent collection, I think from just an exhibition dialogue, I think it’s awesome.
And to think 30 years later we’re still having the same conversations; it’s good that we’re seeing some changes but it can be a bit deflating as well.
Yeah and that’s the same as even talking with the guys at places like MOMA, they say, “We need to have more women artist products”, but it’s all the way through, it’s not even just like in the actual exhibitions – we’re talking down to the main frame. So I suppose our main mission in our lifetime working with the Guerrilla Girls and other women artists is to have them in every art museum store in the world. That’s our goal.
As a woman in the creative industry do you ever find that it can have its challenges for you personally?
Yeah, well I suppose we don’t deal as much with the curatorial aspects of the museums, but we deal with the buyers in museums and there are some men and their attitude towards working with women that makes an interesting kind of dichotomy that we have to struggle with. They have a specific way in which they want to talk to women, and yeah I can pick them out when they’ve got a clear agenda or whatever. But I think overall, we’re pretty well supported in general. I think the art world is a slightly different beast to other industries, which is good.
Who would be your personal dream artistic collaboration? I mean, it sounds like you have ticked a lot of boxes in this area of your work!
There’s a couple. I’d really like to work with Lena Dunham, I think that would be an interesting dialogue. I’d like to work with Cindy Sherman, in fact I would probably put her over Lena. I’d like to work with Nancy Spector too, I reckon she’s an important feminist artist who I think deserves to have a stage – a merch stage. We’re working with Judy Chicago, she’s having an anniversary for ‘The Dinner Party’ in Brooklyn so that’s pretty cool, I’m really excited about working with Judy. I think she’s a really important artist to work with.
Where do you Third Drawer Down going this year? Any new things in store?
We’re actually doing a major focus on Australian artists, so the last couple of years we’ve really been focusing and building on putting out our international collaborations. So we’ve just launched a couple of months ago the Australian Art Collection, exclusive to the NGV until August this year. We’ve also got projects coming out with Charles Blackman, Margaret Preston and Reg Mombassa, so we’re just really looking at the Australian group and then alongside of that we’re really developing stronger relations with Australian women artists, both historically and contemporary. So yeah they’re some projects we’re launching later on in the year. And then we’re doing the Miami Art Basel.
To be able to live and work in your dream is very rare, and people would be lucky to be able to do what you’ve done.
It’s interesting, it is all of those things but then there are moments actually where I just wish I had a bagel shop, and I just made thousands of bagels a day doing the same thing (laughing). There is a lot of energy spent in creative development, and then the follow through, then the management of all those things, and each time it’s always a new thing, rather than just doing something on repeat.
Art is never stagnant and there’s always new things coming out every day. Do you think the rise of social media and online shopping has advanced the circulation of art today?
Yeah I think so, I think there are some pretty fantastic spokespersons that are really running that world, that you actually want to know what they’re thinking about. Particularly from an Instagram perspective with artists like Frances Cannon. I think for a young woman she’s so inspiring with the time and energy she spends on her art. It’s funny, I remember when I was younger and investing in the same 24/7 kind of energy, you can get those people saying, “Yeah, but I could do that” and I know that Frances and others probably have people saying, “Well why is she so famous, or why does she have all those people following her, I could do that too.” But you don’t actually realise how much time they spend on that, and what they’re saying is actually unique and beautiful, even if it’s really simple, it’s just full of total integrity. And Frances, she rocks that world.
Abi thinks this person rocks: Maja Dordevic
She’s a Serbian artist and she makes me really happy. She had a show at the Hole gallery in New York, her work is a kind of pixelated style but are paintings that she’s done. She’s so good. I like it because it’s something done on an old Dos-style computer and then painted as canvas works, I think she’s just really cool.
Third Drawer Down was established in 2003 by Abigail Crompton to encourage artistic innovation and provide a platform for collaboration for cultural institutions and established artists and designers to work together.
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