The hints and clues begin from the moment Chris Town appears as the door of his Leichhardt home and studio. Dressed in a simple striped tee and wearing armfuls of ink, the artist and curator leads the way through a brightly-coloured corridor and living room, past walls heaped with mismatched paintings, prints and plastic toys. There’s no set theme in this well-loved terrace – and yet, somehow, the differing styles tie together perfectly.
As is the case with A Happy Death, the stationery company Town runs with his wife and fellow creative, Kara. Wholly Australian made, their products (mainly greeting cards at present) showcase the work of established and upcoming artists, providing them with a new platform to exhibit works. To the Towns, a card is merely a canvas and their company is the unconventional gallery space, seeking out new faces to convey messages.
Previously, Town worked as a stationery buyer for a retail outlet, a position that, while equipping him with industry know-how, also revealed a market with room for innovation. “I saw there was a bit of a gap in the sense that there wasn’t much out there that was taking a few risks,” he explains. “The main difference for us is we’re doing something that’s a little bit riskier in stationery.
“We wanted to make a brand where anything could come underneath its name. You could see our product in one shop, then go to a completely different store and love something else of ours, without knowing they came from the same brand.”
Their debut range of cards achieves just that. Featuring both Australian and international artists, the designs range from the intricate imaginings of acclaimed print studio Karolina York to the food-inspired kitsch of Billie Justice Thompson. There are 15 artists involved so far, each one handpicked by the Towns. First attracted to potential collaborators by aesthetic, the pair then decides if the work will be valid in a commercial context. Though they try to limit artists as little as possible, the Towns have developed a business savvy that sees them constantly asking each other: ‘Is it sellable?’
What exactly is it that A Happy Death does differently? “The one negative aspect of greeting cards is that they’re often given and just thrown away,” says Town. “They are received and forgotten. But because of the imagery, people might develop some sort of attachment to our cards. They might even examine the artist a little further.”
The key to A Happy Death’s success is offering customers the chance to forge a new relationship with the humble greeting card. Not only are their purchases a small investment in an environmentally friendly product (all cards are printed on 100 per cent recycled papers, using vegetable based inks), it’s a chance to give a card a second life and to view it as an artwork.
It seems fitting that the pair have plans for expansion, including a foray into wrapping papers, which will double as posters. Journals and soft furnishings have also been discussed, but the two are wary of getting ahead of themselves and risking the dilution of their brand. “I like the idea of being a really good paper company, with good cards, good wrapping paper, really specialist,” says Town. “We both still have other jobs, we’re not completely self-sufficient yet.”
When they’re not pursuing solo creative projects (Chris is an exhibiting artist and a ‘Real Man’ ambassador this season for WitcheryMan), sorting through boxes of freshly printed cards or liaising with stockists, the pair can be found perusing Sydney’s ever-expanding cafe scene. “We tend to just hang out in coffee shops when we have a spare moment,” Town laughs. “We love going out for breakfast, so we try and go to a different place every few weeks.”
As he gives a quick tour of the studio space (the house’s front room), it’s clear that Town is passionate about his products. He motions to thickly bound progress diaries, to half-completed works and to the finished cards, all with a refreshing sense of excitement for what’s to come. Since the beginnings of their company – which started out as a wild germ of an idea hatched on a Parisian holiday – the Towns have worked hard to forge something they can be proud of. And they are.
“I think the key is that we trust each other,” says Town. “If you trust your partner in a business sense, you don’t feel there is any agenda behind what they’re saying. We’re pretty honest with each other, and the more we work with each other the less sensitive we are. We have a very similar taste and vision.”
A Happy Death products are available in select retailers across Australia.