Design entrepreneurs everywhere are
finding creative ways to make beautiful and useful new products from
objects relegated to the dustbins of history. In Devon, England, for
instance, Amanda Barry and Nigel Parker started their online business Parable Designs Limited
after discovering scores of old wallpaper-printing rollers—the “unsung
heroes of the wallpaper printing industry,” as Barry puts it. Back in
the 19th century when the rollers were in use, they were painstaking
to create: “The necessary skill to translate a design from paper to
roller required many years of training,” Parable’s website explains.
From such relics they have crafted uniquely decorated candles, lamps and
ornaments based entirely on those intricate designs. The serendipitous
way that the business has unfurled is fascinating. I asked co-owner
Amanda Barry to tell us about it.
Heller: You create products from wallpaper-printing rollers.
Unusual, to say the least! How did you become interested in these
Barry: We understand that an English cartographer bought the
American wallpaper-printing rollers from a Chicago mill when he went
there to buy paper for his mapmaking. He brought 2,000 rollers back to
England with him in 1976.
My partner (in life and business), Nigel Parker, saw them for sale on
the side of the road in Buckinghamshire, England, in 1989. He quickly
realized they were some form of printing roller, and being a time-served
indentured engineer, instantly recognized and fell in love with the
quality of workmanship. The rollers cost Nigel a fortune that week just
to move them, followed by 20 years of storage. In 2001, Nigel discovered
600 British rollers in the cellar of an old wallpaper factory in
Hampshire and he purchased those to add to his already-vast collection.
Along with these, he purchased two 8-colorway wallpaper-surface print
machines, with ancillary equipment and two screen-printing machines.
Nigel doesn't do anything by halves!!
Heller: How did your business, Parable Designs Ltd., get started?
Barry: I met Nigel in 1998, and in 2003 we decided to sell
both our houses, relocate to the South West of England and rented a
warehouse/workshop to get the rollers and machinery under one roof, and
so Parable was born! We spent a lot of time at the beginning, cleaning,
sorting and researching the rollers. We discovered
names on them such as Audubon Chintz (bird design), Gardenia by
Park Avenue Wallpaper, Funston Document, Dorothy Draper and Provincetown
Medallion. Designs show images of cowboys, horses and I'm sure I
recognized Mickey Mouse's ears on one roller (although Nigel wants me to
check that before I declare it!).
Heller: Once you made this investment, what has been your goal?
Barry: Our aim has always been to produce quality handmade and
handcrafted products that do justice to the craftsmen and women that
made these works of art. The rollers were only a means to an end and
never meant to be seen by the public. We call them the “unsung heroes”
of the wallpaper printing industry. The name, Parable, comes from our
names—Nigel Parker and Amanda Barry—so PAR and AB, and
the LE, limited editions (something we are considering later).
And the definition of parable in the dictionary, a story told
to illustrate a moral—our moral being to conserve and not throw away.
Heller: This is very entrepreneurial. How did you set up the
mechanics of Parable?
Barry: We began working with a mold-making company, on the
feasibility of taking molds from such delicate artifacts with fine
relief and casting without seams. We knew that flashlines or seams on
these products would instantly destroy their quality and desirability.
Although our ideas were proven to work, we needed to arrive at a
repeatable process but this company stubbornly refused to listen to our
suggestions to combine precision engineering with their own skills. Then
in 2006, we had a shock when they went bust with no warning and all the
work on our molds and the cost involved was gone in an instant! We
spoke to other mold makers but it soon became apparent that nobody
wanted to take on what was obviously a difficult mold-making process.
Eventually, we decided to try doing it ourselves and so we set about
learning about mold-making in the way we needed to do it.
Heller: This must have been quite costly. As an online business,
how difficult or easy is it to sustain yourself?
Barry: On a shoestring budget, we spent the next few years
developing our own methods, learning from our mistakes and finally
arriving at using our own technology/methodology to produce our own
unique products. But then, like many companies in our position, we had
products but no route to market. We met the design adviser I mentioned,
Kathryn Hughes, at this stage, via a government scheme that helped small
businesses get under way. It was decided we needed a brand identity,
and so we spent money on our logo and website and it was our website
that was seen by researchers for a TV company in autumn 2009. They were
filming Kirstie’s Homemade Christmas, a program on craft, hosted
by a popular TV personality over here at the moment, (The Honorable)
Kirstie Allsopp. She came to our workshop and was seen on TV making her
own candle with Nigel for her Christmas table. The program was shown in
December 2009 and we were instantly inundated with people on our
website, which couldn’t cope with the numbers and subsequently
crashed. When it came back online the following morning, we had no idea
how many sales we had probably lost but went on to sell 130 candles in
the next 24 hours, followed by many more over the next few months.
Heller: Who, would you say, is your audience?
Barry: We believe our audience consists of lovers of art
history who aspire (regardless of disposable income) to own artifacts
with such provenance, that shows the skilled artisan craftsmanship of
the originals going back to the 19th century and recognizing the part
we've played to bring them into the 21st century, from a range of full
traditional to modern contemporary options. We want our customers to be
as excited by this original concept as we are passionate. All our
products will be derived from the original rollers, as well as our more
modern artifacts and will appear in 3-D in relief in flat form as well
as the original cylindrical form.
Heller: So, forgive the pun, you are rolling along… Is there
anything slowing you down?
Barry: As well as all the UK, we have sent candles to
customers in America, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany,
Spain, Portugal and France, as the TV program was seen around the
world. Some of the advice we received from the government body we have
worked with here is to speak to companies in America regarding a
licensed manufacturing agreement. The rollers we have so far used to
make products are the British rollers, so we haven't yet used the
American rollers. However, a friend we have made—a retired, time-served
indentured wallpaper draftsman—told us that many rollers were a
collaboration of design and manufacture between America, the UK and
France, and it is not always possible to establish the exact provenance.
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