Kill your TV. Bake cake. Drink tea. Choose handmade. Love your town. Keep it wonky…" So begins Lesley Greening Lassoff and Pea Crabtree's manifesto – which they hand-made into their first ever poster. Today, the couple run a successful business selling eye-catching prints, mixing retro imagery, vintage type and punchy slogans. And that "Kill your TV" manifesto turned out to be pretty prescient for the pair…
They had moved from London to St Leonard's-on-Sea in East Sussex. They realised that for the equivalent of their London home, they could afford to buy both the house pictured here (a converted old auction room) and a shop (a former Post Office) in the slightly faded seaside town.
An arty pair – 54-year-old Lassoff has a degree in fine art and has always worked with community arts projects, while 46-year-old Crabtree used to be a blacksmith – they dreamt of owning a gallery, though didn't have the means. So they opened a teashop-cum-arts-and-crafts space in the former Post Office in 2008. It was called Aardvark, for reasons three-fold: it's first in any alphabetical listings; they like "weird animals"; and with their cool Modernist tastes, they "didn't want to call ourselves Ye Olde Crinoline Tearooms", says Lassoff.
The teashop died a death, but the name has stuck to the business that rose out of its ashes: "We were killing ourselves with the drudgery of running a teashop, and we realised we were making more money from selling prints. It was a no-brainer: we became full-time print-makers." And so Aardvark Printmongers was born. Their first manifesto poster was made to entertain themselves; they had it up on the wall in the shop, and would make photocopies as a prize for a full "loyalty card", a spoof on the megabucks coffee-chain approach. But customers soon wanted to buy the posters outright. After a chance encounter with some art students from Dartington College of Arts who were travelling round with an old-fashioned letterpress, they decided to get their own and print more copies of the manifesto that way. They were soon taking orders from stockists as well as teashop visitors.
"Word got out about this funny little manifesto. I think it was at the right time – it's a bit back to basics, rootsy. It just hit a nerve," suggests Lassoff.
Certainly, they were following their own advice: after baking cakes and drinking tea, they'd moved on to hand-making posters, with a decidedly "wonky" old printing press.
They soon branched out into other designs, and started selling them on craft website Etsy, too. They rented a studio space in a gorgeous old brewery building in nearby Hastings. "We had a little Farley hand-proofing press which is really old, you just pull [the roller] across by hand," says Lassoff. "We set all the type by hand. We buy type whenever we can afford it – vintage wood and large metal. Pea sets it, she's the type nerd, then we mess about with inks until we have something that pleases us. The old wood type is beautiful; hard wood, full of inks, the patina is gorgeous – you can't replicate the history of it."
More recently they also got hold of a "massive Vandertook Universal Three" – an electric printer. "It's the zenith of old-school ethic; it's a bit Wallace and Gromit," explains Lassoff. "There are knobs that say 'slow' and 'fast'. It's from the late 1960s, I think, one of the last letter presses ever made." The effect is that their posters have that home-spun, old-fashioned feel, while avoiding being twee or trite.
Which could be the manifesto for everything Lassoff and Crabtree do, really. The couple's home is full of fabulous vintage finds – but there's no "chintzy old country roses" as Lassoff puts it: it's very 1960s and 1970s, midcentury modern.
The collection of tea caddies is a hangover from the shop – although Lassoff confesses, "We like tea a lot!" and that they actually all do have different types of tea in them. They encapsulate the couple's bright and bold, rather than dainty and delicate, approach to retro stylings. "We both like bright colours – we're not very Farrow & Ball. We try to be more subtle, but the colour always creeps back in…" says Lassoff, too, of their orange lamps and stools, or bright-blue walls and light fixtures.
There are practical considerations that rule out going second-hand sometimes, however: Ercol dining tables are a no-no, much as they like the aesthetic, because they're just too small when you've also got three grown-up children to sit round them. And, Lassoff explains, both she and Crabtree are on the tall side, meaning retro sofas are no good – so they got theirs from Ikea.
You also won't find them setting foot in anywhere that claims to be selling vintage furniture; they buy what they like and they buy it as a bargain, not a status symbol. "In this neck of the woods there are quite a few charity shops – we'd never pay to go to vintage shops, it would break our hearts!" exclaims Lassoff. "We're too stingy – and anyway, there's no thrill if someone else has found it for you." Sounds like another DIY manifesto is coming on.
For more: aardvarkonsea.com