Chef Richard Till has selected 100 of his favourite tea towels to display at Expressions in Upper Hutt. He has hundreds more at home, a ridiculous number even for someone using pots and plates faster than a dishwasher can dry them.
He started collecting them when he starred in the television show, Kiwi Kitchen, and regularly appeared with a tea towel over one shoulder. The upshot was a tea towel of the week segment. Later he produced a book, Every Tea Towel Tells a Story, also the title of the exhibition.
Meanwhile, he has accumulated about 300 and, practical Kiwi bloke that he is, had his wife of the time run up a couple of large curtains with some of them. The rest are neatly stored in plastic boxes. This is the first time a large selection has been shown in public.
"I've stopped collecting them. It became silly," he says. "I collected voraciously, if that's the word, very actively, for five or six years. People, because they were seeing the television show, and me publicly displaying my little fondness for a time of New Zealand - and I'm reluctant to use the word kiwiana, but an element of that - were inspired to give me their tea towels.
"I had a bit of interest before the television show but that motivated me and I actively pursued them. I needed one for the next week and I kept buying them."
The more tea towels he got, the more he became aware of the ones he didn't have. The curtains usefully absorbed the less precious ones.
"They worked really well. It was an exploration of shabby chic before shabby chic was chic."
He has tea towels which commemorate royal visits, scenic tea towels made as souvenirs for tourists, tea towels made to explain the changeover to decimal currency, and even tea towels produced for political purposes.
The tea towel that he says has possibly the most interesting story is printed in blue and black, emblazoned with the slightly lop-sided face of long- ago prime minister Rob Muldoon and the words "Not just a pretty face". The tea towel, along with another one captioned, "It's nice to have a man about the house", was produced as a fundraiser by Palmerston North National supporters before the 1975 election.
"The joke is Muldoon is not a pretty face. I turned one down early on Trade Me because I thought it was too expensive, thinking another one would come up eventually.
"Eventually someone sent me one, a tatty one, with a giant hole, actually the ghost of Rob Muldoon. In recent times I paid a lot of money for one in pristine condition."
It cost him $56. The most he has spent for a tea towel is $106, for one covered with pictures of grocery items.
"It looks like an early 70s tea towel. For some reason I just had to have it."
He may have been suffering at the time from auction fever, he says. "I don't get caught up in it all the time but I have been known to think 'f... you' and pay more.
"How I relate to them is as a visual object, beautiful tea towels, their colour and the use of a rectangle about that size. I see them not really as art objects, but as pretty versions of a tea towel, and a glimpse at the past, the way life was in New Zealand in the 1950s and 60s."
Tea towels are not the only cuisine-related collectables in Till's Christchurch house, also used to store the belongings of his departed adult children.
"I'm surrounded by mountains of stuff. I feel the weight of it."
He has a garage full of kitchen gear - "novel kitchen gadgets". "For a while I'd go to restaurant auctions and find something, sometimes something no one else wanted. I'd feel sorry for it and take it home, quirky little kitchen gadgets."
He says he has stopped the obsessive collecting of kitchen gear as well as tea towels.
"I've just been to Sydney where I saw some delightful kitchen objects and didn't buy them. Several years ago I would have - lobster claw-shaped lobster claw crushers and plastic lettuce leaves, crap that can be put through the dishwasher, dishwasher- safe lettuce leaves. Everyone needs them."
Till has no plans to reappear on television. "But you never know, do you. The tide of television turns. There's plenty of food on TV but all very contest-based and largely made in Auckland and moved on to a younger generation.
"My interest is in stories about food. I don't think there's money to make that stuff." He's setting up a food business in Christchurch - "convenience food for people who are time-poor, whatever that means, something made with care and made today".
"There's value in freshness not entirely met by the offerings out there."
Exhibition curator Chriss Doherty- McGregor sees the exhibition as a reminder of a bygone era, pre- dishwashers, a time studded with family trips and full of childhood memories.
"The tea towels provide us with a nostalgic look at our identity and a cultural snapshot of New Zealand's social history."
As functional souvenirs they have been designed in a way that elevates them "from the category of frivolous kitsch to purposely designed artworks fit for gallery walls".
The Expressions exhibition is being run in conjunction with a competition to design an Upper Hutt tea towel.
- Every Tea Towel Tells a Story is at Expressions Whirinaki Arts and Entertainment Centre, Upper Hutt, until December 14.
- The Dominion Post
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