Home is where the art is

Pillow talk … Mike Mills's watercolour rainbow pillowcases at Third Drawer Down.
Pillow talk … Mike Mills's watercolour rainbow pillowcases at Third Drawer Down.

Next time you dump a load of tea towels in the wash, you might want to pause. Are you about to throw a piece of art in with your undies?

You would do well to check because limited-edition domestic items by established artists are on the rise.

Head to Third Drawer Down in Fitzroy, which bills itself as ''Australia's only trading museum'', and you'll see watercolour rainbow pillowcases painted by US graphic designer Mike Mills, who also directed the film Thumbsucker. Not to mention a tea towel by British photographer Martin Parr with a self-portrait, a heart and a rose.

Surry Hills interiors store Chee Soon & Fitzgerald recently sold out of Sydney designer Trent Jensen's stools made of street signs (only 50 were created), and will soon carry a limited-edition beach bag from artist Edwina White (who has yet to decide how many she will make).

What's next?

Four-of-a-kind toilet paper?

Well, almost.

The founder of Third Drawer Down, Abi Crompton, says she tried to create 25 rolls of toilet paper featuring the signature ''Rrose Selavy'' - Marcel Duchamp's alias. ''But we never found a manufacturer who could make such a small run of toilet paper,'' she says.

Third Drawer Down specialises in small-batch items of all kinds by artists. Crompton, who started the business in 2003, says she was motivated by the eternal question: what is art?

''People have been making art prints on paper for how many years, and so we wanted to really kind of question the domestic side of life, and how you can incorporate art within the everyday,'' she says.

Her products - and others' - certainly make it easier to do so: the tea towels retail for $40; arty pillow cases from $50 to $80. Third Drawer's limited-edition items regularly sell out, but it's not just affordability that makes them so popular.

A co-owner of Chee Soon & Fitzgerald, Bryan Fitzgerald, says that in the wake of the global financial crisis, more consumers prefer to spend what money they have on niche items with cachet.

Also, Crompton says, the unusual intersection of art and the kitchen (or bathroom) can create delicious double meanings. Of a tea towel by British conceptual artist David Shrigley that features the phrase, ''Tell me when I'm no longer needed and I shall go,'' Crompton says: ''People loved it, because it had this basic principle, of when you're doing the dishes and people are drying them, sometimes the dryer's like, 'Tell me when I'm no longer needed because I'll go.' It's also just his way of seeing the world.''

But what does ''limited edition'' mean?

It's a pertinent question now the trend has blossomed and everything, including supermarket goods, trumpets the term on its packaging. Vegemite released a limited-edition jar with a map of Australia in January to celebrate Australia Day - 750,000 bottles were issued.

Crompton limits many of her items - including a Rubik's Cube by French artist Claire Fontaine with photographs of an ocean - to editions of 1000.

Usually, the fewer items produced, the more expensive they will be. Jensen recently made five tea sets out of wallaby pelt, bull kelp, porcelain, brass and copper, for new art and design company Broached Commissions. The sets, which Jensen says reflect ''the coming together of Australian indigenous culture and British colonial culture'', cost $7000 and are fully usable and washable.

But will this collectable item, like its more affordable cousins, actually be used?

Absolutely, says restaurateur Nahji Chu, who has one on display in her shop, Miss Chu. ''I use it when intensely important moments are to be celebrated or mourned.''

This story Home is where the art is first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.