Stu Eli and Janet Morales are moving away from owls, beards, and "I Heart NY" sweatshirts. The couple's seven-year-old brand, Three Potato Four, is a line of homewares, accessories and ephemera, for which they design and source U.S. manufacturers for antique-inspired objects. What began as an online platform to fund a mutual obsession with the thrill-of-the-hunt quickly evolved into a full-fledged business, eventually allowing Stu and Janet to create their own line of new items based on favorite vintage and Americana discoveries. Studio visit photography by Michael A. Muller
Three Potato Four recently collaborated with Urban Outfitters' new Herald Square location
on Souvenir Shop, a pop-up gift stand inside the store that offers an exclusive collection of New York-inspired objects.
This weekend, the Souvenir Shop will pay homage to summer travels (or wanderlust) with a special postcard event. A variety of 3P4-designed NYC postcards will be available for customers to send a special message home—with pens, stamps, and a UO artist-designed mailbox included.
Looking forward to the event, we took a quick trip to the 3P4 headquarters in small-town Pennsylvania, where we explored their studio and chatted about Charlie Brown ephemera, moving away from tchotchkes, and keeping up with trends. (If you're wondering, whales and owls are out; typography is in.)
Above: The 3P4 studio pegboard, including souvenir pendants, arrows, and a knot reference guide.
Can you tell us more about how 3P4 started?
Stu: We started the company in 2007 as on online retail business, wanting to sell gifts, housewares, and fun novelty things from overseas that you couldn't find regularly over here. We also had a good bit of antiques, which sold really well so we decided to focus on shaping the business around that. After awhile we got into producing, sourcing, and manufacturing our own items in the United States based on the best-found or most-favorited vintage pieces.
So this was really on the forefront of the whole Americana-influenced aesthetic that's been so big over the last few years.
Stu: It was totally right-place, right-time; [when we started] the only place you could really shop for antiques online was on eBay. I think Etsy only had two vintage sellers at that time. All of that was in its infancy.
Above: Framed maps, a 1950s circus poster, a mounted wooden first aid kit, and an illustrated guide to flowers
How have you avoided getting stuck in that genre?
Stu: We've had to change our business every year based on trends and what's hot. When we started it was all owls!
Janet: It also helps that we have different taste and different backgrounds.
Stu: Yeah, she has a design background and mine is in business. We are also into different things: I love '70s-'80s fun novelty stuff, like motorcycle-meets-MAD Magazine, with a touch of humor. There's so much seriousness with trends that feel really outdoors and camping-centered and, like, 'I'm an Adirondack Mountains man.'
So no more beards?
Stu: No more beards.
Above: Piles of paper ephemera fill a huge table in the studio wall, ranging from postcards and ticket stubs to cigar receipts and printed french fry bags. 3P4 sells "Paper Packs" of unique ephemera, each filled with a combination of numbers, type, pattern, graphics, and color.
What about you, Janet?
Janet: My style was originally more feminine, that's when DIY was really big. I'm a designer so I'm always drawn to things with nice type and that feel graphic.
Above: An inventory of 3P4's linen portraits (and a taped-up reference for packing). Each of the paintings in the Portrait Study Series is based on original found early Twentieth Century artwork.
What about your own collections? What objects are you most drawn toward?
Stu: When we first started we were big collectors: Mid-century stuff, ephemera, natural history…
Janet: Lots of vials and specimens.
Stu: Right. But since we've bought so much and it's passed through our hands, it's less that we keep.
Janet: It's easier to pass things along to someone else.
So no collections now?
Stu: Our house is pretty pared-down now. It's mostly kids' toys and laundry.
Above: A 3P4 banner modeled after an antique biological study print of a rhino; a row of multicolor lights originally part of a seaside amusement rollercoaster ride in the 1950s.
What have been some all-time favorite buys?
Stu: My favorite find was a hand-carved 3D, folk-art style sculpture of Charlie Brown. It was something where there was clearly only one of them made and it was put together with such care. That said, it was clearly not for everyone! I think that's a lot of what our business is—'things' are so rooted in nostalgia. Sometimes people see something and just have to have it.
Janet: I think that's the entire idea behind Souvenir Shop—it's the feeling of going to a cool news stand full of special things, which [I think] is a hard thing to find in New York. We weaned to make new things that felt special, especially if you were a visitor.
Stu: It's not an "I Heart NY" sweatshirt.
Above: A hand-stitched felt banner version of 3P4's Ace of Spades design, inspired by popular American folklore and iconography surrounding the Ace of Spades playing card, which was made popular by WWII and Vietnam war soldiers and then later by American motorcycle clubs.
What other items are you continually on the hunt for? You mentioned loving natural history.
Stu: Yeah, one thing that really stands out was this set of vials filled with sand that this guy had collected and marked. For example, one filled from when he went to the Mohave Desert. I love that someone sought out to do this and kept it together.
Janet: I think rather than always looking for something in particular, we're looking for something that when we see it, when know it. Those moments when you're just like, "This is it!"
New York customers can visit Three Potato Four's Souvenir Shop at UO Herald Square (1333 Broadway), and be sure to stop by this weekend for their exclusive postcard pop-up, which starts on Thursday, July 3 and runs until postcards run out.