I am feeling so lucky today to have something really fantastic to share with all of you: an interview with Ashley Molesso and Chess Needham. You probably know them better as Ash + Chess — and if you’ve ever seen their National Stationery Show booth, chances are it made a big impression. And how could it not? Their cards as well as their entire booth space is a wild explosion of neon animal prints, bubble lettering and self-empowerment, graced with neon touches and even matching outfits! If you grew up in the 70s like me, it’s kind of a woke Schoolhouse Rock coming to life.
SS: You describe your work as “cute things that make people happy,” but what I love about your range is not just the fun nostalgia and color combos, but the unmistakable directive to speak one’s truth. Can you expand on that?
Chess: We started our company with just six cards. We tried to make the designs stand out — one of them is Magical Birthday, which is still a top seller! — by using fun colors and nostalgic designs, like you mentioned, but at first we were really hesitant to make any cards or art prints that touched on topics that could be seen as polarizing or political. In our first catalog, we described ourselves as a lesbian power couple (I wasn’t out as trans yet, now we identify as a queer power couple!), and quite a few people told us that it was a bad idea to put our identities out there as a part of the company. They said we’d get less business because of it, and that companies wouldn’t want to work with us.
Honestly, that kind of feedback sort of gave us the push we needed to be convinced that we *should* be putting ourselves out there like that. We started to make cards and prints that spoke about the political environment we live in, as well as the queer community. It’s been a great choice. We’ve gotten to connect with a lot of people by talking about the messages on our cards, prints, and stickers. A couple of times we’ve had parents come by who had questions about how to talk to their queer children or needed advice or comfort. We’ve had a lot of people reach out to us on Instagram as well asking for advice or just being happy that they felt seen in our art.
SS: What is your division of labor?
Chess: We try to divide our labor 50/50 although obviously that’s not always possible. I manage most of the fulfillment (while) Ash usually works on freelance projects or proposals, product photos and Instagram content. We both design when we come up with new lines, but Ash is just a lot faster at pumping out cute stuff! I’m a slowpoke.
SS: Can you take me through any recent notable collabs or releases?
Chess: Yes! One really cool thing we did recently was go to Tokyo this past October to work with Plaza Style! We were so happy — not only did we get to visit an amazing new country, but we got to design two murals for Plaza Style’s grand opening of their flagship store. We also did a holiday collaboration with Transfigure Print Co. that turned out beautiful. And of course … we’re coming out with a BOOK! It’s scheduled to be released April 28th, 2020, and is being published by Morrow Gift, an imprint of HarperCollins. We’re hoping that the book brings us new opportunities to work in publishing, something we never thought we’d break into. Preorder it here!
SS: How many times have you exhibited at NSS? How have your booth location and configurations changed through the years to your last location at #NSS2020?
Chess: We first exhibited at NSS in May 2017, and then every show since then, which puts our total at five. Our first two shows we chose a corner booth, and then we did an inline booth for two shows, and then most recently we got a really awesome corner booth at the front of the show! We built a freestanding wood booth that we used for a few shows, but we sold to another company at the end of the show in August 2019. We were moving to Virginia and couldn’t bear the thought of figuring out how to ship it up to New York for the next shows. Now we kind of regret it! We always do a new wallpaper design and cover at least one wall with that. We always say we will get a velvet loveseat but that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe next time.
Ash: For our very first show back in 2017, we happened to be in the very furthest back corner of the show, like literally at the end both end aisles. We still got a lot of business that year, but for our most recent show in February 2020, we were in the exact opposite location, being at the very FRONT of the show which was super exciting for us! It felt really cool, like we had moved up over the shows to the front row. I think it was just what they had left when they were planning the layouts, but we were like “WE’LL TAKE IT!”
Even though we complain often about how draining shows can be and how much work they require, we love doing them. They are what keeps our company growing at a steady pace and they are a great way for us to connect with the stationery community a couple times a year. We like to go wild with our booth design, too. Aside from seeing our friends and retailers at the shows, designing the booth is my next favorite thing.
As Chess mentioned, we design a new wallpaper for each show. We try to make the booth feel like a cool 70s den with too much going on. I’d say that each booth design hits pretty close to what goes on in my brain 24/7.
SS: How have your appearances at NSS shaped and nurtured your brand?
Chess: Our experiences at NSS have been so fun! We were so intimidated at first and had no clue what we were doing, and now we feel like we’ve got it down to a science! We love being able to curate the space and make our own little home in the booth for a few days. Our favorite thing, besides getting to see our retailers and meet new retailers, is spending time with our booth neighbors. It’s always like a little family reunion. A good ninety percent of our connections have come from the exposure we get at NSS, we have a ton of loyal customers and have gotten to do some orders with larger stores as well! We’re especially thinking about our small business friends.
Ash: We’ve learned that matching outfits are always a yes.
SS: What are your favorite memories, on and off the show floor, from your past shows?
Ash: This past show we started an NSS Bingo card that we’re hoping to print out and share with other exhibitors during the August 2020 show. Just to pass the time during those slow spots! Also at the August 2019 show, there was an empty booth across from us so we turned it into the communal Break Room, where we posted funny flyers and joke posters like what you would find on an office bulletin board. Everyone in our row contributed and it was hilarious!
Chess: Another favorite is when we won the best new product award for our art print “Gay Rights are Human Rights.” We kind of forgot we entered it and then all of a sudden Kelly (Bristol) and a big crowd of people were walking over to us saying we won. We were excited and awkward!
SS: What were your most successful releases at #NSS2020?
Chess: We were looking forward to it because we had a lot of new cards and prints to show, but we were most excited about our card/art print/sticker “Big Stick Energy.” We weren’t sure if anyone would buy it or laugh at it like we did, but it got a really great response. We debuted a tarot style wedding card last year, and then this year we decided to add on to the collection with a birthday tarot and baby tarot and all three of those are super popular! We added a bunch of new stickers which also sell like hotcakes. We also have a ton of cards and prints that are always popular year after year — Make America Gay Again, Gay Way, Birthday Vibes, Rainbow Cactus and Rainbow Palms, and so on.
SS: What factors played into your decision to return to NSS?
Ash: We see the show as a great way to gain exposure for our company and to meet new people, whether they be new business contacts or new stationery friends! It is definitely an investment, but I’d say it’s worth it for us. We’ve always gotten more than we’ve bargained for when it comes to NSS.
Chess: And it’s fun.
SS: Please describe any Corona-themed incentives/promotions you are currently running?
Chess: We’re doing a retail-side promotion where if someone orders 3 cards, they can get the 4th for free with code WRITEMORELETTERS. We also have a 10% off wholesale code for any new and existing retailers. It’s on Faire, but if someone places their order through us we are also taking the discount. That code is COVIDSUX. Cause it sucks!
Thank you so much Ash + Chess! I really can’t thank you enough for taking the time to do this during these crazy times. If you don’t follow them on IG, you are missing out. That’s where I found their COVID-19 story, which they also let me share here (though it’s equally compelling in story form!).
I know I’m not the only one who can’t wait to see Ash + Chess in person at NSS! Head on over to The National Stationery Show site to RSVP or inquire about exhibiting. There’s a section allocated to COVID-19 updates as well as their brand-new sh@are. support. spend initiative. Included is a social media kit featuring custom graphics and captions. Together we will overcome this. Stay well my friends!