Can a dish towel be more than a dish towel? Can it serve a greater purpose than drying dishes or hands and looking pretty? Can it provide security, compassion and even hope? In rare instances, yes. With their socially conscious business, Kei & Molly, Albuquerque-based textile printers Kei Tsuzuki and Molly Luethi create more than beautiful household goods. They support and nurture the world around them through quality jobs, sustainable printing and education.
The duo sells hand-printed, natural-fiber dish towels, tea towels, potholders, European sponge cloths, aprons, and scarves, each adorned with bold yet quietly simple graphics. Their folk-art influenced designs bring an understated elegance to humble kitchen items. Flowers, vines, birds and leaves are recurrent themes in their charming and cheerful single-color prints. They also feature New Mexico scenes like the VLA, Nob Hill, and Old Town Albuquerque.
Although the pieces are very homey, there’s a distinct international flair. It’s no surprise, since both women have international backgrounds: Kei is Japanese but grew up in Canada, and Molly is Swiss American. They count among their influences designers from all over the world, including Marimekko, Alexander Girard, Florence Broadhurst and Josef Frank. As Kei and Molly put it, “They give us courage to try bold designs ourselves!”
The result is fresh and traditional, comforting and chic, rustic and modern. There is an enduring beauty to their products that goes beyond their keen visual sense and meticulous craftsmanship. You can sense, somehow, the generosity of spirit woven into every aspect of their business.
So how did it all begin? When the two women met as moms at Bandelier Elementary School, it was kismet. In addition to their shared international backgrounds, both had worked extensively with immigrant and refugee communities. Molly was an English as a Second Language educator for more than 30 years, and Kei’s background is in women’s economic development. And as immigrants themselves, both know the challenges of resettling in a new country. The pair knew they wanted to start a social enterprise to provide good jobs for immigrants and refugees. Kei had experience with printing textiles, and since the two women had similar aesthetic tastes, they jumped in and began Kei & Molly Textiles in the fall of 2010.
“Pull a thread here and you’ll find it’s attached to the rest of the world.” —Nadeem Aslam
They started small, mixing inks and printing on Kei’s kitchen table. A few months later at their first arts and crafts fair they quickly sold out of all the products they’d brought. That early success gave them the confidence to move forward. The next step was to increase production, so they cleaned in exchange for printing time at Southwest Creations Collaboration. Their new space represented a slight upgrade from the kitchen table; now they were working out of a former prison shower stall in what they recall were, “Very cramped quarters!”
Within a year though, they had opened their current 2,600 square-foot warehouse space, complete with a 45-foot long printing table, in Albuquerque’s International District. They chose to locate their business in the International District because it is home to many of the immigrants and refugees they seek to empower. Kei and Molly display a profound respect for the immigrant community, saying, “Though one of the poorest areas of Albuquerque, it is nonetheless vibrant with culture and history.” The same year they relocated, they also added their first two wholesale accounts: The Farm Shop at Los Poblanos and the A Store in Nob Hill. Their rapid growth meant they were able to start hiring printers and fulfill Kei & Molly’s mission to create good jobs for their community.
They explain, “Not only do we pay our staff significantly above minimum wage, we also offer a $250 education benefit that can be used for any classes for self improvement, a $250 health benefit that reimburses any health costs not covered by insurance, two-week paid holiday leave between Christmas and New Years, and flexible hours to accommodate personal needs.” They continue, “We understand the hardships that come with being a displaced foreigner. Getting a decent job that puts food on your table and a roof over your head is often the first goal for new immigrants. Language barriers and lack of skill often mean available jobs are menial and backbreaking. We want to create jobs that are satisfying, well paid, and flexible for people with families. We know that a reliable paycheck can open so many doors—to better health, better education and better quality of life.
Kei and Molly have deep empathy for immigrants and refugees, saying, “Being foreigners to the US, we both feel that there is so much misunderstanding about immigrants these days, especially in the current political landscape. We hope we can change people’s perceptions about immigrants and show that we are hard-working, valuable contributors to our society!”
By all indications, they are succeeding in that goal. Over the years, Kei & Molly’s staff has reflected the International District’s diversity, with employees hailing from Cuba, Congo, Rwanda, China, Australia and the Philippines. They work with Catholic Charities, Lutheran Family Services, and New Mexico Asian Family Center to find new workers. They laugh, “Though we are able to speak several languages, we often pull out Google Translate to communicate when language breaks down!”
Today, Kei and Molly employ five people from five different countries, and they sell their products wholesale to more than 175 shops nationwide in 20 states. True to their international roots, their product is also sold overseas in Japan and Germany. Ever conscious of our world’s interconnectedness, Kei and Molly do not limit their concern to the International District community. They are also passionate about eco-friendly printing practices. They are deliberate in every detail. They use only water-based ink so they can avoid cleaning with solvents. They use citrus-based cleaners after a design is finished. They also filter their wastewater to prevent contamination from ink particles. Most noticeably, Kei and Molly only print on natural fibers, no synthetic fabric. And this year, they added a new product: a fully biodegradable sponge cloth made of cellulose and cotton fibers that absorbs and cleans amazingly, and then can be placed in the composter after months of use!
They also believe in the importance of education and they’re sensitive to ways a lack of access to it can hinder prosperity. They freely share their printing knowledge in several ways. Each summer, they host students from Horizons Albuquerque, an academic enrichment program for motivated students from low-income communities. In 2015, they opened their studio during ID live, and collaborated with the community to create and print original designs and held a UNM Continuing Education Class. This year they’ll demonstrate their technique at Los Poblanos on Sept 16, at 10 am.
Furthermore, Kei and Molly encourage education in other realms as well. In addition to the $250 education credit they offer to their employees, they have also created a Kei & Molly Scholarship for college-bound high-school students from immigrant families.
All of this isn’t charity. It’s a partnership that helps people help themselves. Kei and Molly clearly have respect and admiration for those who have made the difficult choice to forge their lives in a new land. For them, the work is more of a reward than a sacrifice. Their enthusiasm bubbles over as they share, “We LOVE working as a team, keeping a positive work environment, and creating beautiful products!”
From a small start on a kitchen table in Albuquerque, Kei and Molly have built a thriving company that inspires, uplifts and truly impacts the lives of those around them. Their vision of a world where a person is rewarded for their fortitude and willingness to work—rather than the luck of their birth—is coming into focus, one kitchen towel at a time.
For more information on Kei and Molly and where to purchase their wonderful textiles, visit keiandmolly.com.
Story by Melyssa Holik