Old Tashtego posters awaken fond memories of the beloved Edgartown home furnishing store

Posters courtesy Martha's Vineyard Museum

A visit to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum exhibition of Tashtego posters is like a trip down memory lane. Although it is only a small selection, a dozen posters in all, arranged in a small room, I could feel the remembered excitement of wondering what “this year’s poster” would be, what owners Ted and Jane had come up with this time. They were always eagerly anticipated, sought-after treasures collected year after year by devoted fans of art, good design, Ted and Jane Farrow, and their store Tashtego, a colorful and modern home furnishing store with upscale furniture, kitchen gear, and treasures from near and far, that was a fixture on Main Street, Edgartown, for almost 30 years.

Tashtego was already a legend when I moved to Edgartown in 1982. Ted Farrow had started the store in 1967, the same year I began studying interior design at Pratt Institute. One of the early posters features the following list written in Ted’s hand:

“Again, Tashtego brings to Martha’s Vineyard contemporary furnishings and accessories of distinction…Representing Knoll, Georg Jensen, Herman Miller, and for the first time Dansk and Bonniers … New lighting from Italy, flatware and china from Denmark, bedding and seating from Norway … From Memorial Day through Columbus Day. Tashtego Associates, Edgartown, Massachusetts … Ted Farrow, Marre Squier, Jane Damroth”

Reading this list was like reading a course syllabus on the best contemporary design from the Bauhaus era right up to those exuberant 1960s. I can remember going on field trips to the Museum of Modern Art and the Decorating & Design Building to see displays of furniture designed by Mies van der Rohe, Charles Eames, Warren Platner, Marcel Breuer, textiles from Jack Lenor Larsen and Anni Albers, Noguchi lamps, and Georg Jensen flatware that looked like pieces of modern art. And here it all was, right on Main Street, Edgartown, offered by a young designer who looked like a piece of modern sculpture himself.

Blue Cullen and Nancy Rogers both worked at Tashtego at different times during the late 1970s and into the 1990s. We met there, and they have remained among my oldest friends on the Island. So it was only natural that I called them to meet me at the museum, where we began trying to remember what year which poster came out, which ones Ted designed and which were done by his friend and cohort, artist Don Carrick. We decided to call Jane to help us. It was great fun to show her everything via Blue’s cell phone and to hear her comments and reminiscences.

So, to begin. As you enter the room, the first poster on the right is what became Tashtego’s logo. It was done by a friend of Ted’s who lived in Chicago. Although it looks printed, like a woodcut or stencil, it was actually hand-drawn and has Herman Melville’s quote from “Moby Dick,describing “the Gay Header, Tashtego.” Ted’s brother, Rod, mentioned their boyhood fascination with “Moby Dick,” and thought that was why the name was chosen. Regardless, it is a brilliant piece of design, instantly recognizable, that performed its job of being associated in viewers’ minds with the store. The image was blown up to hang on an interior wall of Tashtego, presiding over its realm, as the spear-wielding figure regarded the sea beneath him.

As you might imagine, several years’ posters use the theme of Tashtego and/or whales. My favorite is a deceptively simple graphic, three colors only, of a black whale and white birds on a blue background. Simple, but perfect.

Another shows a humpback whale breaching multicolored waves, softly painted in watercolor washes by Don Carrick. And another is Don’s painting of Tashtego as a weathervane, standing tall as he did in reality atop Ted and Jane’s shed on Abel’s Hill.

Some of the posters have nothing to do with whaling at all. One year, Ted and Don went searching the Island for a wood lily, to bring attention to it as an endangered wildflower. Don painted a large red wood lily with arching leaves. His painting of a blue lobster became a children’s book, written by his wife, Carol Carrick, with whom he collaborated on many well-known books for children.

A curlew by Chilmark carver and fisherman Herbert Hancock was photographed by Mark Lovewell. Ted photographed a pre-Columbian mask, rather a haunting image. One not in the show is of a seagull against a dark background, a composition of grays, photographed by William Damroth. One year, Don Carrick painted a rather moody composition of a seashell, a cloud, and the moon; another year, a colorful map of the Island with a flock of birds swooping overhead.

The first year, 1967, Ted sent out an announcement of the opening of Tashtego. The second year, he sent the above-mentioned whale/birds/blue ground poster as a thank you to his customers. People liked the image, but complained that they didn’t want it creased and sent through the mail. That was the idea for an annual poster. Every Memorial Day the new poster appeared in the center of the store’s window on Main Street. It was always an occasion.

Museum director David Nathans told us how the poster exhibition came about. “We had a couple in inventory, pulled them out one day, and said, ‘These are wonderful contemporary images.’ A couple of years later, we connected with Rod Farrow about digitizing old films he had, and asked about Ted and Tashtego.” Rod referred him to Jane, now living in Florida, and Jane told him to call her son, David Damroth, who had many of the remaining posters. Sadly, Ted had died in 2011. He would have enjoyed the project and sharing his stories.

It would be wonderful to have a complete set of posters from all the years of Tashtego. So far, the museum has 14. If Tashtego was in business from 1967 to 1995, and they didn’t begin printing posters till maybe the third year, Blue and I figured there must be 28. So there are more out there to discover.

Tashtego eventually stayed open year-round, and their stock expanded from designer furniture to lots of other things, as well. They had Copco cookware and kitchenware, unusual objects Ted and Jane discovered on their travels, wonderful Christmas ornaments, Don Carrick’s oil paintings. It was the place to go for the perfect wedding present or something for your own house. It was special and unique, like the posters that surprised us every year, and remain as a visual tribute to a time when good design was sought out and truly mattered.

Tashtego posters, currently on display at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum through the first week of November. For additional information, call the museum at 508-627-4441.