While most of us are only thinking about writing our Christmas cards right about now, Laura Dempsey was designing them in the height of summer.
Her key to harnessing festive cheer off-season?
“The Ronettes,” she smiles. “Christmas music is the key.”
And there is something very nostalgic about the current Christmas collection from Laura’s Pickled Pom Pom range, which is created with love, care – and a sprinkle of magic – on the family sheep farm in Co Kildare.
What started with just €100 seed money and one sale a week on Etsy pre-lockdown has turned into a full-time business due to people’s desire to connect during COVID. A fun fact is, if Laura stacked all the cards she sold from March 2021 to March 2022, they would reach the height of Mount Everest.
“It’s pretty cool because it’s all from this little former fuel shed,” she smiles.
City to country
While Laura lives with her husband Barry and their children Conor (nine), Billy (seven) and Eve (five) on part of her in-laws’ sheep farm in Rathangan, she grew up over a pub in Irishtown in Dublin city. Joking that she “missed the nursing gene” in her family, she initially studied fibre art in Ballyfermot College before completing a degree in textile design at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD).
From her graduate show, Laura was recruited by Dunnes Stores to design nightwear, swimwear and lingerie. She later worked for Heatons designing all of their women’s wear, before being appointed as Penney’s children’s wear design lead.
“I really loved the storytelling through children’s wear,” says Laura, “through your characters and the illustrations.”
As rewarding as the role was, however, the demands of the job, coupled with the arrival of the children and the country to city commute, with its 5.15am starts, began to take its toll.
“I felt like I was failing everybody,” says Laura of the struggle of achieving the illusive work-life balance.
“The commute and the logistics and childcare and traffic just wasn’t sustainable anymore … I was trying to do everything, but I had no sense of achievement.”
After the arrival of Eve in 2017, Laura realised “something had to give”.
“It was the right decision, but it wasn’t an easy decision,” she says of leaving her job to set up her own company, Pickled Pom Pom.
“I don’t know,” she laughs when asked about the meaning behind the name. “The words just came into my head. I can never explain why, but it just feels right.”
Connection during COVID-19
Originally, Laura specialised in providing freelance design services to other brands, but keen to scratch her own creative itch, started doodling and designed four cards, which included one with a bee illustration with the words “Tiny (but oh so very important)”, as well as a rainbow card with the message “Just to be near you is to be happy”.
“A friend of mine bought them and framed them,” says Laura of her first sale. “And Barry was like, ‘Just get a few of them printed and see how it goes’. So my seed money was €100 from him to get a few cards printed.”
Initially, Laura sold through Etsy and the cards remained a sideline. COVID-19, however, would prove the catalyst to pursuing her own design work full-time.
“Most companies’ freelance budgets were cut, so I didn’t really have any contract work coming in,” explains Laura, “but also, at the same time, the cards and prints really started to grow because people really started to appreciate how much it meant to receive a card that is thoughtful and special and that person has really been thinking about you.”
Indeed, the first lockdown provided the inspiration for what remains Laura’s best-selling card to date. Sitting on the couch one evening, she was feeling “particularly emotional” at not being able to see her family and friends in Dublin and Wicklow for months and scribbled the following words:
“Wait til I see ya, I’m going to give you the biggest squeeze and we are going to eat takeaway and drink beer in the sunshine and say thanks be to holy Jaysus that’s over and aren’t we so lucky for all that we have. I can’t wait. See you soon.”
“And I just posted it on Instagram as a post,” she continues. “I had never intended making it a card, but people just really, really resonated with it; and it was my first little taste of going viral.”
Similarly, the first Christmas during COVID, her thoughtful cards – such as a woodland inspired scene with the oft-quoted Heaney line, “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere”, touched a collective chord.
“So many people have sent me pictures of it framed in their houses,” says Laura, adding that it means a lot when she hears stories from customers about what her work has meant to them.
“Like there was people who said that it became their thing [during lockdown] that they sent their mum or their family a card a week and I was their go-to card, and it was to try and brighten up their week. That’s just so special,” she smiles, “and I never thought I’d achieve that through my thoughts.”
This year’s Christmas collection has been designed with a large dollop of nostalgia.
“I wanted to create that warm, fuzzy Christmas feeling of our childhood,” she says, explaining that she starts by brainstorming on her sketchpad, before re-drawing her designs on her iPad, and then adding in some watercolour and pencil detailing for texture.
So far this year, her most popular design is of a robin.
“Everyone seems to really resonate with him,” she says. “I did a little poll on my Instagram and the majority of people feel like it’s someone coming to visit them and watching over them.”
All of Laura’s cards are printed locally, and while they are recyclable, they are designed to be cherished and framed. They are a premium product – for instance, her “Nostalgic Christmas Eve” packet of five cards costs €14.50 – but she believes that her customers buy them for the special people in their lives.
“I don’t think people are sending 30 of them, so they might be sending 10 really special ones,” she says.
“I aim to create the ones that you can’t buy in Dealz and you’re sending them to the people you know will appreciate them.”
Having completed the online trading voucher scheme with her local enterprise board, Laura has now graduated from Etsy to her own website, where she sells cards for all occasions, as well as prints, party decor and even limited edition Christmas decorations. She has also participated in the Enterprise Ireland Going for Growth programme and, in the longer term, would love to have her own “bricks and mortar” shop.
This year, however, her cards are available in over 30 stockists nationwide, while they are also on sale for Christmas at Arnotts, as well as at the Ethical Christmas Market at Airfield Estate in Dundrum, Co Dublin, and at the Design Collective Pop Up at 32 Exchequer St in Dublin city. Laura is also very proud to have partnered with Circle K this year to design a pack of cards in aid of the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation, retailing at €7 for 12 cards.
The theme, appropriately, is “Home for Christmas” and Laura Dempsey loves the idea that her designs will take pride of place in people’s homes across Ireland this festive season.
“We don’t get much happy post and I think for it to be something that someone has taken time out of their day to pick and to write and to send, it means so much more than a text message or a WhatsApp,” she says.
“And I’m a divil for the WhatsApp! I’m not taking away from that, but it’s just that little bit special, going that little bit further.”