Designing woman

Family business makes beloved linens, giftware line

Mary Lake-Thompson and some of her flour-sack towels.

Mary Lake-Thompson and some of her flour-sack towels.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

Oroville’s original library, a light-filled building with large windows looking out on historic Montgomery Street, is today the home of a cheery boutique. The shelves and tables therein are neatly filled with gift items, from olive oil and soaps to aprons and tote bags. The selection is vast, but there’s a common denominator—nearly everything in the shop bears the artwork of Mary Lake-Thompson.

If that name sounds familiar, it may be because shoppers have seen her items at other local stores, such as Made in Chico. Then again, it may be because they’re sold in shops throughout the country and internationally. Lake-Thompson’s name may not be as recognizable as, say, those of fashion designers Donna Karan or Tommy Hilfiger, but in the hugely profitable giftware industry, hers is a similarly highly regarded brand. It’s also recognizable.

At her outlet store in Oroville’s city center, the unpretentious Lake-Thompson pointed to a variety of products, referring to her familiar and charming artwork as “illustrative.” There are bucolic scenes, Americana-inspired offerings, flowers, bees, birds and pets, including her popular dog series, among other things. Her signature item is a kitchen accessory.

“We made the flour-sack towel famous,” she said.

Behind the scenes in the old building, she introduced CN&R to three graphic designers. These days, she explained, the art is created on computer and printed on-site. Lake-Thompson started transitioning that way in the early aughts after years of completing as many as 200 paintings per year. During a tour of a production facility just down the street, dozens of employees worked on attaching the designs to imported Egyptian cotton linens, and then folding and packaging them for shipment. Because everything is done by hand, the company is in full swing on Christmas orders.

Lake-Thompson grew up in a household that encouraged her artistic endeavors. The Colorado native studied photography at the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1970s. After graduation, she and husband Dick moved to Oroville sight-unseen. He took a job in the mental-health industry and Lake-Thompson focused on her artwork. Her inspirations in the latter part of that decade were her two young daughters, Sara and Abby, as well as gardening and the family pets.

Her foray into the commercial art world began in the early ’80s, following a sold-out show at the Nut Tree in Vacaville. Early breakthroughs include a licensing deal with C.R. Gibson for such items as journals, baby books and napkins. At the time, she already had her own line of greeting cards. Later, Lake-Thompson designed a garden-themed gift basket for retailer Eddie Bauer. That led to her effort to design and package her own gift items. Today, the company has 7,000 accounts and employes 50 people, mostly here in Butte County.

In a back office, Dick, whose focus is on the business side, joked about his lack of artistic talent. Meanwhile, daughter Sara Thompson, who wears multiple hats on the business side as well, was fortunate to inherit her mother’s artistic genes. A few years ago, she designed and launched a modern line for the Mary Lake-Thompson brand, the aptly named Montgomery Street.

The family acknowledged that it would be cheaper to manufacture abroad, as certain competitors do. But the company is known for its quality, and that’s not something they’re willing to change.

“We would never do that,” Lake-Thompson insisted.