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Can email be art—a mode for unapologetically offbeat, norm-defying self-expression?

Spend enough time with Table Tr Td and you’ll be hard pressed not to respond in the affirmative.

A mysterious project that resides in margins of the internet, Table Tr Td exists squarely on its own terms. The uninitiated could be forgiven for mistaking its website for an error message.

Its creators, Camille Palu and Miah Roberts, are OK with that. The Denver-based email developers didn’t launch Table Tr Td to appeal to a wide audience or sell anything. Its original purpose was to be a code library—a resource for Palu to tap for daily development projects. But it evolved into, among other things, an online repository for the “email art” the duo delivers to a growing list of email-obsessed fans.

The emails—minimalist, interactive, and nearly always laced with inside jokes—have earned Table Tr Td a small but ardent following in the tight-knit email development community.  To see why, check out this email Palu and Roberts delivered on April 10, which features a fully functional email builder within an email.

At once a prankish stunt and a legitimate tool, it elicited both incredulity (“Are you kidding me?”) and admiration (“Building an email inside an email is some meta shit.”) from Table Tr Td’s Twitter followers.

Interactive email is a hot topic among email marketers and developers these days, and an email builder within an email is sort of the mother of all interactive emails. Yet the techniques Palu and Roberts used to build it—using checkboxes and radio buttons to toggle content—are decidedly old school. And the clinical visual style is almost anti-marketing.

While marketers may struggle to see the value of Table Tr Td’s experimental emails, email developers love it. Table Tr Td has achieved cult-like status among their peers for pursuing their vision so tenaciously. And that’s really their animating principle: to push the limits of email to inspire other email developers to do the same—and to stimulate a larger conversation about creativity.

Finding your way, along the way

Like most email developers, Palu and Roberts took winding routes to the discipline.

Palu originally went to college to study painting, eventually encountering the reality that has bummed out aspiring artists for time immemorial: “You don’t really get a job in ‘painting,’” she says.

She worked odd jobs for a while. When she found herself picking up trash for money, she decided that it was time to learn how to use a computer. She returned to school and discovered that web design brought together her 2 favorite subjects: math and art.

Around the same time, Roberts was traveling a similar path. He, too, had artistic aspirations but wasn’t sure how to go about it. He pursued a career as an auto body specialist, but he quickly found out that he’d be fixing dents and doing detail work for years before he’d get to actually paint. “Everybody in auto body wants to paint. You have to put your time in.”

So Roberts got a job as a conductor for the Burlington Santa Fe railroad. The pay was decent, but it didn’t scratch Roberts’ creative itch. So, like Palu, he returned to school. After earning a degree in graphic design, he landed a job at a development studio.

"I wanted to collaborate, but I couldn't find anyone who really fit the match."

The gas and the spark

In the old days of advertising, close creative partnerships were the norm. Writers and art directors paired up for years and decades—sometimes even for life.

But over the past 25 years, agencies have asked creatives to do less 1-on-1 collaboration and more cross-departmental teamwork. While this has increased the quantity of collaboration, it can be argued that it doesn’t facilitate the magic that hard-won creative chemistry delivers.

Palu and Roberts have that magic.

“I like to call myself the gas and Miah the spark,” Palu says. “I go hard all the time. But if there isn’t that trigger to make it ignite, it never clicks on.”

It’s no exaggeration to refer to their relationship as a creative marriage. And just like in their real marriages (both Palu and Roberts have families at home), communication and unselfishness are essential to its durability.

“We have to agree on everything before we do it,” Palu says. “We both own everything. If I make a mistake, he makes a mistake. When Miah does something on his own, we both take credit for it.”

This style of sharing everything 50-50 spills over into the creative shop the duo launched after leaving their day jobs earlier this year. The company’s name: Camiah.

Answering the “why”

Palu describes Camiah as “a small creative shop where we find the best way to do about everything. Essentially, we’re problem solvers.”

Their services include email, photography, branding, and project management. But according to Roberts, their overarching aim to help people make their outlandish ideas come to life. “We want to do that big thing you’re thinking of, whatever it is.”

Launching their business has been hard work, but it hasn’t stopped them from continuing to develop and deliver deceptively complicated and clever emails through Table Tr Td. A profit-hungry entrepreneur with no appetite for unbillable hours might be tempted to ask, “Why?”

“A comment we often get is, ‘What is the real-world use case for this?’” Palu says. Then she offers back a twist on the same question: “What is your real-world problem?”

Steal this email

Money isn’t everything. Not to Palu and Roberts, anyway.

“We have really basic levels of living,” Palu says. “We have exactly what we need, and a little bit of what we want. Neither of us is extravagant in any shape or form.”

Perhaps that’s why, when a major company appeared to borrow a Table Tr Td concept for one of its email campaigns, Palu and Roberts didn’t mind. They were actually glad that their ideas encouraged someone else.

“We want to inspire other email developers so they can apply it commercially at their own companies,” Roberts says. “That’s a huge driver of why we do this. It will all come back to us no matter what. Right now, we are meeting our numbers—and even if we weren’t, we’d be OK with it.”

“We understand how inspiration works,” Palu adds. “Even if someone does steal something, it’s on them at that point—they have to live with themselves. But to just see other people being inspired by our emails and being creative, that’s our ultimate joy.”

Camille Palu and Miah Roberts at their office in Denver, CO.

4 more Tr Td emails you need to see right now

Palu and Roberts archive all of their emails at Table Tr Td. Here are 4 worth checking out right now.

Break Out Your Dauber!
Who doesn’t love a rousing game of bingo? Now you can play it right inside your email browser!

Who’s The Bomb
Remember Minesweeper? Table Tr Td created a fully functional version of the classic puzzle video game within an email.

Let Those Gumby Thumbs Fly
This one features everyone’s favorite mobile device from 2003—the good ‘ol BlackBerry. Click around for some fun multimedia surprises.

This is Flippin’ Awesome
Recreate the fun of an analog flipbook—where flipping rapidly through pages animates a scene—in an email. Shrink your browser to start the fun.

Illustrations by Jess Rotter, a Los Angeles-based artist whose illustrations have appeared on public murals, album covers, and a whole lot of tee shirts. Her first book, I’m Bored, was released in October of 2016.