In an age when e-mail is used to send everything from thank-you notes to wedding invitations, it's easy to assume that no one would appreciate the beauty of a nice note card. Engraved stationery, however, has become a status symbol on par with a Palm VII or the latest Web-enabled cell phone. Writing a message on handmade, hand-engraved paper doesn't brand you as a Luddite; it makes you look good. So we embarked on a round-the-world quest for the best in fine stationery—both old and new.
Walking into Benneton (75 Blvd. Malesherbes; 33-1/43-87-57-39) is like going back in time. The shop looks the same as when it opened in 1880, "except with lights," says manager Anne-Marie Laurent, who takes orders from across her massive desk. In addition to traditional monograms and family crests, all hand-engraved by French craftsmen, Benneton is known for its writing paper, notes, and dinner-party place cards embossed with whimsical motifs (kangaroos, playing cards) and hand-painted borders. Each order is wrapped with the store's signature baby-blue tissue before being sent on its way.
Over in the Fourth Arrondissement, a narrow street in the Marais is home to Papier Plus (9 Rue du Pont Louis Philippe; 33-1/42-77-70-49). It doesn't do custom printing, but it does sell notebooks, sketchbooks, and photo albums designed by co-owner Laurent Tisné and handmade in a small bindery in central France. The notebooks—a favorite of writers, art students, and fashion stylists—come in five sizes, with a different type of paper in each and cloth covers in 16 colors. If you get hooked, as many do, log on to the shop's Web site (www.papierplus.com) to stock up without crossing the pond.
What do Queen Victoria and Madonna have in common?They're among the high-profile clients of Smythson, London's upper-crustiest stationer (40 New Bond St.; 44-207/629-8558). Every piece of stationery here starts with watermarked paper from Scotland, engraved using hand-cut copper dies, then matched with envelopes custom-lined in 20 different tissue colors. But it's the shop's notebooks—using the pale blue featherweight paper developed by Frank Smythson in 1892—that show off its very British mix of tradition and wit. Alongside the original "Little Black Book" are "Ladies Who Lunch," "Blondes, Brunettes and Redheads," and notebooks for recording information on topics from shopping to "snogs."
The Swedes have a reputation for pure, simple, practical-but-fun design, and the Stockholm-based stationer Ordning & Reda (32 Gotgatan; 46-8/714-9601) is no exception. Started 18 years ago by a brother-and-sister team with a background in bookbinding, Ordning & Reda now has more than 60 stores around the world, including three in New York City, with more to come across the United States. The name is Swedish for "neat and tidy," and the décor follows a similar aesthetic: the merchandise is arranged like a primary-color wheel (blues, yellows, reds, plus neutrals, black, gray, and white) of writing paper, notebooks, photo albums, binders, cards, and desk accessories. If you used to get a thrill buying back-to-school supplies, watch out. It's hard to leave this store without notebooks in several colors, with pens and binders to match.
When Francesco Pineider opened his atelier in 1774, he broke with tradition by bringing international typefaces to Italy and using them to engrave paper made in France and the Netherlands. There are now a dozen Pineider stores all over Italy, but Francesco's original shop is still in the same Renaissance building in Florence (13R Piazza della Signoria; 39-055/284-655). A favorite of clients such as Sting and Pavarotti, the deckle-edged sheets are cut and borders are colored entirely by hand, one at a time. Perhaps even more breathtaking are the elaborate pens and gold-embossed leather desk sets that make sitting down to write seem like an occasion.
Although the master craftsmen of the Fabriano factory have been renowned the world over since 1283, the company never had its own shops in which to show off its line of products. Finally, a store has opened in Milan (3 Via Verri; 39-02/7631-8754), along with outposts in Rome and Turin (a Naples store opens next month). The sleek space—which shares this shopping street with stores like Jil Sander and Yves Saint Laurent—is an utterly Italian mix of modern style (simple wood and glass display cases) and old-world craftsmanship. Contemporary greeting cards, notebooks, and diaries are made exclusively for the store. But it also carries the traditional items for which Fabriano is famous—such as deckle-edged paper bearing a watermark of Rome's insignia, a she-wolf with twins Romulus and Remus.
At Soolip Paperie & Press (8646 Melrose Ave.; 310/360-0545) in West Hollywood, letterpress printing—which, unlike engraving, can be done on virtually any surface—is used exclusively. The paper can be almost any texture and thickness; each piece is fed by hand into an antique press. The result is customized stationery and invitations that have an old-world quality. Stars like Charlize Theron, Brad Pitt, and Jennifer Aniston come here for custom gift wrapping and handmade greeting cards that would put Hallmark to shame. "We have clients who'll drop two hundred dollars just for cards," says owner Wanda Wen.
Along with favorites like Dempsey & Carroll, Cartier, and Tiffany, New York's chic department stores are joining the paper chase. Whether it's Bergdorf's for Smythson diaries or Barneys for Mrs. Strong's classic invitations and letterhead, a hip new clientele is getting outfitted in paper. If you'd rather get the full Mrs. John L. Strong Fine Stationery experience, duck into the small fifth-floor office space (699 Madison Ave.; 212/838-3775) in the shadow of the brand-new Hermès shop. Display cases lining the red lacquer walls hold memorabilia like the Christmas card sent out in 1936 by the Vanderbilt-Whitneys and stationery made for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. More recent additions include Matt Lauer's wedding invitations. The custom-made paper comes in only one color—creamy white—but there are dozens of colors to choose from for ink and envelope linings. Much of the engraving (golf motifs, family crests) is done by a 93-year-old craftsman who has worked for the shop for 15 years.
Those in search of something less traditional should head downtown to Papivore (117 Perry St.; 212/627-6055). This tiny, three-year-old store is filled floor-to-ceiling with shelves of journals, agendas, photo albums, and writing paper made by hand in Paris at the Left Bank atelier of Marie-Papier. You'll find all the basics of a stationery wardrobe (in textures like onionskin, glassine, taffeta, newsprint), a line of letterpress wedding invitations, and chic two-by-two-inch business cards that are foil stamp—printed in the shop's basement.
In South Beach, check out the Scarlet Letter (1753 Alton Rd.; 305/535-8880), the only place around that sells handmade writing paper in bulk. The current craze here is for vellum—the store stocks 30 colors of the see-through, plasticky paper. But according to owner Terri Krasnoff, this is also where the owners of SoBe's trendy clubs, restaurants, and hotels (the Bed, Bash, the Delano, the Living Room) go to have menus and invitations custom-made by the in-house graphic designers. Invitations for special celebrations—gay weddings, in particular—are also a big part of its business.
Ito-ya (2-7-15 Ginza, Chuo-Ku; 81-3/3561-8311) is the granddaddy of Tokyo's stationery stores. Its 18 floors (including some in two annexed buildings) in the upscale Ginza shopping district are full of everything related to writing, drawing, painting, and drafting. Whether you need to order custom-printed wedding invitations (sixth floor), buy some pens (mezzanine), or pick up handmade washi, or craft paper (fourth floor in the annex), this exhaustive complex seems determined to make sure you don't walk away empty-handed.
A bit harder to find, but worth the search, is Haibara (2-7-6 Nihombashi, Chuo-Ku; 81-3/3272-3801), in Tokyo's craft district. Inside you'll find shelves of washi lining the shop's perimeter—from the simplest, smoothest variety to rougher textures that incorporate leaves or marbleized designs. Reams of decorative paper (chiyogami) are lined up along the wall; in back there are cases of calligraphy brushes and inkstones. A visit to this shop confirms that the paper-obsessed can always find a home away from home.
BY APPOINTMENT ONLY
Some of the best places to buy stationery aren't stores at all. Here are a few of our favorite secret addresses:
Nancy Sharon Collins, Stationer 73 Spring St., No. 505, New York; 212/431-5959. Only true fanatics go to Nancy Collins for business cards and stationery—and that's just the way she likes it. A graphic designer with an obsession for old-style engraving, Collins's craftsmen hand-cut each steel die (as many as six times before it's deemed perfect) using typefaces from the 1920's and 30's.
Soho Letterpress 71 Greene St., New York; 212/334-4356. If you like the slightly bohemian quality of letterpress printing, head to SoHo Letterpress. "The type isn't as refined as engraving, so it has more of a handmade quality," says owner Anne Noonan, who recently custom-printed napkins for a Kate Spade cocktail party.
S.S. Paperworks 4236 Overland Ave., Culver City, Calif.; 310/836-4969. For the past 20 years the owners have used their four letterpresses to turn out custom-designed invitations, place cards, and notecards. "We're seeing a lot more interest from young people in real printing," says co-owner Sheila Ross. "People love to see the bite of the letterpress in the paper."
Wren Press 26 Chelsea Wharf, 15 Lots Rd., London; 44-207/351-5887. Londoners looking for an alternative to Smythson seek out Wren Press for an endless assortment of paper, hand-engraved typefaces, inks for personalized stationery, cards, and wedding invitations.