On a quest for the perfect stationery, Lynn Yaeger uncovers the best modern American paper artisans. Plus The top purveyors to turn to for your next paper chase.

Lynn Yaeger
April 16, 2009

I still remember the first box of stationery I ever loved, a gift from my parents decades ago. It was pale blue, with a big ivory L, for Lynn, embossed in the upper-left-hand corner of its gossamer leaves. Over the years, I've had other stationery romances. Fascinated by its watermark, I used heavy Crane's stock for years until I fell hard for some Florentine paper, with its distinctive gold and red swirls, that I bought at a street market in Italy. But lately I've found myself craving something even more personal. What could be a more glamorous means of self-expression than sending a missive on bespoke paper, stationery created for me alone?

A little field work revealed a host of American artisans, from New York to California, who are breathing fashionable life into the stationery world. Some are reviving the art of the letterpress, while others are embracing inventive paper, bold color, and cutting-edge graphics. But whether they are breaking tradition or refining it, all of these artists offer the ultimate in custom designs and will render your desires—writ large, as it were—on fine paper.

NEW YORK CITY

Mrs. John L. Strong The grande dame of social stationery designers, Mrs. John L. Strong has been creating perfect papers since 1929, when the real Mrs. Strong, feeling the post-Crash financial pinch, began catering to the carriage trade from a desk in the back of a Fifth Avenue trousseau shop. A visit to the company's contemporary salon—a suite of rooms high above a tony Upper East Side stretch of Manhattan's Madison Avenue—offers delightful echoes of that original locale, down to a collection of dies (steel molds) from the early 20th century. But the clientele, a coterie of chic, young professionals, is a far cry from Depression-era dowagers. The company still specializes in indisputably appropriate stationery made from 100-percent-cotton archival paper, but today's offerings have been known to betray a sly joie de vivre: a glimpse of Schiaparelli pink among the vast palette of envelope linings, an image of a scarlet biplane zooming across notes, and a tiny, gold sandal printed on a casual card. By appointment only; 699 Madison Ave.; 212/838-3775; www.mrsstrong.com.

Nancy Sharon Collins When asked whether she would be willing to create business cards featuring pink rabbits scampering around the Chrysler Building, Nancy Sharon Collins doesn't blink an eye. "Actually, I most enjoy working with clients who have a strong point of view," says the stationer, who is also a graphic designer. It's easy to see why Collins is a secret shared by celebrities and socialites: ready-to-write items include elegant thank-you notes inscribed in gold on thick black museum board, as well as social stationery inked in vintage typefaces. Collins is also a skilled monogrammer (she once reconstructed her mother's lost bridal monogram by hand) and offers a full range of custom engravings, as finely wrought as jewelry. Leafing through a book of her designs, I was dumbstruck by a Valentine's Day party invitation featuring a heart-shaped monogram in shades of crimson and turquoise. It appeared to be a triumph of elaborate cutwork, but in fact it had been achieved through an ingenious lacquering process on onionskin. 917/392-1417; www.nancysharoncollinsstationer.com.

Purgatory Pie Press This small press prides itself on undertaking jobs others pass up: "We don't really think inside the box," Esther K. Smith says with a laugh. Smith and her husband, Dikko Faust—he cranks the 1930's-era Vandercook letterpress—own the company, the name of which is derived from the old expression "pieing the type," or accidentally spilling your letters before you put them in the press. (The resulting mess feels like purgatory for the printer, who has to then re-sort all the type.) The idiosyncratic is embraced here: Smith and Faust once created an envelope shaped like a clutch purse for an Audrey Hepburn–themed wedding. They've also lifted images of winsome tobogganers from the lining of a ski jacket for a winter party invite, made prints from beach grass and antique lace, designed a coaster that was a replica of a New York City subway token, and embellished an invitation to a wedding in Manhattan's Puck Building with a tiny Puck who declaims, "What food these morsels be." Try finding that at your local stationery store. 19 Hudson St., No. 403; 212/274-8228; www.purgatorypiepress.com.

Thornwillow Press "It's the difference between a Buick and a Maybach or an off-the-rack shirt and a custom-made one!" says Luke Pontifell, when asked what sets his company, Thornwillow Press, apart from more prosaic stationers. Then, to prove his point, Pontifell pulls a vast book of intricate archival monograms from a shelf. This selection is followed by an array of papers engraved with subtle, witty themes: a pair of minuscule gold grasshoppers clinking glasses decorates one note card; a tiny circus strongman adorns a children's party invitation. If your dream is to have an image of your house engraved on your personal papers, Pontifell can line up the guy who worked with the Treasury Building on the $10 bill. "We're not in the business of the commodity of stationery," insists Pontifell. "We're about communication. You delete your e-mail messages, you hang up the phone, but when you have an announcement that you'd like someone to save—for a wedding or a baby—you want fine paper and beautiful printing." By appointment only; 57 W. 58th St.; 212/980-0738; www.thornwillow.com.

Bernard Maisner Calligraphy & Fine Stationery Bernard Maisner is a fairly modest fellow, but when it comes to calligraphy, he can't help saying in his quiet voice, "I do things with a pen that nobody else can do." For Maisner, who is also a painter and a well-known artist, the thrill is in pushing calligraphy to its aesthetic limits and breaking all the rules. His calligraphy designs come in three levels of complexity: from standard (if stunning) to embellished (completely over-the-top). Maisner's popular holiday cards, perhaps the largest on the market, are so dramatically oversized—7½ by 10½ inches—and employ such a vast range of colors, the artist says, jokingly, "The printing press people love and hate me at the same time." Hand-colored butterflies and dragonflies decorate exquisite wedding-dinner menus, but a more eccentric party-thrower might prefer the set of 10 place cards featuring calligraphy Rorschach tests, all different—a guaranteed icebreaker. By appointment only; 165 W. 66th St.; 212/477-6776; www.bernardmaisner.com.

Massachusetts

Brookfield Paperworks Stationery from Brookfield Paperworks looks as though it was lovingly hand-folded on an old-fashioned tin-topped farm table—and indeed it most likely was; the line was started by four friends in rural Massachusetts, and their methodology remains stubbornly antique. Elisabeth Hyder, a paper artist and decorator, creates the bright hand-blocked stationery with its deliberately rough edges for what one guesses is a rather more bohemian customer. Her husband, Darrell, runs the letterpress and says soberly that he sets type using the same method employed by another printer—Ben Franklin. The result of these vintage ministrations is a line adorned with richly inked designs made from custom-made stamps. Brookfield's signature graphics are bright and bold variations on images from the natural world, including patterns of ginkgo leaves, stepping stones, and even lichen. By appointment only; 23 High St., North Brookfield; 508/867-7274; www.orangeart.com.

California

Julie Holcomb Printers Letterpress printer Julie Holcomb started in the business 25 years ago at a little place on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, in the same building where Santana recorded their albums. These days she collaborates with illustrators such as Patricia Curtan (famous for her linoleum-block prints) and shows her work at museums and design centers worldwide. Holcomb, who prints on paper that has been custom-made for her by other artisans, is excited to see ink shades like violet and cobalt turning up on wedding invitations, when even five years ago more traditional hues were the rule. She's also happy about the resurgence of the personal card, which many of her dyed-in-the-wool San Franciscan clients are ordering hand-edged in unorthodox colors like fuchsia and lime. "It's such a thin line that even a strongly colored edge is never overwhelming," she says reassuringly. Traditionalists, however, can still order their cards with rounded corners, hand-edged in classic gold, just like Gilded Age socialites. 510/654-6416; www.julieholcombprinters.com.

Torn between ordering classic cards or more unusual stationery?To help you decide, here are six stores from east to west with a multitude of styles and designs.

NEW YORK CITY
Abingdon 12
This Greenwich Village design shop also features Nancy Sharon Collins's sample book.
613 Hudson St.; 212/206-6845.

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
Dulles Designs
Get answers to any etiquette question, plus work from Thornwillow Press.
89 Church St.; 843/805-7166.

ATLANTA
B.D. Jeffries
Sells crocodile-skin Post-it holders and more traditional fare like Mrs. John L. Strong cards.
Powers Ferry Square, 3736-B Roswell Rd.; 404/231-3004.

CHICAGO
Alphabetique
Carries everything from letterpress to Japanese silk-screen sheets.
701 W. Armitage Ave.; 312/751-2920.

SEATTLE
Silberman/Brown
The place to pick up pens, brightly colored leather albums, and Julie Holcomb's designs.
1322 Fifth Ave.; 206/292-9404.

LOS ANGELES
Soolip Paperie & Press
Stocks an assortment of handmade papers, including those from the Brookfield Paperworks.
8646 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; 310/360-0545.

Soolip Paperie & Press

A small bungalow off Melrose Avenue is the just-right setting for this uncommon stationery boutique which houses tidy displays of colorful scented ink bottles and vertical rows of vibrant fabric paper. Approaching gift wrapping as an art, founder Wanda Wen populates Soolip Paperie with letter-pressed cards, imported wrapping papers, and whimsical stationeries such as a love letter kit with vintage stamps and a raspberry-hued envelope infused with crushed semiprecious stone. The shop is also brightened by a variety of gift topper displays, such as bird pendants hanging from miniature tree branches and pressed flowers stored in old-fashioned glass jars.

Alphabetique

Dulles Designs

Founded by Emilie Dulles, who was inspired by her mother’s appreciation of fine stationery, Dulles Designs sells high quality stationery and paper products from its studio on Church Street in The Battery. Dulles Designs has more than 20 years of experience in the business and offers everything from custom calligraphy and engraving to mailing services. The studio is available by appointment only, and Dulles Designs caters to a discerning clientele, including brides and corporations. Private stationery consultations can be arranged and are dependent upon the scope of the event and the client’s individual needs. 

Abingdon 12

Located in a pre-Civil War townhome just off Abingdon Square in the West Village, Abingdon 12 is a shop full of curios collected by owner Paul Caddell on his travels around the world. The ever-changing inventory includes vintage objects such as ornate doorknobs and antique jewelry, as well as contemporary items like sketches by local artists. Abingdon 12 also houses a gallery with works from various artists and permanent installations from sculptor Rodger Stevens, who is known for the elegant swirls of his wood and wire sculptures.

Julie Holcomb Printers

Open by appointment, this renowned print shop is located in a warehouse just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. Established in 1982, the company produces wedding invitations and personalized stationery using artisanal letterpress techniques. Founder Julie Holcomb and her team of printmakers first create a plate from a chosen design, and then craft each piece on custom-made, 100-percent cotton paper. Holcomb is especially known for her use of nontraditional colors; for example, her stationery cards might be hand-edged in cobalt, lime, mint, or metallic magenta. Her work is also on permanent display at New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Brookfield Paperworks

Bernard Maisner Calligraphy & Fine Stationery

Located in Manhattan, this shop sells the intricate stationary and calligraphy of namesake Bernard Maisner. With 30 years of experience, Maisner is known internationally for his calligraphy, especially for his Maisner script, which is a modern blend of Spencerian and Copperplate writing accentuated with flourishes and exquisite letterforms. He is also an expert in the gold illumination techniques found in medieval manuscripts as well as the history of letterforms. Social calligraphy options include wedding, party, and event invitations, placecards, custom menu cards, and personal stationery. The company also offers online calligraphy and design services as well as full-service engraving.

Thornwillow Press

Housed in the St. Regis hotel on Fifth Avenue is the boutique for Thornwillow Press. Started more than 25 years ago by Luke Ives Pontifell, the company excels in the hand-printing and binding of limited edition books, which include titles such as In Search of George Washington by W.W. Abbott and Let Me Count the Ways, a book of poetry by the Brownings. Other offerings include fine stationery, journals, cards, and accessories such as inkwells, bookends, and Montblanc pens.

Purgatory Pie Press

Husband and wife team Dikko Faust and Esther Smith explore the art of printing in their TriBeCa store Purgatory Pie Press. Faust sets and works the 1930s era Vandercook letterpress while Smith edits, designs, and hand-sews limited edition books. Other products include yearly datebooks, monthly postcard subscriptions, wedding invitations and artist books such as Fibonacci Flower by Susan Happersett. Smith is also the author of How To Make Books and Magic Books and Paper Toys; she offers courses on letterpress and bookmaking in the shop.

Nancy Sharon Collins

Known for her hand-engraved stationery, Nancy Sharon Collins, Stationer, has more than 30 years of experience in engraving with monogram-and-type styles from the 1920s and 1930s. Her products include stationery, personal notes, and invitations; some examples are the understated yet sophisticated Snowbell notes, which can be used for everyday correspondence, to the luxuriously thick, 100% cotton thank you notes. Past clients include the Museum of Modern Art, Martha Stewart, and Williams-Sonoma. Collins' products may be ordered online or by appointment from Abingdon 12 in the West Village.

Mrs. John L. Strong

Steeped in an 80 year tradition of fine printing, Mrs. John L. Strong sells exquisite stationery and accessories. Ready-to-write products are sold online or in the Madison Avenue boutique while the bespoke line, wedding invitations, and custom designs can be ordered by phone or in the office four floors above the boutique. Each step of production is done by hand, from the hand engraved dies and plates to the bordering and edging, even the lining of the envelopes. The company uses  aluxurious paper stock known as Strong's vanilla, and many motifs from the bespoke line use Flora Strong's original 1920s designs.

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