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 Hepburnthemed 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.
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.
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
This Greenwich Village design shop also features Nancy Sharon Collins's sample book.
613 Hudson St.; 212/206-6845.
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
Get answers to any etiquette question, plus work from Thornwillow Press.
89 Church St.; 843/805-7166.
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.
Carries everything from letterpress to Japanese silk-screen sheets.
701 W. Armitage Ave.; 312/751-2920.
The place to pick up pens, brightly colored leather albums, and Julie Holcomb's designs.
1322 Fifth Ave.; 206/292-9404.
Soolip Paperie & Press
Stocks an assortment of handmade papers, including those from the Brookfield Paperworks.
8646 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; 310/360-0545.