A few months ago I was browsing through a linen-covered wooden folio of engraved paper in the Rome branch of Pineider, Italy's most elegant stationer. I was revisiting a youthful fascination with lettering and paper—one that extended from my childhood, when I exploited my older brother's interest in letterpress printing to obtain my first personalized stationery, through early trips abroad, when I visited engravers and wished I could afford to place an order. Twenty years ago, when the dollar was strong against the lire, I spent whole afternoons poring over the choices at Pineider's flagship store, in Florence, finally settling on a typeface and paper. The design I chose—simple but peculiarly Italian block capitals, printed in gray ink on gray-bordered paper and heavy cards—became as fixed a part of my identity as gray flannels during the week, khakis on weekends, and stopping at every pastry shop.
My taste in typefaces may have shifted slightly over two decades, but not my belief in the primacy of the letter—the noblest and certainly the pleasantest form of communication. A handwritten note remains the only real acknowledgment of a gift or a kindness, and I disapprove of another person's delay in sending one nearly as strongly as I do of my own. I never discard handwritten cards and letters, luxuriating in their look and feel on receipt and again during infrequent and usually unsuccessful attempts to store them in an orderly way. And nothing is as handsome, or as serious in intent, as engraved paper.
Recently my sister and brother-in-law found the house they'd been looking for, the one in which they plan to see their young children into adulthood. To mark the occasion my family gave them engraved house stationery, with the address as letterhead. We ordered it from Crane, the U.S. equivalent of Pineider in history and reputation. As I looked through Crane's books of stationery, I thought again about matching typeface and paper to a sense of self. Learning that Crane produces its paper and personalized stationery in my state, Massachusetts, prompted me to visit the company to see firsthand a process that had helped define me. And knowing I would be in Italy made me decide to compare what I saw at Crane with the way things are done nowadays at Pineider.
Things had changed in Italy: not the beauty of the displays or the correctness of the tailored salespeople but the vast choice of typefaces I remembered being both bewildered and enchanted by. Now there were just seven, a salesman told me, as he opened a large binder of cardboard pages—the most popular and classic styles. I glanced at the shaded and cursive and unornamented faces, both comforted and vaguely disappointed that they included a version of my plain block capitals. Wasn't anything else available? I asked.
Eventually the folio containing stationery ordered over several decades appeared, accompanied by the man who had served most of the customers whose paper it contained. Carlo Bertolaccini has sold Pineider stationery in Rome for forty-four years. He looks something like John Gielgud and speaks with a reserve that seems to cloak wit and a deep understanding of human desires. The factory in Florence might or might not be able to reproduce any style that caught my eye, Bertolaccini told me; young people willing to apprentice themselves to a skilled engraver are rare, and the lifetime artisans are retiring or gone. The seven styles in the new book are typeset by computer, and the dies are created by acid bath rather than incised by hand start to finish—as every die was until five or so years ago. Hand-etched "classico" dies are still offered as a higher-priced alternative to typeset dies. But he couldn't guarantee that any of the remaining artisans would be willing or able to etch a typeface long out of use.
As I turned over sheet after sheet, Bertolaccini pointed out letterheads and colors he found particularly successful, occasionally seizing one as if it were an old friend and holding it up to the light. Then I saw a very familiar gray-bordered sheet, and my own name.
Unlike Pineider, Crane uses only computers to create the lettering for its dies, having decided decades ago to digitize the typefaces it offers and to keep a wide range in active use. Despite the abandonment of hand-incised typefaces, a remarkable amount of the work that goes into Crane's stationery is still done by hand, I discovered when I drove last winter to its factory in North Adams, a scrappy former mill town in the northwest corner of Massachusetts. Long economically depressed, though proud of its history and its commanding position high in the Berkshires, North Adams has recently seen a revival with the opening of Mass MOCA, a contemporary-arts center in a renovated textile-factory complex.
The plant where Crane, a family firm marking its 200th anniversary this year, produces its engraved stationery is a few miles down the road from Mass MOCA, in a bland modern building the company has occupied since 1988. "We thought we'd be playing soccer in here," Ed Czarnecki, the director of product development, told me as he gestured toward a large factory floor covered with a haphazard assortment of presses and work tables. "Instead we've grown by leaps and bounds." The continued activity on the printing floor as afternoon turned to evening testified to the solid three to five percent annual rise in engraved-stationery sales in the 1990s—years when e-mail was theoretically replacing posted letters, and when PCs and laser printers put graphic design and stationery production within reach of anyone. The desire for something palpable, handsome, and handmade (or at least partially handmade) apparently endures.
The second floor has been fortified to bear the weight of the die archive, which is housed in an appealing jumble of wooden-drawered file cabinets and steel shelves. The small, heavy dies are wrapped in white paper and string; some are filed by name, others by number. The many-ton library represents only ten years' worth of names. Every year, Czarnecki told me, the factory ships off dies that have remained dormant for ten years. I had imagined that a die would be kept forever. Melting one down seems akin to trying to recycle someone's soul.
The first aisle we walked through was devoted, surprisingly, to Tiffany: Crane has produced all of the store's stationery since 1977, and also makes most of Cartier's personalized stationery and Christmas cards. It produces a separate line of watermarked paper and boxes and a specially designed typeface for each company. (Later, above a work station, I saw a large robin's-egg-blue Tiffany box marked BIG RUBBER BANDS.) Almost no one else produces engraved stationery in the United States: Dempsey & Carroll, a Baltimore company with stores in Washington and New York, may be the only other company with a national presence.
"When it comes to the social-stationery game, there are not many players," Czarnecki said. "It's a tough business. There's a high volume of small orders, all of them custom. You can't just lock up the press and run it. Every day we get hundreds of calls asking to step up an order or pull it in the middle of production to make a change. We go through every order sheet by sheet, doing cleaning and eraser work. We tie the ribbons on each birth announcement and count and band every box." Czarnecki, a carefully dressed man, joined the company forty-four years ago.
The workers' involvement in what they do seemed unstaged. "It's a little boy—a real little one," a woman said as she showed me the artwork for the birth announcement of a baby weighing three pounds, ten ounces. The artwork was in the form of a photographic negative, as for offset printing, which would be chemically etched onto a copper plate. Creating letters by machine rather than by hand means the loss of the unevenness and individual eccentricity that until recently made every Pineider die, for example, unique. But it does allow great freedom in the choice of what can be engraved. The staff artists, I was assured, could reproduce by hand any historical type style that took my fancy—but the style would probably be in the Crane archives anyway. Nor have etching tools disappeared. In the die-making room I saw workers examine for flaws copper plates just out of an acid bath and regouge by hand parts of characters that hadn't been incised deeply enough.
The actual printing is still remarkably personalized. I watched Joseph Mulder—a bearded, friendly man with suspenders over a T-shirt—fill a pan at the back of a press (the "fountain") with viscous ink the color of duct tape as he got ready to print an order of house stationery. This was the second time Mulder would feed each full-size sheet through the press. He had already printed an address at the bottom, and this pass was for the name of the house, in the upper right.
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Crane's and other American presses are designed for water-based inks, which are matte, and European presses for oil-based inks, which are glossy. The difference in appearance can be dramatic, as I saw on a visit to the small, modern factory where Pineider prints its stationery, in a gorgeous part of Tuscany near Florence and bordering Chianti. If the Crane printing floor was the size of a soccer field, the Pineider floor was barely the size of two squash courts. Along one wall I saw slatted wooden racks, like the ones at an old-fashioned bakery, covered with sheets hand-arranged to expose only the familiar logo of a U.S.-based car company at the top left corner. The logos looked like shiny blue pools. I also saw the opulent gold and silver miter and keys of the papal seal.
Rote as the hand-feeding might seem, the printer's work in setting up an order is almost as detailed as the inspectors' after it is finished. The printer must prepare a "counterboard," which ensures that under tons of pressure the die won't cut straight through the paper. The counterboard looks like a piece of white foamcore with cutouts to receive lines of text on the metal plate. How closely the printer hews to the outline of the text in cutting the counterboard determines how much flattened, shiny paper will surround each line on the engraved sheet or card—a telltale sign of true engraving, along with the indentation on the back. The sort of people who flip china over to find the maker always run a finger over the back of a letterhead.
Finger runners are making sure that the process was not thermography, usually thought of as cut-rate engraving. Thermography is straightforward offset printing, in which a piece of black plastic is put directly onto an automated press instead of onto a piece of metal to etch a die. The difference between thermography and "flat" printing, the kind used in magazines and newspapers, is a final sprinkling of powdered glue over the wet ink, which mixes with it to create raised letters. (Excess glue is removed by vacuum, and the ink is dried under hot blowers.) Nice as thermography can look, it can never offer the depth and desirable unevenness of engraving, let alone the tactile pleasure.
The thickness of the counterboard and the force of the press determine the depth of the indentation in engraving, and the printer adjusts both according to his and the customer's preference. "Some people want heavy bruising," Mulder told me. The goal at Pineider is the opposite: workmen try to cut the counterboard to produce a clear image with a minimum of flattening around the letters, and adjust the pressure to cause the subtlest indentation. This may be because Pineider has never offered thermography. "Why bother with a halfway step?" Riccardo Capecchiacci, the director of Pineider production, asked when I visited. "It's so much less elegant."
Crane has long offered both thermography and engraving, and now the choices of typeface, ink color, and paper are also the same. The difference is price. Because thermographed sheets whiz through the press and engraved sheets are fed one by one, engraving costs an average of a third more. At Crane, Mulder told me while hand-feeding the sheets for the engraving job I had watched him set up, "almost no one asks for light bruising."
"Look at this O," Bertolaccini said at the Rome branch of Pineider, as he held my stationery up to the light. "It's much flatter than the regular bastoncino." The block capitals I had long ago chosen, usually labeled gothic in this country, are called "little sticks" in Italian. He opened an old book of Pineider type styles, the kind made only by hand, and found a page of six or seven bastoncino styles, each subtly different. He showed me mine, with its shapely but not exaggerated horizontal compression. "This was my favorite," he said. "I directed all my clients toward it. It's clean, handsome, and linear. You can never tire of it." I felt immensely gratified.
I had already seen how my name looked in the current version of bastoncino when I visited the Pineider factory, where a woman who designs orders printed my name on her screen and compared it with the engraved card I had brought. Not only the shape of the letters but also the spacing was quite different. She tinkered with the image on the screen to make it more like the lettering on my card—adjustments similar to those she makes for each order, she told me. It was pleasing, but it wasn't the same. I was glad that, for now, the classico option of hand-incised dies is still available.
I showed Bertolaccini a style I had fallen for, a kind of Art Nouveau-Art Deco take on bastoncino that seemed utterly Italian. Ah, he said with gentle reservation—however captivating, novelty will wear off. Better to stay with a timeless face and with unobtrusive but elegant colors for paper and ink. And don't make the characters too big, he said when I showed him letterheads similar to mine but in a larger type size I found impressive. The discreet size the Pineider engraver had picked for my name was the right one, he assured me. But he would move the letterhead down a half centimeter the next time I ordered.
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I invited Bertolaccini for a coffee, and he took me to a bar in the lobby of an Art Nouveau theater next door, where he immediately pointed out that the lettering on a period poster was similar to one of the typefaces I had liked. Even though the company had already changed hands several times since it went out of the Pineider family, in 1989, Bertolaccini told me he was confident about its future. Engraved stationery is still a rite of passage open to all. "Not everyone is born high," he said. "We're the massimo"—the summit—and even those of modest means can afford it.
I thought of my pleasure when I opened my first box of Pineider cards, each bundle of twenty-five wrapped by hand in tissue paper, and how much a part of me those gray letters now seem. I thought of my sister's joy at opening our gift to her family. "Now I know it's really our house," she said.