It’s Saturday morning in Clerkenwell in central London and a group of eight men and women whose jobs range from investment banking to teaching sit around a table in quiet concentration. In front of each of them lies a Nikko G steel nib, a penholder, a pot of black ink and a piece of paper with rounded script. Lucy Edmonds, the founder of Quill London, a modern calligraphy and stationery studio, explains how to craft the script on which she has built her business. Subhas Kim Kandasamy, a London gallery founder, attempts to copy Edmonds’ letters, remembering to put pressure on the downward strokes and be gentle on the return. “I like writing to people and I always have my stationery made bespoke, but I found that my handwriting was getting messier,” Kandasamy explains. “I grew up in Singapore, where calligraphy was part of the school curriculum. I want to rediscover how to write beautifully.”
Edmonds is at the forefront of a new trend catering to professionals eager to learn modern calligraphy and rediscover the art of letter writing (classes from £54 for two-and-a-half hours). This surge of interest has been accompanied by a rise in demand for high-end stationery and all its covetable accessories, from notebooks lined with hand-marbled papers to the latest pens and finest inks.
Chiara Perano, the founder of decorative lettering and illustration studio Lamplighter London, also teaches modern calligraphy – in her case the classes (from £80 for two hours) take place at the Town Hall Hotel near Shoreditch or at Soho House – as well as providing a bespoke lettering and illustration service (from £250). Perano says she has seen a sharp increase in luxury clients – she recently gave a class to 150 of Jo Malone’s employees, and Burberry has hired her to monogram its handbags. She believes the interest in calligraphy is part of “a backlash against the overuse of the computer, and the desire to send a beautiful handwritten note rather than a text or email… Some people who come to the classes haven’t written for so long that after a couple of hours they complain that their hand is hurting.”
In Hackney, not far from Quill London, is Wolf & Ink. Set up three years ago by Julia Wolfe, it uses a century-old Cropper press to make exceptional stationery (cards from £2.75; bespoke cards, from £1.10 each for a minimum of 50). Valentina Louwman Jacobs, the director of a skincare firm, commissions cards from Wolf & Ink on a regular basis, choosing bucolic scenes that she designs with Wolfe’s help. “I think there is a steady movement back towards the tactility of paper cards,” says Louwman Jacobs. “The experience of opening a handwritten card is one that cannot be matched.”
It’s precisely this experience that has kept society stationers Smythson in business for over 125 years, and it remains at the forefront of the luxury business. As well as a vast off-the-shelf range, it provides a bespoke service (from £195 for 50 engraved sheets or king-size cards with plain envelopes). Plates are made containing the design/letter heading, and then, using early-20th-century machines, the cards are printed in Wiltshire.
Blind embossing – where the font is raised from beneath with no colour – is a trend, as is parents commissioning personalised stationery for their children. One woman bought monogrammed correspondence cards with elaborate foiling for her two young daughters. Another customer commissioned a plate with his goddaughter’s name on it as a christening present that she could use on her 18th birthday to order the stationery of her choice.
Mount Street Printers in Mayfair also reports a return to formal letter writing. “More people are starting to order A4 letterhead paper and to write proper letters when they want to make a particularly good impression,” says sales director Alex Cain. The stationer’s new online service features cards (£24.95 for 10) with animal motifs, as well as bespoke designs. “A lot of parents ask me what is the smartest thing to send to a school they are trying to get their children into,” adds Cain.
He’s also seen a movement towards more adventurous choices in paper, with fluorescent edging a current favourite. Customisation, too, is gaining in popularity, and some couples now prefer to head stationery with a logo (sometimes to their own design) rather than their address: “It’s this new focus on creating one’s own branding.”
Among the new letterpress firms making waves is Margate-based Maple Tea whose embossed work (£82.50) on correspondence and business cards is gracefully restrained. Meticulous Ink in Bath is proud of the variety of colours it offers as part of its bespoke letterpress stationery; its bee‑motif letterheads (£25 for 15) would make a great Christmas present for a novice pensmith. Dear To Me has eye-catching off-the-shelf stationery with rose-gold foiling and motifs such as palm trees and pineapples, as well as a three-month Love Letters subscription (£22 for three different cards and envelopes each month).
British printers often cite the US as the source of the finest letterpress work. Sugar Paper’s monogram notecards ($32 for six), with designs including leopard print and scalloped edges, are something of a cult among the fashion set; Alexa Pulitzer’s cards feature charmingly drawn animals, such as her Royal Flamingo engraved notes ($75 for eight); Mrs John L Strong’s patrician offerings include 10 gold-embossed Venetian lion notelets ($40); and Thornwillow’s Field & Woods box ($95) contains 30 cards printed with stag, hound and oak-tree motifs, tissue-lined envelopes and three handmade block journals.
Of course, every hand-pressed correspondence card needs a decent pen and pot of ink to go with it. Calligraphy requires special nibs (L Cornelissen & Son near Covent Garden has an exceptional range). David Cole, director of online specialist Pen Heaven, notes some trends. “Fountain pen sales are rising faster than any other pen type, followed by the propelling pencil – heritage brands such as Yard-O-Led and Graf von Faber-Castell tend to be winning here. People are looking for specialist nib sizes and pen finishes, such as gold and iridium.” Cole singles out the Graf von Faber-Castell Pernambuco wood fountain pen (£440) and the limited-edition Platinum 3776 Kawaguchi (£179) as the ones to look out for this season.
Yard-O-Led in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter is a great British heritage company that handmakes pieces such as its Viceroy Grand Victorian fountain pen (£675) in hallmarked silver with engraved body and nib. New from Montblanc is the sterling-silver Meisterstück Martelé (£1,225), which has a rhodium-coated gold nib and is transcendently covetable.
As for fashions in ink, look east. “Almost anything Japanese is on trend,” says Simon Walker, co-founder of online emporium Cult Pens. “Stationery has always been a Japanese strength and they do most of it exceptionally well – whether pencils, notebooks or pens. Pilot has been leading the way with its Iroshizuku inks [£28.95 for 50ml] inspired by the natural world, such as the misty grey Kiri-Same (Autumn Shower), and blue‑green Syo-Ro (Dew on a Pine Tree). French inkmaker J Herbin’s 1670 collection [£14.59 for 50ml], which features real gold particles, is also standout.”
UK brands are also coming up with innovative ink formulations. Marby & Elm in Clerkenwell uses muted hues referencing London landmarks, such as Leather Lane brown and Greyfriars grey (both £14). Nearby Choosing Keeping also stocks a wonderful range of accessories for the writing desk, from brushed-steel Japanese scissors (£60) suitable for left- or right-handed use to Henning Andreasen’s classic 1977 stapler, the Chrome Folle 26 Moma (£100)
With so much scribe-worthy bounty on the market, it is time to embrace letter writing as a pleasure and not a chore. As Wolfe says, “Sending a handwritten letter in the post is all about making a lasting impression.”