Terrapin Stationers produce some of the finest stationery in the US, using a printing method (engraving) that ranks as the oldest—and best—in the world. But we’re not talking about some rarefied, dainty notecards here. The NY-based, family-run business has survived in an increasingly paperless world by producing wares that deftly blend a masculine, old school aesthetic with a shot of unapologetically modern irreverence. (Think hunting crest notecards and “WTF?” calling cards co-existing peacefully.) In anticipation of their debut on Gilt MAN, we talked with Ted Harrington—the man at the helm, along with mother Cathy—about hand-lined envelopes, hustling for clients, and why every guy should have an arsenal of great stationery.
Can you give me a little bit of background on yourself and on Terrapin? I know it’s a family run business…
The company was founded in 1913 by a Russian silverware engraver who came here after the revolution. He had no skills other than engraving, so he learned to make steel dies. Which is how everything was done: In steel, hand engraved. His sons took over the company after WWII, and my father, Lloyd, worked for them. Maybe 25 years ago, the sons moved on and we took over the company completely. I started making dies when I was a teenager, and I’m 46, so I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember.
And how did you guys start working with the fashion world?
About 15 years ago we started doing high-end press kits for fashion houses and then I connected with LVMH. They were buying up everyone, including Marc Jacobs, and I started working with Marc, and then people like Bergdorf’s, and some weddings—it was really a hustle. But I prefer men’s stationery, actually. And there’s nobody really trying to get men to use stationery.
Yeah it seems like you guys are really filling a niche there. Something like a stag’s head crest notecard you have in our sale Friday is obviously not geared towards the ladies.
That die was actually made in 1966. That’s a sporting club die and I just took the text off. I have dies here from the 1920s. I have the original invitation from the premiere of The Great Gatsby in 1974. We’ve just got this incredible archive of stuff about guys who drank scotch and cheated on their wives! And it’s not me, but I get it, and I love the people that buy it. They’re guys that buy their brogues and their Tellasons and whatever, and they need a decent card.
I feel like there’s a groundswell of sentiment out there among guys: They want nice cards. It matters to them now.
Yeah, for a while, I think people thought, “I don’t need a business card. Here’s my email address.” But then they’re out someplace and everyone’s trying to put their number in their phone and it’s awkward, or handing out cheap online cards, and it’s not the right impression. And we’re at the point now where we’re not using a tremendous amount of paper, so what we do use needs to be something special.
So coming from a novice perspective, can you tell me about the process of engraving?
Well our process is a medieval one. It’s the oldest form of printing. We etch everything in copper and steel, it’s then embossed—pressed—into the paper. So our impressions are perfect. They’re raised, the edges are sharp, and you can feel it. You give somebody an embossed or engraved card and you can watch them rub their finger over it.
I’m curious about the paper itself. From where I’m sitting, it looks really nice.
About 98% of the paper we use is 100% cotton. So there’s no trees involved; it’s all renewable and luxurious. It’s got a great feel—a tooth to it. It writes well, too.
It takes ink better?
It does. It’s better with fountain pens, and it takes our impression better.
How old are the machines you guys are working with?
Late 1800s. There’s no new technology for engraving. No one’s come up with a new press. We can only do one color at a time. That’s what’s so special to me about those flies we do: My father hand engraved every single color. Every single color on those fly notecards is a separate, hand cut steel die. Each color is a separate impression.
So that Irish Salmon fly in our sale Friday took 4 separate passes?
Yep. And think about it: To run 1,000 cards, that takes 4,000 passes.
So, the last thing: Envelopes…
Well, our liners are all custom. And that’s something people don’t realize: When you get a lined envelope, it’s hand-lined. There’s no machine that sticks a liner into an envelope and then glues it. So next time you get a lined envelope, just know someone sat there and did that by hand.
Gives you a whole new appreciation for it. I wanted to touch on how you have some images, like the stag’s head, that are so old school, but they’re right next to “WTF?” and “FML,” stuff like that. Where’s that come from?
That’s the combination of my dad and myself. My dad is old school; he worked very hard on those dies. And I’m like, “F–k this. Why isn’t anyone ordering?” Those “WTF?” cards came from me going out of my mind in January of 2009. Everyone was scared to death, people stopped ordering, and finally I had to do something about it. So I made those cards, and I took the financial section of the NY Post and I made a liner out of it, and I delivered them to everyone I could. And people started to give me calls, and they started to sell. And then I was talking to Michael [Williams, of A Continuous Lean] about how it would just be awesome to make an engraved calling card that just said “f–k off” on it. And so we tried them, and they were huge. Nick Wooster was running around with them, and Greg Chapman from Schott, and I was getting tweets and pictures, so we put them on our website and started getting pictures—I have a baby holding one. And since then, on Twitter, instead of “Follow Friday” it’s been “F–k Off Friday.”
Anything else that you wanted to throw in?
F–k off. (Laughs.) Just kidding.