Whether it's a $3.50 ballpoint disguised as a tube of lipstick at Bookmarc, Marc Jacobs' (relatively) new Melrose store, or a $275 platinum-plated pencil sharpener from Graf von Faber-Castell, writing instruments, journals and stationery have emerged as an essential accessory for artistic self-expression. And the timing couldn't be better, since many of us must now face our list of holiday thank-you notes.
"Most people are so design savvy these days that when it comes to personal expression, an off-the-shelf, store-bought card doesn't always do the best job of capturing a person's essence or sensibility," said Marc Friedland, founder of the upscale stationer Creative Intelligence, which he calls a "social-expression company."
For some, the choice of writing utensils is just as important as the paper, which has bolstered interest in heirloom-quality pens, says David H. Baker, executive vice president of the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Assn. in Washington, D.C.
Though pen and stationery stores are on the wane, gift shops and even luxury jewelers are positioning pens more as fashionable, functional accessories, says Jamie Gallagher, U.S. chief executive of Faber-Castell. Case in point: his company's Perfect Pencil, a high-quality pencil capped with a pen-like barrel that conceals a sharpener.
Mont Blanc created a series of limited-edition pens inspired by John Lennon. The Special Edition pen features a platinum-plated clip shaped like a guitar's neck and is also engraved with his self-portrait. Some versions cost $690 to $920.
Los Angeles evening wear designer Sue Wong recently launched the Talmadge collection of Art Deco-inspired desk accessories, which includes a $68 rollerball pen and matching cases for eyeglasses and business cards.
At Silver Lake's Reform School boutique, shoppers can buy $4 oversized pencils carved from twigs, or a $10 set of six pencils embossed with facts about California. Tellingly, the shop has had some success with its Pen Pal Club, which has signed up 400 people as pen pals in less than a year. At the store's monthly do-it-yourself meetings, club members make mailable crafts and read from letters.
"There is just a huge arena for people who want to have pen pals," says co-owner Billie Lopez.
Though the trend for handwritten correspondence may have begun as a backlash to e-mail overload, it has been helped along by the growing availability of letterpress printing. The almost-embossed texture of the type has made the technique popular among the stylish and high-powered, according to its leading purveyors.
Cary Ocon, co-owner of Aardvark Letterpress, has had to sign confidentiality agreements that govern some of his clients' custom orders.
Newly popular are suites of stationery that create a visual identity, whether through a font choice or a rendering of a family estate. The company recently created calling cards for Hedi Slimane, the former designer of Dior Homme.
"He was here for three hours, playing with type, while we were upstairs eating tacos," Ocon says.
Giving someone your e-mail address on a handmade card or sending a letterpress holiday card signed with a fountain pen are practically acts of elegant subversion. Perhaps that's why D.L. & Co., the "dangerous luxury" company known for fragrances based on poisonous plants, has nearly sold out of a creepy-elegant $180 Fowl Play Writing Box, which includes a gold-plated crow-talon letter opener and feather plume pen.
It's probably too soon to declare 2011 the year of the calligrapher. But as Friedland sees it: "The pen is mightier than the pixel."