Including these two words on a greeting card is fairly standard stuff. Or, at least they were until Kat Feuerstein, a graphic designer in Hampden, recently gave them a typographical twist. Thus, the exclamatory birthday wish is printed in large cursive lettering, but captioned by a phrase set in a much smaller font that reads, "you look fantastic for your age."
If you're put off by the cheekiness of this rejoinder, Feuerstein isn't terribly concerned, nor does she particularly mourn the loss of you as a potential customer.
"Not everything is for everyone. I just want to put it out there," she said. "Actually, I'm probably not a very good salesperson."
The locale for this self-doubting admission was curious, to say the least. For, as Feuerstein spoke a few days ago, she stood in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, where Gilah Press, her graphic design company, was one of 1,400 exhibitors at the National Stationery Show. "I haven't done a business plan. I really don't have too much expectation," she acknowledged. "More than anything, I am just looking forward to seeing how they are received."
Feuerstein was at this trade show, America's largest annual paper goods exhibition, to launch three lines of greeting cards and other printed products, all done with the letterpress technique, an archaic style (as opposed to offset and laser printing, which dominate today) that's currently resurgent.
As she tells it, Feuerstein was pleasantly surprised by how briskly her somewhat ribald holiday cards sold when she gave them a "test run" at the Hon Fest in Hampden and the Fells Point Festival in 2004. Thinking she might be on to something, Feuerstein attended the 2005 stationery show to canvass competition, and decided to be an exhibitor this year.
"Happy Birthday" and the holiday cards are now part of the "Female Dog" collection, in which other large cursive phrases are undercut by tiny-type zingers. "A New Baby" floats over the words, "have fun changing diapers"; or "Thanks" is above "for nothing." There's also a line of fold-over cards called "Don't Shoot the Messenger," where a cliche on the cover is overturned by an interior punch line, and "Buzz Kill" coasters, which allow setting a beer down on unsettling phrases like "he won't buy the cow if he gets the milk for free."
The humor here - such as it is - tends toward a sweet-sour quality reminiscent of Larry David (of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame), a comedian to whom Feuerstein reluctantly allows she has some affinity. What saves these cards from being obnoxious and gives them unusual charm is the high quality of their production. Feuerstein uses excellent paper stocks, her choice of type fonts and ink color are splendid, and she's craftily juxtaposed 21st-century slang with a nearly medieval form of type-setting.
Letterpress, or printing from raised type, looks "hand-made" because it is. Each sheet of paper is fed by hand into a printing press as it opens and closes ("like a clam," Feuerstein explained). Rollers re-ink the type on each pass. The result is a deep de-boss - or the reverse of an emboss, where ink sits on top - as ink is literally pressed into paper.
The technique dates to Johannes Gutenberg, who invented it in Mainz, Germany in the mid-1400s, after which letterpress was the world's primary means of mass communication for well over five centuries. Gutenberg, of course, used letterpress to print the Bible, not a cocktail coaster that smirkingly inquires "you're wearing that?"
"To have a gutsy little phrase like this done in letterpress is very sneaky," said Steve Baker, who sells Feuerstein's cards at his shop, Wholly Terra, in Hampden. (They are also available locally at Simply Noted in Belvedere Square and In Watermelon Sugar in Hampden.) "But that is Kat's sense of humor. She has this quality of 'I'm making a joke, and I'm not going to laugh, but I want to see if you will.' Nothing is thrown in your face. I think the cards are hilarious. Then again, my wife hates them."
'Learn to crack wise'
Feuerstein, born Kathleen Gallagher, grew up in West Chester, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. Raised a Roman Catholic, she attended Bishop Shanahan Parochial School from first through 12th grades.
With her reddish-brown hair now cut into a bob, blue eyes sparkling mischievously behind studious eyewear, it's easy to imagine Feuerstein, 31, as a good little bad girl, dressed in a plaid school uniform, making sotto-voce comments behind the nuns' backs. It was the sort of environment, she acknowledged, where you either "drink the Kool-Aid, or learn to crack wise."
After attending the Pennsylvania School of Art and Design in Lancaster for three years, she moved to Baltimore in 1996, to study graphic design at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "I became fascinated by the ability to communicate through art, and how powerful a printed message could be."
She found herself particularly drawn both to obscure masters of typography like Herb Lubalin (best-known for album covers of jazz singers such as Sarah Vaughan) and the internationally-recognized Milton Glaser, who created the groundbreaking design of New York Magazine and ads for companies like Volkswagen.
After graduating from MICA in 1999, Feuerstein produced designs for local firms such as Raymond Geddes & Company, a school supply manufacturer, and Visionmark Communications, but she grew bored by corporate life and the monotony of working on computers. When the wife of one of her colleagues bought a letterpress printer, Feuerstein asked if she could experiment with it.
"It was my chance to get back to the roots of graphic design, and really get my hands dirty," she said. "Maybe it's just the control freak in me, but being able to both design and actually print things myself ... well, this is where I needed to be."
Gilah Press creates birth announcements, personal stationery and party save-the-dates, though about three-fourths of its business is wedding invitations. Working with young couples, Feuerstein enjoys ferreting out what type, graphic pun intended, of people they are.
"My wedding was at The Museum of Industry, which practically yells out for a San Serif typeface, but if someone's getting married at the Episcopal cathedral, they're probably going to want script."
Feuerstein and her husband, Adam, an accountant, married three years ago and live with their two cats, Mel and Rio, in Hampden. During their courtship, she converted from Catholicism to Judaism, whereupon she assumed the Hebrew name Gilah, which means Joy.
Joy is a nice word, certainly, for a person or a company, but it seems rather tame for someone with as acerbic a wit as Feuerstein. "I picked it, I guess, because it sounded a little like Gallagher," she said. Her delivery is deadpan; it's a little hard to tell if she's joking or being serious.
"Kat's life is complicated, which is where a lot of her humor comes from," says her friend Shauna Leavey. "She has a very large family and has to deal with a billion different personalities. She's developed this kind of 'take it or leave it' attitude."
Like it or not, Feuerstein may have to "take" her growing popularity as a designer.
Response at the Stationery show was just as strong as her earlier foray at Hon Fest. In four days of exhibiting, Gilah Press wrote sizable orders for stores as far away as Boston, Dallas, San Diego and Honolulu.
Typical, perhaps, of Feuerstein's new fans was a middle-aged woman who entered Gilah's display booth one afternoon and admired the Female Dog line of cards, all neatly strung out on a wire like clean laundry. She admired the paper, typography, and eventually leaned in to read a card where the word "Fabulous!" was undercut by the phrase, "you're finally out of the closet!"
Surprised, the woman nearly choked with laughter. "Oh, that's awful," she said. "I mean so awful, it's wonderful!"
Despite herself, Feuerstein nearly blushed. The bad girl had done good. "Thank you," she said.
To learn more about Kat Feuerstein, visit gilahpress.com.
Pennsylvania Academy of Art and Design; 1999 graduate, Maryland Institute College of Art
Husband Adam Feuerstein, two cats