Personal and vintage, how a Christmas greeting becomes 'a piece of art'

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Posted: Monday, December 23, 2013 12:00 am

She could have made a viral video of her family members jiving in their jammies.

She could have sent a glossy discount-store photo card, at 28 cents apiece and ready in an hour.

Instead, Laura Winjum of Lincoln turned to an older, slower and more expensive form of holiday greeting, one she said has become a family tradition and creates a unique card that she considers a gift to her friends.

Letterpress cards, created on century-old, three-quarter-ton presses, have become popular among a select group of individuals and businesses willing to pay more for a personal greeting that stands out as both retro and fresh among a growing array of holiday greeting card options. Shops in Lincoln and Omaha print the cards and offer custom design services.

“It's a piece of art,” Winjum said of her cards, which cost about $10 apiece. She knows of people who have used her card as a tree ornament.

She started working months ago, with her graphic-designer brother and Porridge Papers in Lincoln, to create the three-layer card. There's the letterpress card itself, with two colors and an intricate design of trees, snowflakes, birds and holly. Then she layered on a black-and-white family photo, with husband Doug, a physician, and daughters Ava, 11, and Ella, 10.

Those pieces are tied together with a red raffia ribbon and finished with a letterpress tag, with a script “Merry Christmas” in red ink, all tucked into a red, hand-addressed envelope.

Porridge owner Christopher James readied a run of 40 more cards Dec. 16 after Winjum realized she hadn't ordered enough with the first printing of 105. He gathered a stack of thick, white cardstock, made by hand in his shop from recycled paper, smeared a layer of red ink onto the plate of his vintage Chandler & Price press, and flipped a retrofitted switch. A leather belt whirred, wheels spun, oily gears turned and James placed cards one by one to be stamped, in red, “The Winjums.”

Winjum, a community volunteer and arts supporter, said it's a way to support a local business and create a Christmas tradition for her family. With written communication in decline and fewer holiday cards in her mailbox than in the past, Winjum said creating her cards lets her reflect on the year and brings her joy, especially when people call and say, “Your card really meant a lot to me.”

Christmas cards make up a quarter of the 6.5 billion greeting cards Americans buy a year, according to industry group the Greeting Card Association. Those numbers include just boxed and single cards sold in stores, not the popular photo cards and other personalized cards sold online by big retailers like Walmart and smaller specialty businesses like TinyPrints, which has seen double-digit customer and order growth in recent years.

Greeting card revenue as a whole is declining at 3.1 percent a year, with the biggest competition coming from online substitutes, according to IBISWorld market research. Major card makers are creating new higher-tech cards that include voice recordings and LCD screens that display digital photos. Such a card can cost $10 and more.

Letterpress customers can spend as much, but they are the anti-digital customers.

“Right now I feel like there is a push against the digital landscape,” said Nate Perry, who worked with Porridge Papers to create a unique letterpress holiday card for clients of Webster Design in Omaha, where he is senior art director. “Someone who actually takes the time to mail something, it means something. They actually went through the work.”

Webster Design this year is continuing a long tradition of sending a three-dimensional holiday greeting. This year, current and prospective clients will get a limited-edition tin airplane toy, in a round metal container, with letterpressed paper labels. It was the first year Webster has used letterpress, and Perry said it gives the gift a vintage, artistic feel.

“We're just trying to cut through the clutter of communication, which is really at the basis of what advertising and design is,” he said.

Aside from letterpress, individuals and businesses looking for a high-end card might choose engraved or die-cut cards, printers said.

A personalized, engraved Crane's stationery card might cost $2.50 up to $12.50 per card, said Jane Morinelli, owner of Tourek Engraving, started by her grandfather 96 years ago.

Sandy Barnhart at Barnhart Press, which handles holiday cards for businesses including Union Pacific, First National Bank and HDR, offers letterpress, die-cut and other techniques. She said metallic papers and inks are popular this year, but that while businesses are still sending cards, they are being more conservative, ordering fewer cards and not using embossing and foil-stamping techniques as much.

With postage rates rising, companies that order cards by the thousands are also looking to use less paper overall: “They make sure to stay under that ounce.”

A new option this year in Omaha is a letterpressed card that has a photograph printed right on it.

“We were able to get the photo printed on a super double-thick paper, and we're able to letterpress on the paper,” said Lesley Pick, owner of Inclosed letterpress studio. The cards cost about $3 apiece.

Portrait photographer Linda Gentry, who has used Pick's services before, used the photo card in an unexpected way for her own family Christmas greeting this year.

It started when her son was born seven months ago and her husband, John Gentry, a pathologist, was so tired from taking care of the baby that he stopped shaving.

“He turned 40 and needed to conserve sleep,” Linda Gentry said. “Pretty soon he was growing a beard and lots of people were making comments about it.”

The beard became like a fifth member of the family, she said, with friends joking about it when photos showed up on Facebook. This fall, Linda was out jogging with some girlfriends and they decided that on Gentry's Christmas card, the whole family should wear beards — including Gentry, 4-year-old June, and baby Alec.

“Next thing you know, I was home crocheting beards,” Gentry said.

Professional photographer friend Amanda Fish took the shot, which Gentry said turned out to be have an ironic twist — a traditional family photo pose, on a high-quality card, but everyone has a beard.

The message? “Sending you warm and fuzzy holiday wishes this season.”

Friends who have gotten the card, “They had to do a double-take,” Gentry said. “They pulled it out and they laughed and laughed.”

Letterpress isn't for everyone because of the cost, Gentry said. She loves to send the pretty paper, but looks forward to all the cards she gets, whether they're a quick Walgreens photo card or a traditional card with school pictures tucked inside.

Her list is growing, and the more she sends out, she said, the more she receives. She's run out of the 125 beard cards she made, and while she isn't sure how she'll top that next year, “Next year we'll probably order 150.”

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