A Striking Birthday Invitation: Chen, with help from her son, Nick, prepares a pinata for mailing — knock it open and event details will fall out.
A Striking Birthday Invitation: Chen, with help from her son, Nick, prepares a pinata for mailing — knock it open and event details will fall out.

Emily Post and Miss Manners need not be troubled that etiquette and social graces are defunct. They only need to visit the showroom of Joy Cards on Chambers Street to see that creativity and correspondence are alive and well. Open by appointment only, the shop’s displays overflow with unique, artful designs for invitations and all the other items needed for successful celebrations.

Owner Joy Chen has an eye for detail, developed over 20 years of creating the perfect printed stock for clients, And she has developed a strong sense of etiquette and the value people place on print. Often etiquette gets only a nod. One surprising and particularly impersonal trend is to merely send a photo card with a generic “thanks for coming” text in place of a personal thank you for a wedding gift. Did the couple even open the gift? There is no way of knowing.

“For important occasions, nothing can replace the rich tactile feel of a unique design,” says Chen. “Online e-vites are easily deleted. Printing from a website cannot be personalized because your are ilimited by that site’s fonts and colors. Photographs cannot easily be enhanced,” she says.

“With custom designs, the note, invitation, or stationery makes a connection with the sender and the recipient. A piece of mail physically represents the sender who has actually handled it. The recipient participates by the very act of opening the envelope.”

Much of what Chen creates are works of art in and of themselves. These invitations will never be deleted or thrown away.

“My goal is to guide clients on what is right for them. Many commercial designs and papers are perfect for a particular need. If it works, then we do it. Price is a factor and I strive to be mindful of that so all my clients can express themselves reasonably.”

However, custom pieces cannot be mass produced. Each design can mean hundreds of identical, perfect miniature works of art. “The 199th piece must be as perfect as the first,” Chen says. “The recipient will never compare all the others. Hers is the only one she sees and who wants a smudge or an errant cut on an otherwise amazing piece.”

The level of care does affect the cost of the final product. Some large commissions that entail multiple components or elaborate pop-up effects can run into the thousands of dollars. One very elaborate invitation and accompanying post-event thank you notes cost around $5,000.

But celebrations deserve such attention to detail. “If an event calls for something unique, then everyone gets involved. This is especially true for kids. They take great pride in participating in the design for their parties. Often they want coordinated thank you cards and even custom stamps. Parents are increasingly ordering personalized stationary for their sons as well as their daughters.”

The Wow Factor: Old fashioned ViewFinders, containing the invitation details, helped make a Bar Mitzvah special before it even began. Thank you notes came as another slide to view.
The Wow Factor: Old fashioned ViewFinders, containing the  nvitation details, helped make a Bar Mitzvah special before it even began. Thank you notes came as another slide to view.

And kids do send thank you cards. These can be as unique as the hosts themselves. One of the most elaborate commissions for Chen was the invitations and thank yous for a Bar Mitzvah for a vintage car enthusiast. The invitations were reproduction ViewMasters, those toys from the 1950s that are the precursors of Virtual Reality, with photos of cars and the event details. A second wheel of photos taken at the event in all its excitement followed as a personalized thank you from the young man. You can’t get much more tactile than that.

“People are much more interested in touching, than in looking today. The paper is richer and clients are more sophisticated about printing technology. Texture is important to them. Letterpress and engraving present a more organic feel.”

Beyond weddings and birthdays, Chen has experienced fascinating customs of several cultures. One such is the Panchalu (Dhoti) ceremony, an Indian coming of age ritual for boys ages 14 to 15. Included on the invitation was an image of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god symbolizing wisdom and learning. This custom is as significant as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, First Communion, or Quinceanera.

Chen’s meticulously crafted couture work highlights her ability to capture the customer’s unique sense of style. “Often I will incorporate a client’s own work of art. If it is a special event, we want to capture the ‘look’ that reveals the person being celebrated.”

Raised in Florida, the daughter of a linguistics professor and his librarian wife, Chen first focused on the sciences. “My brother was already going to be the lawyer, so my family urged me to become the doctor. While I was good at math and science, I wasn’t positive that med school was for me. After graduation from Smith College, I worked for a couple of years at a medical research facility associated with Harvard to see if I was captivated by the profession. The answer was no.”

Encouraged to go on to graduate school, Chen received an MBA from Columbia with a concentration in marketing, perhaps a nod to her creative side. In 1990, while a consultant at Arthur Andersen, she met her husband, a Princeton graduate, also with the firm. They began their family immediately and she chose to stay at home with her daughter.

“My mother was adamant that I have some sort of career. When I pressed her why, she stated that one needed to be ‘something.’ She felt strongly that children need to be able to say `My mom is a ..’.” Because her mother was a skilled seamstress, she had always encouraged Chen to design and create highly personalized clothes and accessories.

That creative side had also been expressed throughout her childhood as a result of a natural frugality that drove her to design her own gifts. The invitations to Chen’s wedding that she and her husband had designed also met with great acclaim from friends and family.

Chen’s husband, Earl, works at Bank of America in risk management. Her daughter acted professionally as a child and, after graduating from Wellesley, now works for a screenwriter/producer in New York City. Chen’s son graduated this year from Princeton Day School and will follow his father’s lead to Princeton University this fall. Each of the children participated in the production of cards and invitations as a way to learn both social graces and the value of exacting standards vital to any profession.

“Customs are changing,” Chen says. “RSVPs are now often included as postcards or via a special E-mail account, rather than cards with their own envelopes. This is a nod to sustainability. For smaller parties, kids do rely on Facebook or text invites.”

But sensibilities are not changing much. Brides will never tire of running their fingers along the back of their embossed invitations to feel the indentations, even when they are getting ready to plan their Golden Anniversary. Proud graduates will always thrill to the heft of the card announcing their newly minted PhD. And doting grandparents will look again and again at the newest family member’s picture long after she’s left for college.

“For important events, everyone is keen on finding their ‘Wow’ factor,” says Chen, “and love knowing that they are creating a memento of the day.”

Joy Cards, 20 Nassau Street, Suite 250. 609-430-0333.