Fashion

07.10.13

Terrapin Stationers, the Most Badass New Stationer

Terrapin Stationers, which now makes stationery that says things like ‘FUCK OFF’ and ‘Cool Story Bro,’ found a little self-degradation was just what the business needed.
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The phrase “fuck off” is the last thing one would expect to see printed on a business card. The point of those obsolete-yet-charming remnants of a time before iPhones is to get the person to call you back, right?

That may be. But in the past four years, 100-year-old hand engraver Terrapin Stationers has built a business out of off-colorisms, attracting New York’s media elite, fashion editors, and even specialty retailers like Club Monaco.

The man behind “Thanks for All the Shit You Do” stationery, “Cool Story Bro” business cards, and “WTF” stamps is 47-year-old Ted Harrington, who joined the family business in 1986, when it was still simply known as Stationers & Engraving Co. In 1990 Harrington and his parents, Lloyd and Cathy, bought Stationers from the original owners, whom Lloyd had worked with for many years.

Back then Stationers catered to bankers and lawyers who probably read American Psycho a few too many times and were obsessed with card stock. But America was going through a great recession then, too, and right around the time the Harringtons took over, the business fell apart. “It was a bloodbath,” Harrington says. To compensate, he contacted design firms and friends in creative fields. “We replaced all of the big billing with small businesses: single-practitioner attorneys, architects. And in the mid-’90s, we got involved with social stationery.” Suddenly the company was tasked with the invites for socialite fashion designer Lillian Wang von Stauffenberg’s 1998 wedding and Style.com’s 2000 launch party. Marc Jacobs and Bergdorf Goodman were frequent clients.

The mix of small, stodgy businesses and glamorous retailers worked for another decade—until 2009, when the bottom fell out again. This time people weren’t only cutting back on personal stationery, they were also cutting back on Christmas parties, fashion shows, and other events that had become a major part of Stationers’ business. As a rib-nudging joke, Harrington sent each of his clients a calling card engraved with “WTF,” as in, “Where the fuck are you?” But instead of simply complimenting Harrington on his clever move, customers began asking if they could buy a set for themselves. By this point Harrington’s father had retired. With his mother running the wedding-invitation side of the business, Harrington decided to rebrand the company Terrapin, after the Grateful Dead album. (Jerry Garcia had ordered turtle-engraved stationery from the company just months before his death in 1995.)

There’s a “YOLO” notepad (embracing the meme “You Only Live Once”), an “I Want to Nail You” gift enclosure, and a “MARRIED” business card for warding off creeps.

Simultaneously Harrington reached out to menswear blogger Michael Williams of A Continuous Lean. “I said to him, ‘We’re dying here. Why don’t you come in and maybe write a piece or something on our engraving business?’” Williams ran a story on the site highlighting the company’s incredible archives and hand-engraving machinery and also asked Harrington to bring some stationery to his annual Pop Up Flea in New York City, a holiday-season gathering of menswear-focused brands. “I boxed up all these fly fishing lure cards, hunting cards, mixed them up with craft envelopes, lined them in camo,” Harrington says.

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Soon enough, the engraver was selling social stationery at wholesale, with the designs growing darker and more satirical as the years passed. The latest offerings include neon-pink hand-grenade notecards (paired with envelopes lined in neon-yellow paper), as well as cards adorned with a silver straight razor, a Mary Jane leaf, or a brass knuckle ring. There’s even a “YOLO” notepad (embracing the meme “You Only Live Once”), an “I Want to Nail You” gift enclosure, and a “MARRIED” business card for warding off creeps. Romantics among Terrapin’s hard-edged following might appreciate the “Will You Marry Me?” card. “Propose to the Love of your life, your best friend, your bedmate, or even the random person you woke up next to after a night that you can't remember with our 2.5x3.5 folded card,” reads the sales description.

While the increase in business has been great for Terrapin, Harrington—a grosgrain-belt, khaki-clad guy from Connecticut—seems genuinely thrilled by the fact that young, well-dressed guys are into the stuff. “We’re in a really cool period where men in their early ’20s—not country-club kids, maybe, but aspirational—care about what they’re wearing. It hasn’t been like this since the mid-’80s,” he says.

The menswear crowd—who are obsessed with all things heritage, camo, and the F word—fell fast in love with Terrapin. And they fell equally in love with Harrington, too.

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“The reason why the way Ted does things resonates with what’s happening now in the menswear market is because people are taking more time to think about what they buy. Hand engraving is an infrequently used, laborious process. There’s an extremely personalized factor to it,” says Club Monaco VP of men’s design Aaron Levine, who collaborated with Harrington on a set of cards for the retailer’s “Makers & Muses” series. “And it helps that Ted probably one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. He’s a stud.”

But while his work does skew towards the masculine, Harrington has women in mind, too. For the second time, he’s collaborating with designer Tory Burch on a set of calendars—with a fivefold increase in volume from last year.

And maybe in the most full-circle moment of his career, Harrington connected with Lisa Birnbach, whose book The Official Preppy Handbook served as a not-so-satirical bible for those lawyers and bankers with whom Harrington came up. The two collaborate on one-off projects, with the possibility of a preppy-branded line in the future. “I don’t want this to sound like a Vows column, but I really felt like I understood him, and he understood me,” Birnbach says of their meeting two years ago. “I think that he’s not just about menswear, even though he’s been very successful in that world. He may be a guy’s guy, but his stuff is incredibly appealing to women, too.”