Pressed with Care: Custom Stationer Decree Company

This passionate team of illustrators and artisans uses 100-year old machines to create custom invitations and cards in its downtown studio.
by Colony Little | photography by Rob Hammer

The storefront window at Decree Company frames a Chandler & Price letterpress machine that is more than 100 years old. There, you can witness the oversize flywheel of the press whirl into action. It sets three rollers in motion that spread ink onto a large, round plate, then deposit the ink onto a template.

The operator then inserts a piece of paper in front of the template and pulls a crank arm; this presses the ink and image deep into the paper. “We love people watching what we do. It’s like a functional museum,” says Tracy Taylor, a master engraver in the studio.

In an age of instant communication, a handwritten letter is a gift, for both the writer and the recipient. “I think every time I’ve sent a written letter or thank-you, my anxiety reduces as I’m thinking about that other person; there’s something more to it than just hitting ‘send,’” says Decree co-owner Ryan Dart. “I think that that feeling comes across to the person who receives it also.”  The team at Decree Company is in the business of creating magical moments with paper. All of the store’s stationery is designed and created in its Martin Street studio.

Dart, along with co-owner Robert Buhler, founded the business in 2020, originally operating out of an old warehouse space; the two opened this flagship store in 2022. 

The studio boutique specializes in handcrafted, bespoke stationery designed and created by a passionate team of illustrators and artisans. Their designs range from whimsical and graphic to gilded and classic. According to Buhler, personalized stationery is extremely popular right now. And it takes a village to create them: illustrators, graphic designers, machine operators and engraving specialists among them. 

The process begins with a consultation with lead designer Madeleine Albright, who studied animation and illustration at North Carolina State University. “I wanted to work with Robert and Ryan because I knew this would be heavy in illustration with the creative process,” she says. “They allowed me the creative freedom to have fun with it.” As a graphic designer and an illustrator, Albright can create intricately drawn designs like floral arrangements, pet portraits or replicas of the lace pattern from a wedding gown.

Once the design is created, the image is transferred to a template through a chemical process called etching, which burns images onto a copper plate. These plates are used with letterpress printing, which uses the machine to push the inked image into paper. 

A more specialized process called engraving is sort of the opposite of letterpress: instead of pushing the design into the paper, a machine creates a raised impression of the image in ink. The machinery, process and materials in the engraving process are more involved and time consuming than traditional letterpress.

It requires two plates, a negative and a positive, to push the image forward from the back and deposit the ink into the page from the front. But engraving supports the use of fine typefaces and intricately drawn templates that result in a refined, luxurious feel. Decree frequently uses inks infused with gold and silver, which add light and a sculptural quality to the designs.

Taylor is sort of an omni-craftsman: he came to Decree with experience in printmaking, ceramics and, strangely enough, cheese (he was also a cheesemonger for six and half years). “This trade is something I’ve always appreciated — I’ve done screen printing, lithography and intaglio printing, but this kind of fabrication is special,” says Taylor. “Working with an artisan craft that has stood the test of time — it’s such a unique visceral experience, it’s all tactile.” 

While traditional printing and letterpress techniques each offer advantages in time and cost, the beauty of engraving lies in craftsmanship and passion that goes into it. While there are printing guilds and trade groups, the Decree team perfected its techniques in-house. “It’s a very difficult process, but the final product is absolutely stunning,” says Buhler. 

For visitors to the store who are interested in experiencing the craft of letterpress, Decree also offers group classes in the shop. As Valentine’s Day approaches, visitors can take a class to create something unique for a special loved one. Taylor recalled one memorable class: “Last year we had a writing group come in at the beginning of February and after everyone printed cards, they had each person write a love note. That was such a fun collaboration.” 

For each team member at Decree, the rewards of their distinct line of work vary. For Albright, it’s the role she plays in commemorating important events through paper. “I love talking to a client about whatever they’re excited about for their life,” she says.

Taylor noted a surprising outcome that comes from facing the challenges he encounters mastering this craft form. “Even when I’m working through problems like having to fix a machine or something, it’s fun,” he says. “We are merely stewards of these machines, and that’s one of the things that I really love about our ethos: we’re trying to help keep a craft alive.” 

He and Dart both relish pulling a page off the press. “Madeleine produces some things that are just so adorable,” says Taylor. “There was a woman who once got some stationery of her two dogs, and every time I printed it, it was just so funny seeing their little faces. I don’t think we could ever get tired of flipping over a piece of paper and not love what we’re doing.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.