On the Wire: Celebrating World Stationery Day with Thornwillow

Today, guest blogger, Sarah Schwartz, editor of Stationery Trends and The Paper Chronicles, profiles Luke Pontifell and Thornwillow Press to celebrate the First Annual World Stationery Day.

Thornwillow Press in Newburgh, NY for Orange Magazine

The UK has given American design lovers so much. From Alexander McQueen to Stella McCartney, Cath Kidston to Katie Leamon, the British perspective always feels fresh and unexpected to those of us living stateside.

More recently the British, through Chris Leonard-Morgan of the London Stationery Show, have given us World Stationery Day — and today is the first-ever celebration!

To commemorate it, we wanted to share a very special member of the stationery scene on this side of the pond.

Founded in 1985 by Luke Ives Pontifell as a passion project, Thornwillow Press is a printer and publisher of handmade limited-edition books, letterpress printer, custom bookbinder, and engraver of fine stationery, wedding invitations and business cards. Each piece is created with a mission of enhancing the relationship between the reader and the written word.

“In this age of disposable and intangible communications where we delete our correspondence, turn books on and off with a switch and store our memories in a cloud, Thornwillow is dedicated to celebrating the written word, to making objects that last, that memorialize personal moments and public events, that define private, individual as well as universal, cultural identity,” he explained.

So, at Thornwillow you can find a rebind of Scribner’s 75th Anniversary Edition of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Limited to just seven copies, it is crafted of blue Moroccan goatskin and leather and presented in a blue clamshell box. Meanwhile, Thornwillow’s identity cards are diminutive engraved masterpieces, tucked into sleek letterpress matchbook cases.

Experiencing these and Thornwillow’s many other meticulously printed pieces — from broadsides to wedding invitations, bookplates to notecards with tissue-lined envelopes — one cannot help but have a fresh appreciation for the silent power and timeless beauty of the meticulously printed page.

It’s not surprising that Thornwillow books are in the permanent collections of The British Museum, The Morgan Library, The Metropolitan Museum, The Vatican and The White House. Clients include several U.S. Presidents, The Queen of England, numerous senators and congressmen, Bette Midler, Robert DeNiro, Oprah Winfrey, David Mamet, Cindy Crawford, Brooke Shields, Carolina Herrera, The Federal Reserve, The State Department and The Frick Museum. Meanwhile, Thornwillow has also worked with Montblanc, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Piaget, Dunhill, The St. Regis, Ralph Lauren and Rolls Royce.

With such a reverence for all things printed, it’s not too surprising that every page Thornwillow prints on is from Mohawk. “Everything that Thornwillow makes is intended to last, to communicate not just for the moment, but to endure,” he told me. “Paper is at the core of this entire endeavor. Excellent paper, Mohawk Paper, is central to our mission.”

I interviewed Pontifell to learn more about his perspective, press and papers:

Thornwillow Press in Newburgh, NY for Orange Magazine

Your site describes your falling in love with printing and hand-binding books during summer vacations from Harvard, although you printed your first book well before then. Can you share how this first tome came about — and what are your most vivid recollections from those summers?

I started Thornwillow when I was 16 after taking a course in letterpress printing at the Center for Book Arts in NYC. I printed the first book, a children’s book by a family friend, set the type by hand, sewed the copies on the kitchen table at the house in Massachusetts and carried them to bookstores to see if any would take them for sale …  and some did.

I gave a copy of the first book to William L. Shirer, a family friend who was a CBS correspondent in Berlin before WWII and author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. He gave me a monograph he had written on the dropping of the atom bomb (to print). I was 17. That was the second book.

In college the hobby evolved into a little business. I spent a great deal of time at Houghton Library, the rare book collection. I took many courses with Roger Stoddard, the curator of rare books, and Rodney Dennis, the curator of manuscripts. These courses and the opportunity to study firsthand the greatest books ever printed — from the Guttenberg Bible and the Nuremberg Chronicle to the first editions of Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby — were the inspiration for my life’s work for the past 30 years.

I wrote Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. asking if he would agree to let me print something of his. He sent a manuscript on JFK that we published to commemorate the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination.

A year later I wrote Walter Cronkite, who agreed to let us print a book on his reminiscences on the first moon landing, which he covered and was especially passionate about. The final book during this time was a volume with Helmut Kohl on German unification. I had written to Chancellor Kohl through the consul in Boston, and he agreed to meet when he was at Harvard to deliver the commencement address. Chancellor Kohl agreed to let me publish his speech in which he laid out his vision for Germany and Europe, all of which came to be, and he signed and dated copies of the edition on the day of German Unification.

Thornwillow Press in Newburgh, NY for Orange Magazine

What’s behind the name Thornwillow?

I was born in New York City and raised in both New York and the Berkshires in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Thornwillow is named after the house there. It was there that I installed my first press in the barn, a Vandercook Universal I, which we still use every day today.

The house is an 18th-century farmhouse that my parents restored. Growing up in a house and with objects that were there long before you were and will (exist) long after you are gone was a great inspiration for me and my pursuit of fine printing. The books we make, I hope, will be here long after we are gone and carry the ideas on their pages to readers yet unborn.

Thornwillow Press in Newburgh, NY for Orange Magazine

Thornwillow is committed to enhancing the relationship between the reader and the written word, and as such its offerings include a letterpressed series of libretti, or little books. How do you pick selections?

Thornwillow’s publication agenda is far more than just the Libretto series. I love the Libretti. They are inspired by the chapbooks printed by Virginia and Leonard Wolff at their Hogarth Press (the first edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was one in this series). They are little volumes having one monograph, essay, reminiscence, short story, etc. One read, but in a form that you want to keep. The object is part of the experience.

Our publications also include larger-format books, leather-bound, numbered and signed by the authors as well as prints and art portfolios. Thornwillow books are eclectic. We have published volumes of poetry by James Merrill, Mark Strand and Catulus; fiction by J.P. Donleavy, Louis Auchincloss, David Mamet, Peter Matthiessen, and John Updike; history by Edmund Morris, Arthur M. Schlesinger, David Donald, and William vanden Heuvel; observations by political and social leaders like Helmut Kohl, Barack Obama, Chief Justice Warren Burger, Harry Belafonte and Walter Cronkite.

They are united by the design and craftsmanship with which they are made. The hope is that a shelf of Thornwillow books will be seen as more than the sum of its parts, and the collection will serve to communicate ideas that matter and should be preserved to audiences in a format that enhances the relationship between the reader and the written word.

In the end, I publish what I like, content that excites me and I hope will be exciting to our collectors and will be worthy of being turned to again in the future. In a sense, you might consider our books to be like time capsules, volumes that preserve today’s ideas for future readers.


What sort of Old-World processes go into Thornwillow offerings?

Design and craftsmanship is central to everything we do. An object you can touch and hold and the physical interaction with that object is integral to the experience of its beauty.

We practice a number of crafts at Thornwillow. The craft of design and typesetting, plate making, letterpress printing, engraving, paste paper making, leather binding and boxmaking, restoration, even envelope making. In addition to the 32+ historic printing presses, the hand bookbinding tools, and the myriad of machines and equipment, we collect the crafts themselves. We collect and perpetuate the crafts related to the written word. We train and teach these crafts so they are not forgotten. These crafts are critical to our daily work. They are part of our identity.

Hermès was a saddle maker and harness maker, and when the horse stopped being the commodity vehicle that took you from one place to another, Hermès became about identity. The same is true now for Thornwillow.

The book or the letter is no longer the commodity “vehicle” to get an idea from one place to another. Today these objects become about identity. Who am I, what do I care about, what do I want you to remember in the future about me and the ideas that are part of our time.

All our Identity Papers — Our Identity Cards, Identity Notes, and Identity Books — are personal, tactile expressions of who you are. They’re antidotes to the anonymity of the Internet.

Thornwillow Press in Newburgh, NY for Orange Magazine

I love how your identity cards utilize both letterpress — in the sweet little matchboxes — and engraving in the cards themselves. What inspired this distinctive form?

I love matchboxes. I have collected them from hotels, restaurants, bars, old boxes from places now long gone. I even have one from the Stork Club. I love the size, they fit into a pocket, your hand, they feel good. And they are perfectly sized for a calling card for modern times.

Today, all you need to give someone is your name and perhaps a cell phone or email … or a hashtag or web address. To give something that will last, is special to the touch, tactile, beautiful and will not be thrown out becomes a powerful way of communicating. They combine exceptional craftsmanship with elegant and eye- catching design with true functionality. There is nothing like them. (They are) far more useful than an ordinary business card.

And … you can design them at home, at two in the morning, while in your pajamas. Our new online design system puts the power of custom design into your hands. This new technology bridges Thornwillow’s world of craftsmanship and design with the Internet age. On our website you can choose ink colors, fonts, you can even send us your own drawing or design that we will engrave and stamp on your cards.

The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Some people are using them as a change of address, or a party invitation, or a birth announcement. Others are creating mixed packs (eight different cards in a box) to use as a promotion or party favor. And one person has created a box of cards to function as their wedding invitation.

Thornwillow Press in Newburgh, NY for Orange Magazine


You say your many, many presses tell a story as much as anything they print. How many do you have total, and can you share an example of a story they tell that most of us are unaware of? 

We have 32 presses running on the pressroom floor and more in storage. It is a bit of a sickness of mine. I collect these old machines the way other people might collect cars. They are beautiful works of art in themselves. They need to be saved. They are irreplaceable.

One large format die stamping press on the floor is originally from the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. It is the largest format press of its kind and was used to print government bonds and certificates in the 1920s. We use it today to print illustrations for our books, large format invitations … and just recently printed a series of architectural drawings of the U.S. Capitol for Congress.


To your mind, how can paper selection make a given design really shine?

Engraving is to thermography as silk is to polyester.

Fine paper is to ebook as culture is to reality TV.


How do you define a winning paper? What tends to catch your eye?

 In the Internet age, paper is more relevant than ever. Good paper, I should say, is more relevant than ever. In the universe of virtual experiences, the experience of touch matters. How does it feel in your hand, catch your eye, how does it hold ink, how does it sound when you snap the corner of a card, fold a sheet of paper or open an envelope?

Paper is like fabric… it has a “hand.” It interacts with you not just visually, but physically. An evite or an ebook can’t do that.

Thornwillow Press in Newburgh, NY for Orange Magazine

What types of papers are you liking most these days?

I personally love soft papers that enable you to feel and see the impression of letterpress and engraving. We paste layers of 100-pound cover to form very thick cards that will show our hand applied edge stain or gilt edges. The paper should be soft, but not floppy. It must still have snap and body.

I especially like Mohawk’s vellum finishes. Via Vellum is one of my favorites. I am also very enthusiastic about the new letterpress papers that they have been developing that have almost a mouldmade feel to the finish.

I particularly love how the letterpress papers work as covers on our Identity Books. They engrave beautifully and have a soft touch, but are also sturdy and hold up to use.

A special, limited-time offer for Felt & Wire Readers: Thornwillow wants to celebrate National Stationery Day with you. Order your own set of Identity Cards and enter the discount code Mohawk99 at checkout for a special price of $99 ( regular price is $135).  Hurry, this offer ends on May 13th!

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