Paper Swoon

Emilie Dulles’ exquisite stationery sets the tone for life’s most memorable events

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You probably remember the last time you received a beautiful, hand-penned note or an over-sized, heavy-in-your-hand, engraved invitation. It most likely stood out amongst the usual sprawl of mail, its hand-lettering and thick, textural paper singing out for you to open it first. A fine piece of stationery is a sensory experience, one that allows us to pause and appreciate a tradition rare in today’s hurried digital world.

It’s those moments that stationery designer and protocol expert Emilie Dulles takes great pleasure in creating, conveying their importance with elegantly subdued designs that resonate with both giver and recipient.

“I have a deep respect for the old-world appreciation of handwritten correspondence, invitations and thank-you notes,” Dulles says. “A well-made invitation suite sets the tone for an event, makes a positive statement about the hosts and suggests what it will feel like to be there.”

The Dulles family lived in Switzerland when Emilie was a girl. Starting at the age of nine, she traveled to 100-year-old printing facilities and trade fairs throughout Europe and the United States, gaining an understanding of formal social events and traditional printing techniques. Dulles attended the American School in London, and graduated from Princeton University in 2003. Her family’s Washington, D.C. connections (yes, she’s related to the late Secretary of State John Foster Dulles) mean that many of her clients are from the Capitol region. As a result, she’s had to learn everything from how to address an invitation for a 5-star general to how to seat guests according to military or diplomatic protocol. Given her international background, it’s not surprising that she speaks five languages.

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With looks that seem to come straight out of the Tudor era—porcelain-white skin, vibrant auburn hair, green eyes and her signature fiery red lipstick—Dulles embodies her refined, traditional brand.

Since 1989, her family’s business, Dulles Designs, has been known for its ability to handle guest lists for events that are as private as they are elegant. For these events, Dulles’ expertise doesn’t stop with a gorgeous invitation. She triple-checks the guest list for embarrassing errors (changes in title or marital status, for example) and ensures all necessary protocols are followed. All this, she says, is “part art, part science”—and certainly more than the average card shop or graphic designer is willing to handle.

Often Dulles helps a client establish a tasteful theme for an event. Take a wedding, for example. Convinced that proper planning is the key to a stress-free event, Dulles designs a printed “suite” of stationery products—from save-the-date cards to invitations and thank-you notes. Next, she collaborates with top event planners and her clients on style, wording and proper etiquette. As she puts it, “I set the tone, select color palettes and communicate your gathering on paper so it unfolds with less stress and more joy.”

The first step in working with Dulles is to schedule a phone conversation about the project being imagined. Is it a wedding for 500 guests or a new business card for five partners? This leads to a face-to-face meeting, if possible, during which Dulles and her client review the relevant décor, photos or samples. Private appointments are available in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Charlotte, N.C.; Charleston/Kiawah; and Palm Beach, F.L. But thanks to email and express delivery services, Dulles finds it easy to communicate with clients anywhere in the world.

Different stationery projects require different printing techniques. Much depends on aesthetics and production parameters. Engraving makes use of steel or copper plates to give the fonts a 3-D effect. Plate pressure on the paper raises the type and leaves a distinctive bruise on the reverse side of the paper. Letterpress, on the other hand, pushes the ink deep into the paper, making an impression. Hand-lettering is another, even more personalized option. Envelopes are hand-addressed by one of 13 professional calligraphers, ensuring each piece is one of a kind. Dulles even hand-cancels envelopes from historic post offices. Improper capitalization or crooked stamps are never tolerated.

“It’s akin to having a tailor make your clothing—we offer that level of customization and white glove service for your life’s most significant moments.” Often the relationship starts with a wedding, then grows to include a holiday card, birth announcement, party invitations—even estate stationery for summer and winter homes.

“Emilie is delightful to work with,” says one longtime client. “We are so grateful for her expert advice, problem solving skills, gift ideas and professionalism. She goes the extra mile.”

Known for her ability to source unique, high-quality products, Dulles recently released a line of gift sets she calls “bento boxes” that present a mixture of couture gifts. Customized bento boxes might include Bernard Maisner stationery, a leather clutch, custom cocktail napkins, a gourmet food item or a sumptuous candle. Bento boxes are especially popular as bridal party, hostess and holiday gifts.

“When you’re hosted generously by extraordinary people, a bento box is a more bespoke way to say ‘thank you’ than a hand-written note,” says Dulles. “Giving a curated suite of experiences instead of just one gift is the new way to ‘wow,’” she notes.

Like Dulles’ stationery designs, these boxes are a swoon-worthy gift that celebrates the recipient and leaves a lasting impression.