In the Studio with E. Frances Paper

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A collection of the whimsical greeting cards made by Newport, RI–based E. Frances Paper.

“Dontcha just love gumdrops?” Emily Roberts asks me with a wide grin and bright eyes. Her new office space – a former gum ball factory, fittingly, manned by all-female staff that made gum for soldiers during World War II – has a glass cake-tray piled high with them in the middle of the room. I explain that I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I feel like I’m being disappointing, so I eat one anyway. It’s hard to say whether it was the setting, the company, or the candy maker, but it was extraordinarily delicious.

Emily, who goes by Pippi, and her cousins Ali Flippin and Jenni Laundon – who are sisters – launched their stationery company E. Frances Paper in September 2013. The trio, who are made of sugar and spice and everything nice, pretty much finish each others’ sentences; it’s easy to see why they’d go into business together, and to imagine the dance parties that happen when a reporter’s not there.

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Preliminary sketches and paintings are made before a card becomes final.

But this is no saccharine Hallmark collaboration. These self-proclaimed “paper people” – obsessed with everything from card stock to color to envelopes – are turning out gorgeous, high-end designs that are madly funny, modern, delightful, and undeniably adorable. Take, for example, the note card with a chubby bear in tighty-whities, whose expression simply reads “I’ll be brief.” Or the birthday card with a disco ball that instructs the reader to “Dance Hard.” The cards are adorable and sweet, but with a sense of restraint, humor, and sophistication that steers clear of being twee or precious.

Thanks to Ali’s creative skills – she trained as an illustrator at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and was formerly the design director at the Boston Ballet – and Pippi and Jenni’s business acumen, they’ve hit a sweet spot in the market. The business has grown tremendously fast – major retail outlets including ABC Carpet & Home, Paper Source, and the National Gallery of Art, among many others, have scooped up these darling cards, notepads, and other paper goods for their discerning customers. (They’re also available locally at Papers and online.) Hence, the need for the new, bigger office space, this one located near the Naval Station in Newport. It’s a step up from their previous two locations – Pippi’s house and, prior to that, the inside of a storage unit.

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Pippi, Jenni, and Ali (left to right) hold the sign made by Jenni’s husband of wood reclaimed from an 19th-century barn.

Their recipe for success appears to include equal parts girl power, gumdrops, nostalgia, giggles, adorable babies, and teamwork. Imagine stirring together Lemony Snicket‘s whimsy (minus the dark clouds) and Lisa Frank‘s cheer (minus the corniness) and you’ll get an idea of what this workspace is like.

“We always wanted to exploit Ali’s talents,” says Jenni of her sister, jokingly, when asked how they came to to start the business. After going to “paper camp” – a crash course about the stationery industry where she picked up tips on everything from card stocks to packaging to preparing for trade shows – Ali, E. Frances’s creative director, was ready to roll. “Talk about paper dorks!” interjects Jenni, complimentarily, by way of describing her sister’s experience. The newborn company, E. Frances Paper, was named for their grandmothers, Elizabeth and Frances.

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Ali, creative director of E. Frances Paper, sits in her office.

While Ali does the design work – mostly with watercolors – Pippi and Jenni handle operations and sales, respectively, but they all pitch in on creative consultation. “We need all three brains to come up with this stuff,” says Ali. “We have a running list of ideas, but we only use about 10 percent of what we brainstorm. One of us alone could not come up with any of these,” she says, spreading her hands like Vanna White toward their wares.

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The process is also a family affair, with husbands tossing ideas and opinions in the ring, mothers joining E. Frances’s staff of six when big orders or trade shows require extra hands (they stuff all stationery into its protective wrappers by hand), and sweet little infants always welcome to spend the day at work with mom. Ali’s sons once insisted that she clothe a topless mermaid, and Jenni’s husband even made their sign, crafted from 19th-century barn wood that came from a farm in Vermont.

The joy in these designs lies in their whimsy, humor, and simplicity, and it’s impossible not to have an emotional reaction to these adorable works of art, with their characters and words that jump off the page and come to life. Somehow, these laid-back zebras, leg-warmer-wearing unicorns, and pregnancy jokes are inherently relatable. Maybe it’s the way you can see the artist’s hand in the work or the softness of the colors, but they’re reminiscent of how cool it felt to wear your favorite outfit before you learned to be self-conscious; how wonderful a single summer strawberry fresh from the farm can be; how grateful we should all be for the little things in life.

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Frankie the sperm whale, the E. Frances mascot named for the owners’ grandmother, watches operations from her perch on the wall.

All of these characters – Pippi, Jenni, and Ali included – are watched over by the boss lady herself, Frankie the sperm whale, the mascot named after their shared grandma Frances, who’s painted on the wall wearing a Breton striped shirt. From her perch, she watches omnisciently like a benevolent supervisor who might reach out and give you a hug at any moment if only her flippers were a little longer. It’s easy to see why Frankie gets place of pride next to the E. Frances tagline, “happy stationery.” If she did reach out for that hug, though, betcha she’d grab a gumdrop, too.

All photos by Maaike Bernström Photography. Click any image below to launch the gallery.

Meaghan O'Neill is a writer, editor, blogger wrangler, and the founder of Puddingstone Post. She was formerly editor-in-chief of TreeHugger, Discovery Channel online, and TLC's Parentables. Her writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, and her book, Ready, Set, Green: 8 Weeks to Modern Eco-Living (Villard/Random House) was published in 2008. She lives in Newport, RI with her family.

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