Words: Kelley Heider
Photos: Abby Mortenson
This is a love story. I cannot think of a more fitting way to describe the lives of two individuals who happen to be the subjects of this piece: Arley-Rose Torsone and Morgan Calderini. This story is meant to be focused on a labor of love that Arley and Morgan share, known as Ladyfingers Letterpress, through which they produce hand-drawn invites, stationery and greeting cards. However, the story of Ladyfingers Letterpress is thoroughly entwined with that of Arley and Morgan’s relationship and its milestones. While Ladyfingers Letterpress has grown quite successful since its launch in 2011, the secret to Arley and Morgan’s “success” seems to be the way they define it, and their short list of priorities which are pure and uncomplicated. Their top priority is their partnership, both through their business and in life, which is founded on equal parts respect and playfulness. And, of course, love.
I recently visited Arley and Morgan in their Black Forest workshop. Walking into the two car garage-turned-print shop, I was struck by how neatly compartmentalized the work spaces are. You can clearly see where Arley does her design work, where Morgan grinds away at the press, where components are assembled and addressed by hand and, finally, where each project is archived. What would likely otherwise be just a cold and cavernous garage felt warm and inviting. Old, industrial presses and equipment are juxtaposed with light tables and an iMac. I immediately had dozens of questions about the process of creating their rather remarkable objects. When I arrived, Morgan was preparing to press an order of greeting cards. Arley, whom the couple decided would be the spokesperson for Ladyfingers, chose a place for us to sit where we could be close to Morgan for the interview, so she could be still be involved while she worked. The whir and clack of the letterpress machine, with Morgan at the helm, set a nice rhythm for our conversation.
Their story begins in Rhode Island. Arley, who attended Parsons New School for Design moved to Providence to work as Communications Director for the arts collective, AS220. As she describes it, “It was a very public relationship with the artists of Providence and sharing the things that AS220 had to offer”. During Arley’s tenure, AS220 grew from a multipurpose building with a performance space, art galleries, a bar, café, affordable housing and studio space for artists to three buildings and additional programming that included a community print shop—which is where Morgan entered the picture. “I was in charge of designing all of the materials to advertise the artist spaces to potential new tenants,” Arley recalls. “One day, we were leading tours throughout the building and I had drawn a little sign on the chalkboard outside…” If it weren’t for this sign, Arley and Morgan may never have met. Fortunately for Arley, and AS220, Morgan was passing by and saw the chalkboard, moved in, and signed on to help develop a new print shop for the organization, following on the rich tradition of silkscreening in Providence. After working together for a short time, Arley and Morgan fell in love.
Several years later, Ladyfingers Letterpress formed somewhat by accident. In 2010, Morgan proposed to Arley, and they set the date for 2011, but they needed a wedding invitation. Arley and Morgan jumped at the chance to collaborate on what would be one of their most important pieces. The two tapped into their own feelings of excitement and their desire to push themselves creatively and stand apart from tradition. What they created was a poster invitation that quickly became a sensation in the wedding and design blogospheres. Suddenly, people were contacting them, wanting invitations of their own. Arley and Morgan accepted the challenge of creating custom invites for each client, giving each one a unique piece that captured the love and spirit they imbued in their own wedding invitation. Arley and Morgan take pride in customizing their work, designing and creating something that is as unique as their clients. It’s obvious that they become enmeshed in their clients’ lives, working with them to produce truly special objects to commemorate some of the biggest, most important moments in their lives. “[With] so many of our clients, the idea that we are making something so personal, you really get to know them,” Arley explains. “It takes the right type of person to be able to trust us with that. Our clients are amazing.”
When Arley gives me a tour of their archives, which are arranged neatly on metal shelves in a separate area of the garage, I am amazed at the myriad incarnations of paper and ink: cashmere-lined envelopes, invitations that turn into airplanes, thank you cards that can be assembled into boats, envelopes made of thinly sliced wood (yes, wood!). It seems that nothing is out of the realm of possibility for these two. They just need a little inspiration from their clients. As Morgan puts it, “We like working with different customers. We really like that relationship…Most of the time it’s really important to be able to talk to the person you’re making something for.” The result is very personal because the client is so closely involved. And their clients are so often thrilled with the results that they return and ask for other projects or have often remarked that Ladyfingers Letterpress should produce greeting cards to make their products accessible for annual occasions and events: holidays, birthdays, etc.
In 2013, Ladyfingers Letterpress stepped up to the challenge, launching a line of greeting cards at the National Stationery Show in New York City. Their greeting cards are witty and whimsical, featuring phrases like “High from Colorado” or “Screw the holidays, let’s drink” or “I’m glad you’re my significant otter.” The cards were well received at the show and beyond. “People continued to place orders throughout the year,” Morgan says. “It was great because the seasonal aspect of greeting cards is kind of opposite to the wedding season.” At that same show, the couple also took home a Louie Award (think Oscars of the stationery world) for a custom birth announcement. Coincidentally, the announcement was a project they worked on for the editor of Oh So Beautiful Paper, the very same blog that helped launch their wedding invitation to fame. The announcement? It was a star chart that spins to display the exact alignment on the day of the baby’s birth.
Over the years, Ladyfingers experienced tremendous growth and Arley and Morgan found themselves in the position of hiring staff and even expanding to a bigger location. Things were going well, but eventually, they found themselves bogged down by the logistics of running a business instead of delighting in simply doing what they loved. “Then we decided we weren’t having very much fun,” Morgan says matter-of-factly. She has a way of getting straight to the point. It was right around this time that Morgan’s parents lost their house in the Black Forest fire. “I think the fire really brought clarity for both of us,” says Morgan, “like how important family is and how important it is to be close enough to have support from family, but also support family.” Together, Arley and Morgan made the decision to relocate to Colorado Springs to be closer to family, and to pare down their operation to the original two—the heart and soul of Ladyfingers Letterpress.
Today, Ladyfingers Letterpress has a selection of 75 greeting cards. And at this year’s National Stationery Show, they claimed five Louie Awards for their work. “It’s amazing how the greeting card association has embraced us,” Arley says. For Arley and Morgan, the greeting cards are special in a different way, as they represent an opportunity for one-on-one collaboration. “It’s just been great to get back to Arley and I making things together,” says Morgan. “What’s different about the greeting card line is that it’s not determined by any client’s wishes, which is kind of nice. It’s kind of taking us back to where we were with our wedding invitation.”
As for the future of Ladyfingers, “You know, for a long time, I think we defined success as how big we were. I think if we can stay small and stay fun, that’s the most I can hope for—just to continue,” Arley says. “I think so far we’ve been very nimble and have been able to make big changes very easily because we are so small.” The growing pains and heartaches the two experienced as their business grew seems to have strengthened their resolve to cut out the noise and get back to what makes them most happy: each other. There is something so comforting and simple about the way in which they go about creating these intricate and truly special pieces for their clients and customers. “In some ways I could not do this with anyone else,” Arley explains. “I think that our relationship is so…it’s not so much different in business than it is in real life.” Arley goes on to say that their shared goals and their mutual respect for each other and the boundaries between their equally crucial roles keep them humming along like a well-oiled machine (a letterpress even).