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Holiday history lessons

Joanne Furio | November 23, 2011 | Style & Beauty Story Style

In South San Francisco, birthplace of biotech, in a nondescript corporate-park building, paper lives. Cavallini & Co.’s headquarters is a shrine to loose sheets, cards, and notebooks with vintage prints and to the “old is beautiful” ethos upheld by founder-owner Brad Parberry. In 1989, Parberry, a refugee from finance, founded the paper-products company inspired by the ephemera he now reproduces. He christened it with his mother’s maiden name and was soon importing from his first office, in the Ferry Building. Today, Parberry’s goods are sold both worldwide and locally, at Flax and Paper Source, and the firm and its vast design archives are based south of the city. Interviewed in his plush conference room—furnished with red-lacquered chinoiserie chairs, a 1921 Victrola, and an antique sofa upholstered in Fortuny silk—Parberry talked gift wrapping, card writing, and other ingenious uses for that ancient medium that refuses to go away.

What are some new ways to wrap things? Do most people still use the economysize roll from Walgreens? People are more innovative. In the 1970s, foil madegifts look rich. Now it’s crudeness—like paper bags and newspaper—and funkiness. Paper tape is also a big craze.

What is paper tape? It originated in Japan as masking tape made from paper called washi. About five years ago, two American women discovered the tape and had it printed with decorative designs.

Can it be used as an alternative to wrapping paper? Yes. You can put it on boxes as ribbons or put a strip across an envelope to fix it to a box. You can cut an image from the tape and put it on a box or, with alphabet tapes, spell out a name.

What about holiday cards? Are electronic greetings replacing the drudgery of having to write them out? No, but the trend is toward smaller formats—like
postcards—that entail less writing. Busy people want a one-shot deal. They don’t want to seal an envelope.

What’s on the cards this season? Vintage images ranging from Victorian to the mid-1950s.

How do you choose the holiday images that you reproduce from your archives? If we incorporate a Santa Claus into a card, we have to make sure his face
is good. Santa can’t have bad eyes—he has to be more cheery than sadistic-looking.

Santa has actually looked sadistic? Oh yeah! At the turn of the last century, a lot of the Santas being published in England and Germany looked foreboding. It wasn’t until after the 1940s that he became more like the jolly Coca-Cola Santa we know today.

What about images for other seasons? They have to be immediately recognizable. The public wants to get it right away. They cannot think about it too long or they will be off looking elsewhere.

How do you pick up on things that will spark the next trend—like the revived Keep Calm and Carry On thing? We were in the U.K. and knew about the 70th anniversary of the Blitz, and that’s how we found that image. Museums also give you a good idea of what people are thinking about visually. Most of the time,
though, we print what we like.

You clearly have an obsession with paper—but what do you see people responding to now in terms of prints, graphics, designs? Instead of just focusing on 18th- and 19th-century botanicals, sea life, birds, and other fauna, we’re looking at old receipts, stamps, and documents, making it more of an assemblage.

Where is the best place to shop for vintage paper items? Here in the States.

I thought for sure you would name some place in Europe. We appreciate vintage, whereas the Europeans think something that’s just from the 20th century has no value.

Your image library is vast—three rooms in your offices are filled with it. How do you find all this art? I spend many nights on the Internet, trying to locate the next best thing. I also attend the Vintage Paper Fair in Golden Gate Park twice a year, and postcard shows in Sacramento and New York.

Is there a contemporary illustrator whose work has caught your eye? Michael Schwab, who did the graphics for some national parks, including Golden Gate.

What about Shepard Fairey, who did the Obama poster? Not my taste.

The New York Times recently wrote about diehards like me who continue to use paper planners, even though we have smartphones. We don’t think that’s unusual! None of us here writes a schedule on a computer. We don’t use iPhones. We work in a more old-fashioned way. If someone asks, “What’s on your schedule?” I can just flip a page. We write everything down.

Tell me how you became such a lover of old. My grandfather had a new and used furniture and hardware store in Bellingham, Washington. Everything was “used” in our house, and things were valued, even old papers. I kept a 1920s calendar from my grandparents’ store. It didn’t mean anything to my siblings, but it did to me.

Your next big project? The 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, which is next year.


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