Our story is really all about luck and happenstance. I had been vaguely thinking about publishing cards, exploring the pitfalls and possibilities, for some years before I met Emma, our designer, in 2007. She helped my friend Kirsty and I to design the packaging for our little company, Paloma’s Paper Birds; decorative paper peace doves inspired by Picasso’s Paloma and the Dove and first designed as alternative Christmas decorations for a bookshop in 2003 (when the Iraq War began). My bookseller colleague, Leon, helped to cut out 400 doves. Stephen Ellcock, a friend who worked in publishing, loved them and encouraged us to find a way to make them available as packs. We found a die cutter, nicer paper than office quality A4 and a suitable yarn - UK produced vegetable dyed hemp, of course - and with Emma's help gave the packs their distinctive look. A design inspired by this can be found in the Flora section. With Stephen's help the birds fluttered for nearly three years in other independent bookshops and in the windows of The Design Museum; the original doves still span the ceiling of Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace.
In 2011 I began to seriously work on creating a card company. I had the logo, the name and a plan chest full of doodles but I knew this was far from enough. Emma, a talented graphic designer, made it all possible, transforming my drawings - many of them originally for children’s books – and adding her own clever twists and riffs. From day one we worked together in a very easy collaborative way and by the Spring of 2012 we had our first hundred designs, a mix of my illustrations and paintings and some beautiful, interesting work by other artists. I knew we’d need at least one hundred to start with and an intriguing variety; warm-hearted, light-hearted, unusual and arresting. My magpie eye and twenty years working as a bookseller, which also involved being a card and stationery buyer, had shown me how these things work. Kirsty from Paloma’s Paper Birds created our first spreadsheet of design codes and another friend helped us with the legalities. We were ready to go. The Imaging Centre, a printer who offered a print-per-order service, gave us the chance to dip our toes and test the water rather than take the plunge. We launched at a London trade show, found our first customers and had the luck of being taken on by an agent.
Over the following two years we worked on developing the catalogue and a website (thank you to another good friend, Patrick, for designing our first site and to his dad, my brother-in-law Michael, for creating our first sales spreadsheet which replaced the hand written five-bar-gate 'system'). I continued to work part time as a bookseller, running the company alongside, packing and dispatching orders, lugging the parcels to the bookshop on a trolley to be picked up by UPS, approaching new artists, working on new designs. By 2014 Paper Bird was flying and I decided I would have to risk becoming fully self-employed to keep up with it all. We also urgently needed someone to pack and dispatch and even more urgently, someone look after the business side of things. Anna joined us, magically organising the oppressive confusion of paperwork like Mary Poppins tidying the children’s room, and we found a fulfilment company that helped us to get to grips with the volume of sales.
Emma, Anna and I work together in a cooperative way, with equal weight being given to what we each bring to Paper Bird, financial, practical or creative. Now, at the end of 2021, the popularity of our cards feels established enough to weather these unsettling and distressing times. We currently have 1000 designs offering a unique collection of images by contemporary artists, illustrators, designers and makers and we will be adding more. And, thanks to Emma and her partner, we now have this bespoke trade website in house.
The ethos of how we work together carries over into the practicalities of production and it is important to us that our cards are made in a sustainable way. They’re printed in the UK on FSC approved stock. We avoid the use of cello bags as much as possible and many of our customers have helped to reduce the use of them by 70% by adopting our two plastic free options. Our boxed notecards now come in card wallets and we are working on cello-less packaging for our Christmas charity packs.
Last, but not least, we wouldn’t be where we are without our sales agents and customers. Our first agents, Dave and Sarah Cowling, who agreed to represent us and those first 100 designs in 2012, gave us the confidence and expertise we needed to grow. But it was Tim Horner, our West Country agent for many years, who took the fledgling Paper Bird to the tip of the branch and gave it the push it needed, helping us to find agents and customers for the rest of the UK. Consequently, Paper Bird cards are on sale in hundreds of interesting places, independent bookshops, museums, galleries, farm shops, garden centres and gift shops from Fowey to Fort William to Finland.
So, thank you Sally Bernal, Mary Dixon, Abi Corboy, Abi Heathcote, Boo Wood, Claire Young, Richard Lacy, Steffi James and Maria Valdez Cortez.
Sadly, Tim Horner and Des Heathcote died this year. We benefitted so much from their knowledge and enjoyed working with them.
Una Joy 2021
If you are not a trade customer and do not have a stockist in your area you can find a small selection of our cards in our Etsy shop.