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A chat with invitation designer Deborah Nadel

Deborah Nadel is a longtime wedding invitation designer.

Deborah Nadel is a longtime wedding invitation designer. She's also a master calligrapher. She combines both to create gorgeous, lush wedding invitations, thank-yous, place cards, and table numbers. Her calligraphy is so artful that Tiffany has used her to create the script on several of its silver jewelry designs. (April 11, 2011) Credit: Bruce Gilbert

"What do you want -- an engraved invitation?"

While that might have been your mother's admonition to get you to the dinner table on time, it's the heart of the wedding matter for calligrapher and custom-invitation designer Deborah Nadel.

Though there are as many wedding invitation suppliers as there are wedding-dress designers -- everything from eVite and Zazzle to the neighborhood stationer and the "invitation ladies" who work out of their homes -- what sets the 57-year-old Merrick native apart is that she creates her invitations one by one, working with paper the way couturiers work with lace. Her forte is the so-called "pocket," which she builds by hand from the bottom up: a custom folder, lined with delicate paper that she trims with ribbons or bijoux before tucking in the invitation and RSVP cards that she also designs, scripts and then has printed -- in sumptuous engraving or letterpress or more economical flat-print.

But Nadel's one true love is calligraphy, an art she learned in the late 1980s while working for a Manhattan ad agency that had no budget for a heavy-hitter to script its brochures. Nadel stepped up, and then enrolled in a slew of classes so she could really learn what calligraphy was about. By the time she and her husband -- the children's book author and illustrator Don Brown -- moved back to Merrick with their two daughters in the early '90s, she decided it was time to do more. "I thought, 'Why am I just doing calligraphy for other people's designs. I'm not doing anything with my own design background.' "

Though some people still want her to "calligraphize their envelopes," as Nadel laughingly puts it, her work now runs the gamut. And it's not just brides who swoon for her flourishes. Among her clients: Tiffany & Co., where she started out 13 years ago doing calligraphy, then graduated to Christmas cards, catalogs and even the Fifth Avenue store windows. Two years ago, the iconic jeweler asked her to script its "I Love You" pendant and ring. Wearing the silver charm around her neck, Nadel sat down recently to chat about her work:

You're known for your custom "pocket" invitations. How do they work?

The pocket is folded, with a tab around it that slides off. Inside, there's the invitation, the accommodations card, the itinerary card, the RSVP. One of the things I like about the pocket is that when you open it, you see the invitation. The card that holds the most information -- the direction card -- is tucked away; so is everything else.

Calligraphy is central to your invitations. How do you create a design?

I might write the whole invitation in calligraphy, but the process of writing the names is more intense. It has to be penciled out and designed, and it winds up becoming a design element that we use on things like programs or menus. My favorite piece is designing the names. Whenever I do something with a name, I look for which letters I can flourish. Sometimes, there's a Y that falls in the right place. Then, you can get the flourish and turn that into a whole decorative element.

In this world of e-Vites and online invitation sites, is custom work an anachronism?

The brides who come to me have been dreaming about their wedding for a long time. A bride might go to Kleinfeld or Vera Wang or The Wedding Salon for her dress, so she can have that whole experience. If she's someone who is savvy about printing and the process, she can find nice things online, but if this is the first time you're doing this, a lot of brides want to sit down with a person and be guided.

What's changed since you started?

There's a much wider range of what's acceptable. It used to be that it had to be the traditional Tiffany invitation engraved on ecru with a folded card, and only certain fonts were acceptable and inks could be only black or sepia. Now I get purple!

Are all wedding rules changing?

There are definitely fewer rules, but for many, there is still the question of how to address people. In terms of etiquette . . . it's about making people comfortable from the moment they get your invitation until they're at your wedding. Sometimes, a [guest] will have a long name, but he goes by a shorter name. So go by that name -- maybe not on the envelope but on the inner envelope. Some people want to say "Grandma and Grandpa" inside. Is that allowed? Yes! It's what gives personality to your invitation.

What's essential in creating an invite that reflects you?

I tell brides that if you have images -- say, you're using hydrangeas -- bring them. Or bring a picture of your dress, the colors the bridesmaids are wearing, or anything else you've already figured out. You want the invitation to reflect the personality of the bride and groom, but you also want it to telegraph to the guests what kind of event this is. I wouldn't send out a super-formal invitation for something that is going to be in your home on a Sunday afternoon. I'd still send a beautiful invitation, I'd still do calligraphy, but I wouldn't want it to be so black-and-white formal.

How do you decide which wedding-day pieces are important?

At a minimum, you need escort cards because people need to know where they sit -- I put the cards in little velum envelopes. I'm also doing more menus and programs, but I put those in the category of a really nice touch but not essential. You can consolidate -- put a menu at each person's place and their name on it. Or you can name the tables. I had a couple who met in college in Michigan and wanted to do something with their favorite sports bars, so they named each table after one. I've been doing more programs. too. I had a bride who didn't need a program, but she wanted to honor her mother, who had passed away. She wore her mother's gown, and the groom's pocket square was fashioned from a piece of her mother's gown. . . . She wanted people to know the details, and the program was a great way to do it.

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