Is the art of handwriting dead? Not in the White House

There is widespread, unusually heated debate over the demise of cursive handwriting and its ornate cousin, calligraphy. But there is one place where the art of handwriting is still very much alive: the White House.

The White House calligraphy office is responsible for creating thousands of addressed envelopes, programs, place cards and more each year. It is a place where formal etiquette reigns supreme and things that many consider mundane are elevated into works of art that lend a personal, artistic touch to correspondence and entertaining.

In many ways the office is a throwback to the days before digital technology. The basic tools of calligraphy have not changed for centuries: paper, pens with nibs and ink. The East Wing office is large and bathed in natural light that helps two staff calligraphers discern the difference in ink colors (fluorescent light can warp the hue). Each stroke of the pen is careful and deliberate.

"The important part of White House entertaining is the human touch," said Rick Paulus, who served as White House chief calligrapher from 1998 to 2006. "The tangible part of setting the stage for diplomacy and extending yourself at a human level to entertaining."


An invitation Rick Paulus created for a White House dinner. (Courtesy Rick Paulus)

But even an office that specializes in a centuries-old handmade art has shifted from manual to digital.

The calligraphy office still does a lot of its work entirely by hand, including place cards for state dinners and every envelope the White House mails.

But now a large chunk of the work is done on a computer. Some pieces of correspondence may be written once by hand, scanned into a computer and manipulated digitally. Calligraphers can now quickly create something and make it perfect on the computer — eliminating misspellings and sharpening fonts — rather than spending hours laboring over a written piece. Eliminating the need for something done perfectly by hand makes things easier when there is a tight deadline.

Sometimes calligraphers don't even need to pick up a pen. They choose a font from a program such as Adobe InDesign and use their knowledge of spacing and lettering to create a document that appears as though it was drawn by hand.

"If the decks are stacked and there's tons and tons of work, sometimes they'll default to using digital type instead of hand lettering," Paulus said. "This is the 21st century."

Most of the time the backlog is immense. Last year the office created materials for 144 White House events. During the 2013 holiday season, it mailed out 10,000 envelopes, all of which were hand-addressed. Paulus said during his tenure the office printed 120,000 books for the annual White House holiday tour. Christmas comes early in the calligraphy office; it starts planning out the holiday output in August.

The office does most of its printing in-house, but engraving pieces are sent out to a Washington-area engraver. The White House still uses a traditional engraved design that started during the term of Rutherford B. Hayes.

"This is timeless. What’s changed are the deadlines. Gosh, at the turn of the last century the artists were given weeks to perform their tasks," White House calligrapher Rick Muffler told C-SPAN. "Sometimes we get hours, and that’s not really an exaggeration."

The office does much more than printed works. It created the signs for the White House vegetable garden and painted a massive plywood flag that a nutcracker dressed as Uncle Sam held on the South Lawn during the White House's Fourth of July festivities.


President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama host military families for an Independence Day celebration Friday on the South Lawn at the White House. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

“I really think the office should be called calligraphy and more. We take care of all the events for the president and first lady. We support their events with whatever printed material they need,” said current White House Chief Calligrapher Pat Blair. “It’s a fascinating field, and there’s a lot more to it than people realize.”

Paulus said digital technology has changed calligraphy in the same type of way that music changed when analog recording was replaced by digital. All of the calligraphers have skills that include laying out typeset, illustration and graphic design. (Paulus was the first chief calligrapher to request a computer. He got a PC in a matter of hours, but it took months to secure the Apple computers that most graphic designers prefer.)

"If Bob Dylan wanted to go into the studio, he could layer out the tracks. But if someone missed a note, it was difficult to put it in there," Paulus said. "Now he doesn’t even have to go to a recording studio. He can do his part somewhere, the bass player can be in L.A., and the drummer in France."


A menu Rick Paulus made for the millennium New Year's Eve dinner at the White House. Paulus had 24 hours to put together the menu and program and wanted it to "look really special." He locked himself in his home until it was finished. (Courtesy Rick Paulus)

 

The calligraphy office hasn't been without its controversies. Conservatives criticized the White House for stopping tours during sequestration last year but keeping White House calligraphers on the payroll. According to the 2013 annual report sent to Congress on the White House staff, three calligraphers combined made $277,050.

Right now there are only two calligraphers because one retired last year. If you're interested in applying, they're looking to fill his job.

Paulus described the job as "journeyman" and "high production." He said it takes between two and six hours to create a basic menu. But it is memorable. His favorite project was lettering the certificate for the National Medal of Arts for children's author Beverly Cleary.

"I'm doing invitations for kings and queens, but Beverly Cleary, that's so cool," said Paulus, who now lives and works on Cape Cod. "She was my favorite author when I was a kid."

Blair said her favorite part of the job is knowing that her work transcends the printed page.

“I think just the fact that our work is set in front of heads of state all over the world. That in itself is amazing,” she said. “And we just enjoy the fact that we’re representing the United States. We’re showcasing the talent and the art that’s so much a part of the United States.”

The White House released it's annual list of employee salaries on Tuesday with 22 staffers earning the top amount, $172,200. Here are some of the most familiar names with the biggest pay checks. (JulieAnn McKellogg and Jackie Kucinich/The Washington Post)
Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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