Curious to find out more about the story behind Meticulous Ink, we met with its owner, Athena Cauley-Yu, a passionate hand lettering artist and typesetter who warmly welcomed us into her creative world. The moment we entered her shop we felt as if we instantly stepped back in time and found ourselves in a 1960s dimly lit printshop with the sturdy Hiedelberg windmills exhaling a nostalgic warm fragrance of engine oil whilst being operated by the knowledgeable hands of Zoë, who patiently explained to us the sinuous process of letterpress printing.
After wandering around the city and visiting her home, we returned to the shop where Athena gave us a memorable demonstration in the art of calligraphy, a true expression of her passion for making beautiful, one of a kind things.
Soon celebrating 7 years since opening their doors, Meticulous Ink have developed a clean aesthetic with concentration on fine detail and an appreciation of bright colours, producing beautiful hand designed stationery and incredible letterpress prints that breathe talent and dedication through every single detail.
Who is Athena Cauley-Yu, the creative mind behind Meticulous Ink?
I’d describe myself as a creative human. I’ve always loved making things ‒ elaborate window displays, origami geekiness, knitting, drawing. I like learning and improving myself. I wish I had more time to read and to make things. I work hard. When I’m not working I fill my time with lindy hop swing dancing. Dancing is so much fun and is great exercise. I love eating cake and sugary treats. I like having warm feet. I love the sensation of standing on empty egg boxes and feeling them squish, and crushing crispy crunchy leaves underfoot in autumn.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I remember being in a pushchair when I was about 5 on the way to school. It was winter and there was old snow on the ground ‒ the kind that is more like a slushy and that is going all dirty and muddy. I vividly remember the sound of the plastic pushchair wheels as they rolled along the pavement. They were gritty and sticky and wet. When I hear that sound now it takes me right back there. I can almost taste the sound of it. (That sounds strange but is very accurate.)
When and how was the idea for Meticulous Ink born?
I’ve worked previously at two other private stationers and knew a lot about the world of stationery. My partner at the time wanted to move out of London so I had begun thinking about what kind of job I should get. I then realised that this would be a great opportunity to begin something of my own. I had always wanted to have my own business. I began writing the business plan around Christmas 2009 and Meticulous Ink opened its doors in October 2010. We’re celebrating 7 years on 21st October this year with a big party.
How would you define the Meticulous Ink aesthetic?
Clean with concentration on fine detail, and an appreciation of bright colours. We try and keep things simple and design with the print methods in mind.
You come from a multicultural family. How has your heritage influenced your style and what is your relationship with tradition?
I’d like to think having such a mixed heritage has helped me have an open mind and take in lots of different cultures. I grew up in North London, which was a wonderful mixing pot of culture. Perhaps my mixed background has also made me feel different from the majority. I don’t like to blend in with the background. Though I have a richly varied heritage I’m British through and through. There are traditions that I respect and some that certainly work, but I think everything can be improved.
Tell us about the Meticulous Ink current team. What are your strengths and how would you describe your dynamics?
Currently there are five people in the Meticulous Ink Crew; Zoë has been with me the longest, nearly six years, and she is in charge of the letterpress and foil printing. She’s got a keen eye and now knows the machines inside out. Peter is a print consultant and incredible illustrator, so contributes to the design work too. Amy works part time and is incredibly efficient as our print finisher and quality checker. Christina is newest to the team and did a week of work experience with us last year. She’s helping us out on Saturdays with tissue lining and quality checking too. As we are such a small team everyone helps out where necessary with tissue lining, packing orders, helping customers, and answering the phone. I think we all complement each other with different strengths and it’s a very friendly environment.
The machines that you are using must have some interesting stories. Can you tell us about them?
The first machine we purchased was up North near York. As we had no experience with these machines up until that point we had hired a professional removals company to bring it on the long journey down to Somerset. About a mile from the delivery point the Heidelberg fell over on the lorry, and nearly fell off into the road! The machines each weigh just over a tonne, plus they are top heavy, so can be tricky to move. Luckily no-one was hurt, and as the machines are built to last the Heidelberg only sustained a tiny injury ‒ a very small part was slightly bent. That was a very stressful day.
What is your favourite step in the making process?
If it's a bespoke project then I actually really like the consultation process. That is where I get to figure out if we can create something different and where I can share more unusual ideas with customers. When making our own products I love the final print process. That’s where you get to see the finished article. It's so satisfying thinking of an idea then being able to see it through from start to finish.
Where do you source your materials from?
The majority of our paper comes from GF Smith, a UK based paper supplier. They have a fantastic range, plus they make Colorplan, a UK made paper with different weights and a huge array of colours. We also use Antalis, Paperback for recycled paper and occasionally St Cuthberts Mill, based in Somerset, for lovely thick watercolour paper (excellent for letterpress printing). We buy our paper in larger sheets which we then cut to size on our electric guillotine.
How did the Meticulous Ink style change since its beginnings?
When we started we were a little more traditional. I think I was aware that I wanted to appeal to lots of people, so I held back a little in terms of designing things that I liked. Many of our box sets were quite quaint and countryside focused. Since opening I’m much more confident to create things that I love and that I’m proud to send out into the world, rather than trying to pander to the masses.
What is it that makes printed paper and calligraphy still appealing in our digital driven world?
A text or an email is instant. You don’t need to wait for more than a few minutes at most. They are thrown away and are not kept. A calligraphed letter instantly show that time and care has gone into it by the sender. It’s a physical, tangible item that you can keep, that you can cherish, in a way that is just not possible with an email. It’s the one of a kind nature of that individual sheet ‒ it almost become a work of art.
How do you maintain the balance between client requirements and your own aesthetic vision?
When we first opened we accepted client supplied artwork. As time went on I realised that to keep the aesthetic and to keep being proud of the things we produced we needed to complete the entire project, from design to print. We no longer print from supplied artwork and this has really helped in keeping the look and style of the majority of our bespoke work consistent. When we design for clients we generally produce three proof options. If they are quite set on what they would like we can then provide an option with something that they might not have thought of. Occasionally they choose the more unusual option, which is always a thrill for us.
You also run Calligraphy workshops. Who are they aimed at and what is the most frequent question that those who attend your workshop ask you?
The workshops are aimed at absolute beginners and are very accessible. I squeeze a lot into the two and a half hours so that by the end of the session each participant can leave with a whole new skill. The most popular question I get asked is ‘Do I have a favourite letter?’ The answer is yes, I have two favourites actually: D and S. They are very satisfying to write.
We have learned that your favourite font is Neutraface. What do you find appealing about the design principles behind that font?
I really like the thought that Neutraface sits comfortably within its surroundings. It’s such a clean, uncluttered typeface that it can work with so many different things. Though it is so geometric and structured it still looks friendly.
What are some of the challenges of running a creative business and what is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned along the way?
I love running a business and I love being able to make things as my job. The main challenge is balancing that creative desire with the more practical side of running a business and making money. There is a constant level of stress that fluctuates when you have a business and there is a never ending flow of highs and lows. I’m very aware that people are relying on me ‒ my employees as well as my clients ‒ to stick to my promises.
The most valuable lesson I’ve learnt is that everyone is in the same boat. Everyone is pretending they know what they’re doing, when in fact we are all pretending until we know the answer.
On a more practical note, CASH FLOW IS KING!
Who do you admire in your industry?
There are two people:
1. Jessica Hische ‒ she is a typographer and lettering artist and makes the most beauuuutiful things. I have her book and it makes me so happy while at the same time immensely jealous of how good she is.
2. Anna Bond ‒ the brains behind Rifle Paper Co. An incredibly successful stationery company in America. She created the unique brand look which has since been copied many times.
A few years ago you left London behind and moved to Bath. What was your first impression of the city? And what do you love about living here?
Bath is so much smaller than London, though I didn’t become fully aware of it until I revisited London and felt how much you can disappear in a big city. I love the size of Bath - that it's big enough that you can wander yet small enough that you can bump into people you know.
Where do you go for cake and coffee?
Didicakes on Walcot Street have the most delicious fruit slices, plus they are only two doors away from my shop. I don’t like coffee, but do love a hot chocolate with all the trimmings. I’ve had a few excellent ones from Mokoko in Bath. I also really like Boston Tea Party for cake and peppermint tea.
What is your favourite recipe?
My newest favourite is banana and Nutella loaf ‒ excellent for using up very old bananas and incredibly sweet and delicious. Zoë made one for my birthday this year so I have her to thank. I don’t bake very often, but that recipe was really easy and completely worth it.
How would you describe your living space? What makes your house a home?
My partner and I are working on making some changes to our home to make it more us. I really like bright colours so I’m keen to get some bright furniture, and we both like art so we’re planning on filling the walls with more posters and artwork. I can happily make anywhere my home and haven’t ever felt like I miss a particular place. I really like having my books around me, so wherever I can take my books and be with someone I love, that’s home.
Running your own business could be stressful at times. What do you do to relax?
I love dancing and generally try to attend swing dance events or classes twice a week. It takes my mind off anything else, and fully recharges my happiness levels. If I can’t make it to dancing then I really like knitting. I’m currently working on a lovely bright scarf for myself, ready for this Winter. Last year I ended up knitting four pompom topped woolly hats for friends and nothing for myself, so am aiming to complete something for me before working on more hats. I’ve got a list from various family members that have now requested hats. Maybe I’ll start a hat business on the side...
Are you working on any special new designs or projects at the moment?
Our Seventh birthday is coming up so I’m working on an elaborate invitation to send to my favourite people. It’s coming together nicely. Also I’ve planned some wreath making workshops for the festive season, and am figuring out how to create instructions for an origami wreath that people can make at home. I made one a few years ago that I get out every Christmas and each year people make lovely comments about it, so I thought it would be nice for people to be able to make it too.
What are your dreams and ambitions for Meticulous Ink?
I want it to grow and flourish, to continue to make beautiful things I can be proud of, and to be the best stationery store in all the land!
Can you recommend us:
A book: Work in Progress, by Jessica Hisch (she is an amazing lettering artist).
A song: Beyonce, “6 Inch Heels” (gets me fired up for a full day at work!).
A film: The Fifth Element (my favourite film of all time).
Thank you, Athena for the interesting insight into your creative business and personal realm. We would also like to thank Zoë for patiently explaining and demonstrating the letterpress printing process to us.