Exchanging messages of goodwill has been common practice ever since the early Egyptians, who used papyrus scrolls to send greetings and sparked an international trend spanning centuries. While some may bash out a quick “happy birthday” text to their gran, the greeting card industry is still thriving. We sat down with James Mace, of local business The Art File, who explains why…
Opposite Nottingham Contemporary, sat between Belgo and Chemistry, there’s an unassuming red door. Behind it, there’s a little gift shop, and The Art File’s head office is hiding away upstairs.
On my visit, I was greeted by a sausage dog who stared inquisitively at my feet. From my Instagram stalking, I knew this to be Frank: beloved pet of the Mace family and inspiration behind the company’s Call Me Frank range of greeting cards, stationery and gift wrap. You’ll often find the illustrated version of Frank dressed in spotted jumpers, or with balloons attached to his tail.
“We get our inspiration from anything and everything,” says James, sales and marketing manager of The Art File. “Two years ago, my dad and I were in Hong Kong visiting suppliers. We were at a bar called Geronimo and really needed a male range at the time; we thought what a great name Geronimo would be. A couple of drinks later and we came up with a whole intergalactic-orientated range. There’ve been times I’ve woken up in the night in cold sweats and thought ‘That’s a great idea for a range!’”
The Art File was founded in 1997 by James’ parents, Ged and Karen Mace, when he was just seven years old. From the back bedroom of their house in Colwick, the business has grown considerably, moving to Southwell before eventually settling down at their Weekday Cross residence. “We’ve gone from a one-man band operating out of our family home to employing over twenty people, plus a sales team across the UK and distributing our goods across the world,” says James.
They now produce over 400 card designs a year, plus two or three major stationery collections and over five gift bag collections. Their mainstream clients include John Lewis, Paperchase, Scribbler, and Clinton Cards, plus 2,500 independent retailers across the UK, like The Tokenhouse in Nottingham. Their own shop downstairs, Behind The Red Door, also stocks trinkets and quirky home items.
Figures estimate that, on average, a British citizen purchases 33 greeting cards a year, and that cards are stocked in more outlets than any other product, with one in six retailers selling at least one range. Despite the technological revolution we’re living in, our love affair is not yet through. In an age of quick and easy Facebook posts, sending a physical card can be seen as a way to celebrate deeper, more meaningful relationships with those who matter most.
“I’ve always believed that sending an e-card doesn’t carry the same emotion,” says James. “When it’s your birthday, or you’ve got a new job and your friend has taken the time to go to a shop, pick up a card and write it, you get a great feeling; it’s nice to know that someone has thought of you. There’s nothing better than holding the card, seeing and feeling it.”
Concerns over the future of the industry came in 2015, when the US giant Hallmark shut down a factory and cut jobs by half. However, in the UK alone, the greeting card industry is responsible for the jobs of 100,000 people. “We’ve always been a Nottingham-based business and we always will be,” says James. “As an ethos we try to do everything as locally as possible. We use Sherwood Press for printing, our warehouse is in Mansfield and our finishing team is in Lincolnshire. The vast majority of our team are from Nottingham or surrounding areas.”
Certain finishes on cards can't be recycled so we stopped using them, and our entire product portfolio is made using sustainable, mixed resources
James’ father, Ged Mace, had already been working in the greeting card industry for over a decade when he launched The Art File. During his two-year stint as President of the Greeting Card Association, Royal Mail raised postage price, leading Ged to liaise with the UK government to stress the emotional importance of sending and receiving cards. But that’s not the only hurdle facing the industry; it’s come under increasing scrutiny for the environmental impact of the products. Paper waste and deforestation is just the beginning, as cellophane wrapping, glitter and foiled finishes come under fire in relation to the plastic crisis.
“The environment is always at the forefront of talk because we’re in such a heavy, paper-based industry, and we're under pressure to continue improving our environmental impact,” says James. “We discovered that certain finishes on cards can't be recycled so we stopped using them, and our entire product portfolio is made using sustainable, mixed resources. Our cellophane bags are all recyclable, and we're currently looking at a completely compostable, cornstarch-based cello bag instead.”
The Art File has won multiple prizes at the Henries Awards, which James has coined “The Oscars of the greeting-card industry”. They’ve taken away gongs for Best Male Range, Best Christmas Range and Best Gift-Wrapping Collection, to name a few, and in 2017 bagged The Queen’s Award for Export, which saw James and Ged visit Buckingham Palace and meet the Royal Family. Most recently, Ged received an Honorary Achievement Award for his services to The Art File and the industry.
Nottingham’s creative scene is the perfect breeding ground for card makers, thanks to the ever-growing community of illustrators, designers and writers waiting to get involved. As well as their in-house design team, The Art File license upwards of five designers a year, and work with up to fifteen freelancers at one time.
“We get submissions from freelancers through our website and social media. I’ve even overheard someone in a bar talking about how they wanted to design greeting cards. A few swipes of their Instagram later and they were in for a meeting the following week. Now, they’ve got a range of cards with us. If you’re an artist, illustrator or designer, send your designs. I can’t guarantee we’ll say yes, but there’s no harm in trying.”
In a world of screens and digital shortcuts, it’s heartwarming to see businesses like The Art File thriving with their future looking bright.
“It’s a hugely creative industry, the amount of talent is fantastic. Historically, publishers like ourselves do well with exports because design-led retailers abroad don’t print in their own countries, so they buy it in. We’re helping lead the world in this sector, and that’s something we’re really proud of.”
Behind The Red Door, 11 Weekday Cross, NG1 2GB. 0115 950 2564