Written By Hand, With Artful Inconsistencies

Dancing with a ribbon
Many on the South Fork who know Lynn Stefanelli for her tireless efforts at public relations for art galleries, benefits, and the East Hampton Historical Society might be surprised to learn her day job is calligraphy. Durell Godfrey Photos

Once her house has been tidied and everything is back in its proper place, Lynn Stefanelli can finally sit down to work, dozens of fountain pens, nibs, and jars of ink at the ready. As her hand settles into its natural movement and rhythm, an aura of quiet calm quickly overtakes her.

“It’s about a ribbon and dancing with the ribbon,” explained Ms. Stefanelli during a recent conversation, as her pen, dipped in blood-red ink, glided across the page. The repetition was mesmerizing. For the past decade, Ms. Stefanelli has worked as one of New York’s premier calligraphers and counts among her roster of devoted clients nearly every luxury brand imaginable. 

Tucked away on Old Stone Highway in Springs, the renovated farmhouse where Ms. Stefanelli spends weekends is quiet. No television blaring from the adjoining room. No audible music. 

“I can’t listen to words as I’m doing words,” said Ms. Stefanelli. While perched over her light box, she settles into a Zen-like state. “I get into that zone. Everything else melts away and I just focus on what’s in front of me. It’s like a gentle tonic, a warm water rolling down my back.”

For luxury brands, part of her appeal — apart from the reliability and beauty of her work — is Ms. Stefanelli herself. 

“When you think about calligraphy, you imagine a little old lady pushing 80, covered in cat fur, with long braids and Birkenstocks,” said Ms. Stefanelli. “If I show up at a Christian Louboutin event, I’m wearing Christian Louboutin shoes — mind you, they invited me to their friends-and-family sale so I could afford them.” 

Alvina Patel, the vice president of communications for Christian Louboutin, views Ms. Stefanelli as an incredible asset, helping to personalize and solidify the bond between a brand and its customer. 

“As a brand, we’re always looking for a way to connect with our clients, whether through beautiful calligraphed invitations or correspondence,” said Ms. Patel, who has worked with Ms. Stefanelli on dozens of projects over the years. 

Lacking a personal website and wary of social media, word of mouth referrals comprise the bulk of her business. Confidentiality agreements prohibit Ms. Stefanelli from disclosing her big-name clients. Whether working on a project for Chopard, Cartier, Valentino, Prada, or Van Cleef & Arpels, Ms. Stefanelli develops a kinship with each name, imagining how the recipients will feel upon seeing their name handwritten in elegant script. 

She views the act of writing each name as an intimate gesture. Over the years, Ms. Stefanelli has penned the names of a small cadre of magazine editors, socialites, and contemporary actors dozens of times. “They appreciate the attention to detail. You can tell that it’s handmade and not computer-generated,” said Ms. Stefanelli, whose work echoes another, slower-paced era. “Who gets a hand-addressed letter or invitation these days?” 

A big part of Ms. Stefanelli’s success is her ability to fit in, no matter the exclusivity and last-minute demands of each client. Ms. Patel also cited her poise and personable nature, allowing for an on-site presence when events require it. 

Besides designing invitations, menus, and addressing envelopes, Ms. Stefanelli shows up in person when clients host formal dinners. For instance, during an event that Elle magazine and Tod’s hosted at Il Buco for Kerri Washington, Ms. Stefanelli served as an insurance policy during cocktail hour — for any guests who suddenly showed up but had not previously R.S.V.P.’d. 

Carrying her “beautiful leather go-bag,” equipped with pens, ink, and extra ivory place cards, Ms. Stefanelli added any last-minute names before guests sat down to dinner. She’s cool under pressure, “but up to that point I’m the one with the gun to my head,” explained Ms. Stefanelli, whose clients appreciate her meticulous attention to detail. Once the first glass of wine is poured, Ms. Stefanelli can finally rest easy, tidying up her things before meeting her husband for dinner. 

Nearly 20 years ago, Ms. Stefanelli met him after he saw her disembarking from the subway at East 86th Street. On a whim, he decided to follow her. It was a cold February evening, and Ms. Stefanelli was close to her apartment, humming to herself and dreaming of a bowl of hot ramen noodles. 

Before she could see him, she could hear his thick New York accent approaching from behind, wanting to know what song she was humming. Ms. Stefanelli planned to “cut him off at the knees,” resenting the invasion of her personal space.  

“At that point, I had never dated anyone in a suit — only artists or musicians,” said Ms. Stefanelli, who chang­ed her tune upon seeing Glenn Leitch, an architect, who wore a suit and wire-rimmed glasses. Intrigued by his salt-and-pepper hair and piercing blue eyes, she agreed to take his business card. Giving him a “good amount of time,” she finally phoned four or five days later. 

In 2002, the couple married at East Hampton Point on Three Mile Harbor. Now, “full-time weekenders,” they split their time between a loft in Hell’s Kitchen and a renovated three-bedroom house on Old Stone Highway in Springs. Previously, the couple owned a 600-square-foot cottage near Maidstone Park. Mr. Leitch works as a partner at Highland Associates, an architecture firm with offices in New York and Pennsylvania that specializes in commercial, retail, and residential projects. 

“I find that I’d much rather work on my projects here — see deer, the birds, the sunset, and smell the salt air,” said Ms. Stefanelli, with clients sending FedEx deliveries nearly every Saturday. Louse Point is a frequent destination to clear her head. “In the city, I hear jackhammers and fire engines. Here, it’s much more peaceful.”

Ms. Stefanelli grew up in Bucks County, Pa., one of seven children. Her father was an engineer, and her mother worked as a photographer and writer for what was formerly the Southampton Spirit, a local newspaper. After graduating with a degree in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ms. Stefanelli moved to New York, where, for the next decade, she worked as a supporting cast member on the soap opera “Guiding Light.” With her lines memorized and hours left to kill, Ms. Stefanelli would retreat to her dressing room, where she routinely calligraphed the entire alphabet. Years later, while temping at a public relations firm in the city, Bulgari needed envelopes addressed — and in a hurry. From there, one client at a time, her hobby grew until it eventually became her full-time job.

“If you’re self-employed, you need to be self-disciplined,” said Ms. Stefanelli. “My head doesn’t hit the pillow each night until I make my quota. My clients trust me. They know that I’m going to show up and meet the deadline.” During crunch time, clients routinely send her updated lists at 7 at night, expecting place cards back at 9 the next morning. 

“I give her a lot of credit. She is very disciplined,” said Mr. Leitch. “She’ll stay up and do it all night long if she has to.”

A perfectionist at heart, Ms. Stefanelli has learned to embrace the inherent flaws in hand-lettered script. “With a flawless, computer-generated look, you lose the humanity,” she said. “There’s a beauty in the inconsistencies.”

Ms. Stefanelli abides by the 10,000-hour rule — namely, that mastery in a field can be achieved after thousands of hours of repetition. “At a certain point, I’ve put in that much time and people respond to it,” she said. “People like what I do.” Her style is always evolving, but it’s also distinctive, yet she will happily work “outside of her comfort zone,” should a project require it. 

Recently, Ms. Stefanelli was putting the finishing touches on the couple’s annual Christmas cards — now numbering around 125 family and friends. She and Mr. Leitch design them in tandem, with Ms. Stefanelli responsible for creating the internal message and addressing each envelope. This year, the couple chose a deep crimson India ink and matching red-wax seals imprinted with one of 20 brass seals—be it a snowflake, Christmas tree, reindeer, or snowman. 

The weekend before Christmas, Ms. Stefanelli worked with Jo Malone London, appearing at its Bleecker Street, Bergdorf Goodman, and Saks Fifth Avenue boutiques, chitchatting with customers and creating hand-lettered, personalized cards to accompany each holiday purchase. Earlier this month, she made an appearance at Ippolita, a Madison Avenue jeweler, where customers sat entranced. 

“I wouldn’t normally think of calligraphy as a performance art, but it becomes very private, a moment of tranquillity between the client and me,” said Ms. Stefanelli. “The thing about calligraphy is that you hardly ever see it done. They’re hanging on your every stroke.”

Handwritten holiday greetings are just one of many assignments for a modern-day calligrapher.