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Selling Sentiments for All Seasons : Greeting cards: Local designers are done with Christmas and are hard at work on Mother’s Day and beyond.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Morell is a Sherman Oaks writer</i>

In a nondescript building in Van Nuys, Christmas spirit fills the little offices of David M & Co.--in March. In December, the talk around the headquarters of this small manufacturer of greeting cards is about Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, graduation and June weddings.

The pace is the same at other local card manufacturers. Christmas starts when retailers begin placing their orders, which is usually in the spring and summer.

“We go to trade shows around the world, and we have to be ready,” said John Lin, president of New Image Graphics in Northridge. “We want as many potential customers as possible to see our product, so we have to be thinking Christmas after Christmas.”

“We’re like the fashion industry,” David M & Co. President Gary Raskin said. “We have to work a couple of seasons ahead of time.”

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Like other individuals and small companies involved in producing greeting cards in the San Fernando Valley, the staff of David M & Co. works the holidays long before December. An admitted “small player” in the nation’s greeting card business, Raskin’s firm is nevertheless the Valley’s biggest independent producer of Christmas cards.

According to the Greeting Card Assn. in Washington, 2.3 billion cards are sent to friends and relatives during December, and the number is expected to increase. In difficult economic times, people often send cards instead of giving presents.

David M & Co.'s line of 50 holiday cards, sold at stores across the United States, features contemporary watercolor designs.

“We’re well-known for a particular look and a heartfelt sentiment,” Raskin said. “Our cards appeal to women over the age of 30. They’re the major buyer of greeting cards in general.”

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The company was started five years ago by a group of graphic designers who wanted to combine their creative energies.

“Basically we said, ‘We need a job,’ so we formed our own company,” Raskin said. There never was a “David M.” The name was picked at random by the company’s founders. Raskin and the firm’s 25 employees design the Christmas cards that make up 20% of the business. They also make holiday wrapping paper, invitations and cards for other occasions.

Every year, after the tree lots are emptied and post-holiday sales are winding down, the employees, including the three-member creative staff, start working on ideas for the next Christmas. Designs are also sent in by dozens of free-lance artists.

“Our market research is really seat-of-the-pants,” Raskin said. “We bring our cards to trade shows and watch the reaction. People either like them or they don’t, and we pursue a design or discontinue it. The major companies like Hallmark might have focus groups and surveys, and they work about two years in advance, which is where we have an advantage because we can act on a fast-moving market trend.”

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One of the firm’s biggest sellers this year reflects the sentiments of last winter’s Gulf War.

“It’s a watercolor of the Earth as a bulb ornament, and inside it reads, ‘Wishing You Happiness and a World of Peace.’ ”

By the time baseball’s spring training is in full swing, the next Christmas line is decided and, it’s hoped, another Yule trend will be picked up. Samples are printed and the company’s sales representatives begin calling on retailers who order their Christmas cards in March. Between July and October, the staff fills the Christmas orders.

Raskin sees a trend toward technically advanced cards.

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That’s the reason Jeff Berkowitz turned a mathematical hobby into a second career designing his own computer-generated greeting cards.

During the day, Berkowitz is a physics teacher at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. But at night, sitting in front of his computer at his Northridge home, he works the electronic, 21st-Century version of the kaleidoscope.

He makes fractals, which are multicolored abstract designs created by algebraic equations that look like dreams from the brain of Mr. Spock. The designs swirl in endless arrangements and colors, and the ones that turn out in holiday shades become his Christmas line.

“Sometimes when you’re making fractals, you don’t know what you’re going to get; it’s kind of a mystery,” Berkowitz said. “No one’s really sure how they’re made.”

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Berkowitz leases his computer, a system that includes a 327-megabyte hard disk with a 19-inch color monitor that has a finely detailed screen. The monitor’s intricate resolution allows Berkowitz to photograph fractals from the screen and use them to print his cards, as well as his calendar and posters.

While pursuing a master of science degree in physics at Cal State Northridge in 1988, Berkowitz learned about fractals from a student there and began making his own.

“A lot of people got interested in what I was doing and wanted the fractals, so I figured out a way to preserve them.”

As the owner and sole employee of his company, Lifesmith, Berkowitz creates the images, some of which take up to 90 hours of work. He also takes the photographs, works with the printers and distributors, and markets his cards and designs. He recently signed a deal with Stuart Hall Paper Corp. to produce fractal images for student notebooks, and he’s also applied for a cultural grant from the city of Los Angeles to make a video presentation on fractal images.

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The fact that his fractal cards come from his first love, mathematics, makes them even more special to Berkowitz.

“I remember being amazed when I first saw them. I couldn’t believe math could be so beautiful.”

To get ideas for his Christmas cards, Lin, the president of New Image Graphics, finds that he sometimes needs divine encouragement.

“I’ll be sitting at my drawing board trying to relax and nothing will come to me, so I’ll pray.”

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With prayer and some research, he usually meets his spring deadline for Christmas designs, often with intriguing results. One of his biggest sellers last year showed a Santa Claus riding a camel. It was designed before Saddam Hussein became a household name, and it may well have become one of the thousands of Christmas cards sent to soldiers in the Persian Gulf.

New Image’s Christmas line for this year features Santa Claus in different environments--everything from Santa being towed in a chariot by a jaguar to flying a magic carpet above skyscrapers.

Next year’s line will be a little different.

“We’ll have some cards that won’t have Santa, since a number of customers for our other cards don’t celebrate Christmas but would like to send holiday cards.”

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Lin’s cards are sold in stationery stores across the United States as well as in Japan and Holland. To avoid language problems, they carry no printed message. His cards seem especially successful in Japan.

“My biggest orders come when I go to trade shows there. Retailers in Japan find my cards sell well.”

To get to the headquarters of New Image, one has to walk through the Lin house, past toddler toys, to a room added on in the back that looks like a generic busy office. Boxes with samples and shipments are stacked neatly along one wall. Lin’s wife, Margaret, takes care of the paperwork.

The company was started four years ago when Lin, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art from Cal State Northridge, was laid off from his job as a graphic designer.

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“I tried to think of what I could do with my skills that would be recession-proof. That’s when I thought about greeting cards, and so far it’s worked.”

Until the room addition was completed this year, boxes of cards crowded the couple’s living space, since storing cards in the unfinished garage risked damaging the paper.

“We were crammed pretty tight in the house,” Lin said. “If we grow out of this room, we’ll have to move.”

Jon and Olga Measures of Um Om Um Creations, which started up in August, hope that their business will grow large enough to give them space problems. They have turned the spare bedroom in their Sherman Oaks apartment into a studio-office, where they produce cards that look more like something found in a gallery than in a gift shop. The name for their business came after they listened to people’s reactions to Measures’ artwork in galleries in his native Great Britain.

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Because their operation is small, Jon Measures can begin designing Christmas cards later than most card manufacturers--in September. He looks for ideas in magazines and clip-art books, which are design books with standard drawings that can be used for advertisements. When he sees one he likes, he copies it and paints over it with abstract shapes and colors.

The resulting image is run through a color laser copier, cut out and attached to a blank white card, signed and dated.

“My favorite card is one of an angel. I saw a photograph of this carving in an Italian church and I redrew it, like a piece of clip art. It’s painted red and green, and it creates an interesting holiday effect.”

Other Um Om Um Christmas cards include images of a candle, holly leaves and a tree--although not of the Christmas variety.

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“It’s just an average tree but it’s painted with Christmas colors, which gives it the right look.”

Jon Measures emigrated from Britain in June, then married Olga in September. He created similar cards for years in Britain and decided to see how the concept would sell in the United States. He uses his graphic arts training to help him select designs and colors, but he also relies on Olga’s guidance.

“She has a better idea of what’s commercially viable than I do. I’ll show her a design that I think is exceptional, but she’ll say it’s too dark or it won’t sell well. And she’s not afraid of telling me that a card is awful.”

Um Om Um cards have sold well in bookstores and gift shops in the Bay Area, as well as at shops in Los Angeles and Phoenix, Jon Measures said.

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“Our main buyers are probably college students and young people looking for a card that’s a little more individual and out of the ordinary,” he said.

But while his customers are busy filling in their holiday messages and sending them across the world, Measures diligently leafs through his design books looking for cupids and hearts. It’s December. Valentine’s Day is almost over.


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