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Article: An Obsession with Letters Leads to a Life of Calligraphy

by Laurie Gordon
as seen in Strauss News
October 2008

Kathy Milici grew up in Hampton Township and graduated from Sussex Tech in 1975 as a commercial art major. “Calligraphy wasn’t part of the curriculum there, so the art teacher wasn’t quite sure what to do with my obsession with letters,” Milici said, “Oftentimes, he would allow me to study from library books, and give me independent projects to work on for a grade. I would frequently ask my classmates and teachers for handwriting samples, and was able to render a perfect replica effortlessly. Sometimes I joke that I could have become either a calligrapher, or a forger — thank goodness I chose the high road.”

Milici said she loved calligraphy even as a young girl. “I didn’t know what it was called when I was a child, but I always had very neat handwriting, and loved to draw letter forms instead of pictures. I remember outlining hand-drawn letters, then coloring them in with crayons and markers.” Milici said her mom always suspected that her penchant for making letters would develop into something later on in life. She was right, and by the time Milici was 19, she began teaching calligraphy through Kittatinny High School’s adult night school program. She’s been teaching ever since.

As a young adult, Milici’s skill for calligraphy was mostly self-developed. “People started paying me for hand-lettered poems, quotes, and envelope addressing,“ she said. So she took on calligraphy commissions and side jobs. At the same time, Milici started a business as a window decorator for jewelry stores. “The fact that I knew how to make stylish signs was greatly beneficial, and my work was constantly in demand. Once you learn calligraphy and become proficient, there are so many ways to apply this type of creative skill.”

The name 24 Karat Designs was coined in 1979 by Milici’s younger sister, Karyn, who is a professional business coach, Milici’s mentor, and her true friend. “One day we were brainstorming ideas for a business name. Since I was mostly working in the jewelry industry then, I wanted a name that sounded complimentary, but was versatile enough to be used for my calligraphy business, which continued to grow. When I realized that 24 Karat Designs was the perfect name, I registered it immediately.” She now owns a national trademark on the name, the logo, and the tag line “Preserving the Art of Beautiful Writing.” Her husband, Santo, invented the tag line. “I’m lucky to have such supportive family and friends all around me.”

In time, Milici would seek out calligraphy teachers and professional calligraphy organizations for more advanced learning, membership and exposure. She found the Society of Scribes in New York City, and IAMPETH (International Organization of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting), and said she’s also been lucky to study with some world-renowned teachers and White House calligraphers. “Although I’m a calligraphy teacher, I am also a life-long student of calligraphy, and I couldn’t be happier.”

Like most artists, Milici worked from an in-home studio for many years. She’s always lived in Sussex County, and dreamed of having her own studio some day. When her husband retired in 2005 from the US Postal Service, she started to consider the idea of buying a historic building in Newton and restoring it. They found the 130-year-old, three-story brick building at 9 Moran Street. After three years of work, and TLC, it’s finished. The two storefronts house Milici’s studio and classroom, and there are four renovated apartments upstairs. “It’s a dream come true.”

Much of Milici’s calligraphy business is wedding work; hand lettering for envelope addressing, place cards, menus, monogram designs, invitation designs, etc. Years ago, her clients were exclusively Sussex County residents. Today, she still has many local customers, but is also contacted by brides from all over the nation who find her Web site. Milici said she also gets a lot of inquiries for hand lettered poetry or quotes for special occasions, along with corporate work. “Thankfully, there are many people who still appreciate the value of hand-lettering.”

In February of this year, Milici was contacted by a bride in Jackson, Mississippi, who wanted 480 double envelopes hand-addressed for her upcoming wedding. “It’s amazing who can find you through a Google search,” Milici said, “Apparently, great big weddings are popular in the South, and she was no exception.” The bride became Milici’s sole client for the whole month of March, when she addressed over 950 envelopes for her “over the top” wedding. “That was quite an experience!”

Because it’s so unique, Milici’s work has gotten a lot of attention recently from magazines and television. “Just like clients find me via the internet, there are media scouts who are always looking for wedding professionals who provide upscale, unique services that they can spotlight in their magazines or television shows.” One such contact was the television show “Platinum Weddings.” Milici was contracted by the bride for place cards written in the Copperplate style, which is the official calligraphy style of the White House. “She asked me if I could write in white ink on lavender paper,” said Milici, “This color combination was necessary to match the décor of her reception site, which was designed by David Tutera. Of course I could do this.” Milici said that early on in her career, she learned that you should “say yes to everything, then figure it out later.” The result was stunning, and the client was thrilled. The episode of “Platinum Brides” aired several times in September, and Milici’s calligraphy was shown as part of the overall design concept.

Milici is also a fine artist. She’s currently researching and preparing drawings/studies on different kinds of leaves for an upcoming commission. “There’s a lot of thought and preparation that goes into one-of-a-kind artwork before the final rendering is executed. It’s one of my favorite types of jobs.”

As for today’s tumultuous economy, when luxury services are falling by the wayside, Milici remains unworried. “Years ago, when computerized alphabet fonts first emerged, I thought that my business would decline or completely disappear. To my surprise, the exact opposite happened. People actively sought out (and continue to seek) hand-rendered work for formal and social events, especially weddings. I was surprised, too. Next year, I will celebrate 30 years as a fine artist, teacher and calligrapher in Sussex County.”

“The economy is tough for a lot of people these days, especially for small business owners. The best business advice I can give is to be positive and grateful, stay open to all opportunities, keep moving forward (even if it’s just in baby steps) and try to have multiple streams of revenue. My current work involves commissioned clients, teaching classes, and writing a book. In the near future, I plan to add a line of retail greeting cards and an instructional video“.