Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 30
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
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Joy Chen Moves Her Business Location From Retail Store to a Private Studio

Anne Levin

To the visually oriented, Joy Cards was like a candy store. The glass cases and display racks at this Chambers Street shop were home to Joy Chen's intricately crafted, customized invitations and selected greeting cards. When she closed the store this past June, her many loyal customers were distressed.

But Joy Cards, it turns out, is alive and well. Ms. Chen has moved from the shop to a studio and small showroom space in the office building just upstairs, at 20 Nassau Street. Her focus is now on custom design, examples of which are artfully arranged in the same display cases that held them in the shop. The greeting cards she carried have been dispersed among three Borough retailers: Jazams, Tippy Toes, and Green Design.

"The cards had a following, and I thought it would be great to pass them on to shops around town and direct people there," said Ms. Chen, seated at a drawing table in the studio last week. "So I gave the child-themed cards and some display racks to Tippy Toes, and the others to Jazams and Green Design. When people ask me, I can refer them."

Ms. Chen has also contributed her design talents to posters advertising Princeton's annual Pi Day celebrations, the recent Waiters' Race that took place on Palmer Square, and other local efforts. She first came to Princeton 15 years ago.

"My husband, who graduated from Princeton, was driving down Chambers Street one day when he noticed a spot was available," Ms. Chen recalls. "So we checked it out. Running a shop certainly wasn't something I would have imagined myself doing. It is sort of atypical of me. I thought our families wouldn't approve. These are people with a lot of letters after their names. But I decided to do it and they have been very supportive."

Ms. Chen was born in Indiana and grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, where her father was a professor of Japanese and linguistics. She loved to draw as a child. When she was in seventh grade, one of her teachers encouraged her to submit a pencil drawing to the local county fair. To her shock, she won the blue ribbon.

"That gave me a vote of self-confidence," Ms. Chen said. "It showed me that I had at least a passion for it."

But college and business school beckoned. Ms. Chen majored in marketing and then landed a job at a consulting company in New York. It was there that she met her husband. Ms. Chen designed their wedding invitations and thank-you cards. When her prospective in-laws invited her to dinner one night, she sent them a thank-you note in the form of a jigsaw puzzle.

After their daughter was born in 1992 (the couple also have a son), the Chens left the city and moved to New Jersey, settling in South Brunswick. Ms. Chen stayed home to be with her baby, but found time to make cards and individualized invitations for friends.

Once she decided to open her business, she began with custom work, adding the retail element later. A client base started to form as people who received invitations she designed clamored for her services.

"Princeton was really great for me, because even though people didn't know who I was, they would ask me to design for them. And the business just grew," Ms. Chen said. "I tried some retail. But I really felt that my passion was doing the custom work. It got to be a lot of work to handle both, so I decided that it made sense for me to refocus. It's better for my clients as well."

For one customer's 70th birthday celebration that took family members and friends to Rome, the invitation designed by Ms. Chen was in the form of a miniature world map with a tiny passport, model airplane, and vintage-looking suitcase. Guests, who had first been contacted with a unique "save the date" card, were kept in suspense about the party destination. The same client used her again to invite guests to his 75th birthday celebration.

Ms. Chen has had customers from as far away as California and Paris. A few celebrity clients have come into the mix. Jill Zarin of "The Real Housewives of New York City" hired Ms. Chen to create the invitation for her daughter Allyson's Bat Mitzvah a few years ago after seeing a Chen-designed invitation for one of her friends. Sitting in a box lined with jelly beans, the invitation was made up of six little parts including tiny high-heeled pink shoes in an even smaller box with wrapping that said, "Parents pick up at midnight."

"She is amazing," Ms. Zarin wrote in an email. She has also used Ms. Chen to design the invitation for her annual July 4 party. "I would use her if I have another event to do."

Ms. Chen also designed the logo for Helping Hands, a charitable organization for bi-racial children run by Pittsburgh Steelers star receiver and "Dancing With the Stars" champion Hines Ward. That connection came through Ms. Chen's brother, who is Mr. Ward's attorney and agent.

Ms. Chen considers the design process to be collaborative. "I sit down with them, and they tell me about the person and the feel of the event," she said. "I take it all, process it, and come up with a piece that, hopefully, captures it all, then do a mock-up. Now, I have enough of a collection that people can say they like a certain color, design, or font."

Some customers have definite ideas. Others need to be drawn out. But after 15 years, Ms. Chen knows how to get them going. "Everybody has some kind of story behind the event," she said. "I just have to get them talking."

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