You’ve got mail

The world of stationery is a constantly growing arena. Even in this digital age, the market is expected to grow by £49.1 million by 2021. There are whole shops dedicated to Japanese pencils and Instagram worthy staplers, and beautiful leather day diaries. We speak to Helen Hugh-Jones, who sells her designs under the brand Nell’s Originals.

She’s actually not sure where the brand name and little ballerina logo originally came from: she thinks she was probably about 14 or 15 years old. By this time she had started making elaborate birthday books for her friends – little stories, fully illustrated, and often full of in-jokes that no-one can remember. The brand now has a growing series of Christmas and greetings cards, prints and bespoke commissions.

Helen’s style is very simple and clear: she loves the clarity of using black pen outline. She generally uses fairly minimal backgrounds – just a colour wash, or plain white – although she is currently also illustrating a book that requires more detailed backgrounds and settings, which is both ’a challenge and a delight’.

The design process starts with a pencil sketch that she can ink over. She then either uses watercolours or scans it and works on it in Photoshop, with an iPad and Apple Pencil. The effects of the two processes are very different. Watercolour is more delicate and subtle and decisions, once made, are hard to change. The design, colours and ideas all have to be confirmed beforehand and any mistakes have to be incorporated into the scheme. On the computer, you can alter outlines, change colours, layer whole other images into the scene, and be more experimental. The effect is much punchier, brighter and more immediate.

Helen’s inspirations are very varied. She loves early 20th century British designers such as Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, but she also loves Florentine Renaissance paintings and manuscripts.

She uses her own personalised stationery (of course) and loves sending people a quick ‘thank you’ note after a dinner party, or ‘congratulations’ on moving house: “It is so much more personal than an email!” She finds that people are increasingly requesting custom orders and wonders if it is more a form of self expression rather than anything else – a way of making your own little mark.

Current projects include the launch of personalised stationery, design for a wedding, children’s books for two authors, and lots of individual commissions, including a painting of a philosophical llama…

The new set of Christmas cards are available through her website, or