Happy Menocal is like a magical story teller who spins color-drenched whimsical tales out of paper, paint and pen. In actuality, she is an artist who creates custom family emblems, stationery and other personalized elements of entertaining that the fashion and design world can’t get enough of. Vogue, Aerin Lauder, Aurelie Bidermann and Jonathan Adler are a few who have asked Happy to help create defining touches for their events. You can find her designs on Paperless Post, and if all goes according to plan, she is set to take on the world of interiors (in her own offbeat manner). Happy’s work is both elegant and naive, sort of perfectly imperfect. Hence it’s allure. Here she shares her latest inspiration (Pennsylvania Dutch folk art wedding certificates), why she’s painting her living room the colors of the children’s book, Goodnight Moon, and what’s next.
Please tell TFI your path was to becoming an artist and how you describe the work that you do: My mom is a classically trained painter so I always had access to tools and just confidence in that department, because I was around it, but I didn’t go to art school. I’m not a trained artist. I’d been drawing storyboards for commercials at an ad agency before this, so I learned to draw, not technically well, but at least enough through having to imagine situations and draw them really quickly.
My friends starting getting married and a friend asked me to make something for her wedding. I thought what if we made up this sort of aristocratic symbol…I loved the idea of a family symbol, or a medieval coat of arms, but one that captured who these people are now, rather than the ancient values of their ancestors. Because I found that if you actually translate a lot of those old Latin sayings it’s like, “Bravery under whatever.” They’re kind of weird.
So I use the structure of the symbol symmetry and a little bit of self-aggrandizement–proud lions, proud dragons, and that self-seriousness, but combined with the contemporary values and symbols from our time. I felt like it really hit the right note, it didn’t seem too pompous or ridiculous, but it had a warmth and a personal intimacy that really spoke to people.
The emblems are still central to my business and they’re the thing I enjoy most. Even though I work on projects that grow much wider from there, everything to working with brands on an event, like the menus and all the little décor stuff for a fashion week lunch, or someone’s entire wedding in Cartagena–the central pieces are still usually one of these emblems.
What is your favorite medium to work with? I use these little inks that are made by a guy called Dr. Ph. Martin. They come in glass vials and are really vibrant. You squeeze them out into an old fashioned palette.
I’ve also been moving into cut paper. I just did a menu for Vogue where I cut different pieces of paper. I saw the Matisse cutout show two years ago and have been into that.
How would you describe your work? The main focus is trying to endow anything I make with a sense of luxuriousness, joy, personalization and humor. It could be anything. Someone could say, ‘Oh, my son likes rhinoceroses,’ and it could be a drawing of a little rhinoceros for somebody’s friend. But it’s making that guy have some wit, character and warmth. I try to bring a feeling to things.
What inspires you? Right now I’m really into Shaker Pennsylvania Dutch wedding certificates. Folk art stuff. The certificates are amazing. They look like busy, childishly drawn documents, and on the left and right, if you imagine it’s a diploma or something, there are portraits of the man and the woman, that are again, sort of amateurishly done, but really beautifully done. Then kind of growing from underneath there will be symbols, little flowers or birds, or whatever. They’re these lovingly made documents. You imagine that maybe there was a professional in the community who did them, or maybe they just had their friend do them. They’re really great. I want to start doing it for people.
Then in that vein, I’m really into the Gloria Vanderbilt quilt craziness, kind of aesthetic. I like looking at food packaging. Also because I have a two-and-a-half year old, we read a lot of children’s books. I sort of like the Good Night Moon aesthetic, there’s something so powerful about it. I wonder, ‘Why do kids love this book?’ I think it has an electricity to it, like your brain sees the red, and the green and the yellow, and it vibrates. I would never say that those are my favorite colors, but I love it. I want to do our living room in Good Night Moon style, red and green. I just bought this Lisa Corti red and green striped fabric to do the curtains.
Color seems to play a big role in your work. It’s a huge thing for me. I think it’s also a little bit of a crutch because I didn’t have a great foundation in drawing, so I would lean on color. I couldn’t draw a perfect horse, but I could capture the right feeling of the horse. I knew the colors, you know? Even if you were to look at it and say, ‘Those legs are too short,’ it wouldn’t matter, because it would feel right, because of the color.
Tell TFI about your custom stationery: Often it’s centered around an event in someone’s life, they’re getting married or they’re having a child, or a 40th birthday, and then from there, we develop a relationship. It’s almost like they want some kind of consistent family aesthetic. I think deciding on how you want things to come from you, especially when you’re a new family, is really powerful. To say, ‘Okay, what if we do everything on this dove gray paper, yours will be in gray with cream, and your little daughter, you can write letters on behalf of your daughter, and hers will have a bright lilac, and your son can have this, and your husband can have this.’ Some of it’s actually creating the art–what is their monogram, or what are their symbols. And lot of it is just styling them in a way, and saying, ‘Oh, I found this beautiful Italian paper with a hand deckled edge, and it’s so perfect because you guys are having this rustic dinner,’ or ‘You know what? Let’s choose three different colors of tissue paper, and have them stacked in the invitations, so you can get some color in there.’
For me, making this real connection with people, figuring out what they’re about, and then helping them translate that into, in this case, paper goods that they can use for their whole life, is really special. Often people don’t know how to say who they are visually, they say, ‘I don’t know, I like peonies, my dad used to raise quail,’ and I am able to help with that. I find, it ends up being a really long-term relationship. Then it’s their dad’s 70th, and I’ll say ‘Let’s do that, and do this.” It’s really fun.
Also, in our digital age, it’s nice to have something that’s so beautiful and tangible. I’m not trying to be super old-fashioned and hang on to this ancient thing. I do like to embrace technology whenever we can–maybe it’s an animated little Save-the-Date, and we’re definitely looking at more ways to do that. But people are still going to send written correspondence. I don’t think that’s going away, I think it’s only going to become more appreciated. Now, when I do get a handwritten thank you note, I think, ‘Ah, thanks. They really did that,’ you know?
What’s next? Lots of things. The big one that I’m really excited about is we’re taking on interiors—those things that I’ve been doing personally, like a mural in my bathroom, and how we painted the studio so it almost feels like a kid’s clubhouse.
I think with fashion, people are willing to take risks and be more playful, but everyone just has this same idea of what a grownup’s home looks like. Before I had a family, I didn’t care about my home. I wanted to spend my money on clothes, travel, and going out to dinner, so I had a mattress on a floor and a plant. Now I find it’s really valuable to me to make home fun, and have a little bit of a sense of humor. Why not paint this piece of furniture? Why does it have to be one color? Kind of just painting everything.
I want to do textiles. In the studio, we painted directly on linen, so the fabric is hand painted, and the tables–it sort of has a school play amateurishness to it, but it’s also kind of beautiful, I really like it.
Three words that describe you: It sounds a little self-congratulatory, but I would say warm, exuberant, and messy.
Three words that describe your work: For the work I would say it’s the same, but I would say the messy part has been diffused by now having a team. I knew I needed to outsource the polish and refinement aspect that I actually don’t have, and so I deliberately found people who have a lot of talents and are amazing. That’s something that my team brings that I never had. I’m just not a perfectionist in that way.
Now if you so much as request a sample, it arrives in this orgy of perfect tissue paper, perfect silk ribbon—a Marie Antoinette bonanza of careful packaging. Every envelope is proofed by two people. We have a real operation.
The messy is there in spirit….
That’s some of the joy of it right? That it’s not perfect? Yes, there’s a little bit of looseness, but the experience is pretty, and I would say almost militaristically perfect. We really care. We’re trying to figure out how to grow up gracefully.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: Eres bikinis.
Favorite small indulgence: Ronnybrook farm chocolate milk. It’s like $700 and makes you instantly fat.
Album currently on repeat: The song Queen of Hearts by Juice Newton came on the radio recently and really got me going.
Scent that brings back memories: paperwhites = Christmas. Shalimar = mom. Pencil shavings = work.
Lucky charm: I lose everything.
Favorite hour of the day: I have a new baby who likes to eat round the clock, so I’ve been seeing some sunrises.
Follow Happy: Instagram.
portrait, Annie Powers; studio photos, Emma Ressel