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Outside the Cube: Daffodils is bright with promise all year

In gardens across Central Kentucky, daffodils are reaching for the sun, and buds are opening. But there's a place in Lexington where they're in bloom all year: Daffodils Fine Stationery and Gifts in Meadowthorpe.

No invitation necessary: Daffodils is easy to spot with its striped yellow awning and its hint of Chevy Chase on Leestown Road. Step inside, and there's the immediate feel of springtime and possibilities, appropriate for a store that specializes in engraved promises of good times to come.

Please comma to our party: An employee is behind the counter, going over the details of an invitation on the phone: "Would you like a comma after that?" She's surrounded by cheery paper goods tied up with polka-dot ribbons and picnic-perfect hats, purses and bow ties. Owner Alice Underwood motions to come to the back room and have a seat at a yellow formica table of the same vintage as the shopping center. We're surrounded by shelves filled with card stock and walls the color of jonquil petals. "Our wholesale business was here before," she says. "We took a wall out and tried to make it more cheerful."

A store by any other name wouldn't be so cute: Naming a company or store is serious business. It can require brainstorming sessions. Focus groups. Trademark searches. So Underwood must have spent weeks deliberating before deciding on Daffodils, right? "My daughter told me, 'You need to name the shop something really cute so people will want to come in.' " "Well, what?" Underwood asked. "Ummm ... " her daughter said, then looked out the window at the spring garden full of flowers. "Daffodils!"

Sunrise, sunset: Daffodils — the flowers — might grow from bulbs, but Daffodils the store sprouts from a business with widely spread roots called Rose Street Design. Daffodils' back room is full of boxes upon boxes of invitations, announcements and declarations related to every stage of life: birth, christening, bar mitzvah, final college tuition payment, first Derby entry, and so on, until ... retirement? Is anyone lucky enough to experience that anymore?

Form precedes function: Underwood creates engraved invitations for lots of local movers and shakers: There are UK hospital and sports functions, Keeneland parties, Derby parties, past Governor's Mansion soirees. There are invitations to the hunt club and announcements of upcoming parties at the castle on Versailles Road. And then there are the more unusual requests: an 80th birthday with a cowgirl theme, or a second birthday with a martini-glass motif (fortification for the terrible twos?). But consistently, Underwood's biggest seller is her calendar, designed new each year, which includes spaces for customers to insert photos as the year progresses. Is it possible that Oprah has one? This much can be confirmed: Oprah's best friend is a customer and orders them annually.

Stationery on the move: A Lexington native, Underwood majored in industrial design at Western Kentucky University. That means she learned welding, woodworking, electrical processes. ... "I liked seeing the results of my work," she says. After college, she landed in Savannah, Ga., where she formed a partnership with a couple of friends in the mid-80s to launch a "new and different" stationery-design company. The partners soon moved away, and "I ended up with the business." Underwood brought it back to Lexington and changed the name to Rose Street Design as a little nod to her father, who once lived there. She trademarked the slogan: "The cutest paper on the planet."

A software touch: Originally in charge of sales, Underwood started doing all the artwork herself. "I didn't have any formal training but had always drawn and painted for fun." The stationery already had a signature look, she says, so it was easy to grow and develop from that. In 1987, when the New York Times was still explaining to its readers the meaning of 'software' — "Software is to the computer as a phonograph album is to a stereo system." — Underwood computerized her business, using an early word-processing program called Ami Pro. A fast 23 years later, she's sending regular love notes to her customers on her blog at www.rosestreet.com, and using the Web site as a showcase for sales and new products.

Finding fulfillment: Through the 1990s, the Rose Street Design line of stationery, albums and calendars spread to more stores nationwide. Underwood's customer base grew to about 2,500 stores in America and overseas. But local customers wanted a central place to shop. "It made sense to have an outlet," Underwood said. She opened the Leestown shop about 2002.

"I absolutely love this area. There's a huge amount of traffic, and I have great neighbors." For years, all the shipping was done there, but last year, she found a local "fulfillment center" that has taken that off her hands.

Matters of engraved importance: Underwood knows that in stationery, the right typeface is crucial in making the right impression. Fonts can be masculine: "Gravure, Copperplate Gothic or Engravers MT are perfect for bachelor parties, shooting parties ..." or they can be feminine: "Lipstick is fun, and women of all ages like it." They can be elegant but not stuffy, like Gatsby, or thoroughly modern, like the revered Helvetica. "We print invitations for a lot of people in their 20s and 30s, and they love this look."

YeeHaw and a-WEG we go: Underwood has another font that she sometimes uses. "It's not the alphabet," she says, "but horses of all varieties, including Thoroughbred, hunter/jumper, dressage and so on. These are nice to add for the horse-related party invitations." That font, YeeHaw, is likely to be put through its paces this year.

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