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HomeLife In the BerkshiresIllustrating the passage...

Illustrating the passage of time is a family affair

The product, now surpassing 2,000 each year, is something individuals from far and wide have come to look forward to not only hanging on their wall but also connecting with throughout the year.

Becket — Marking the passage of time has been a way of life for the ffrench sisters — quite literally —for as long as either of them can remember. “It’s like a cool hidden surprise [each month],” said Sofia Hughes; “Better than an Advent calendar,” her sister, Crispina ffrench, chimed in. The pair, who grew up on Main Street in Stockbridge, is talking about the signature product of their family’s Dolphin Studio: an original, screen-printed wall calendar, the 49th edition of which will be revealed Jan. 1, 2020.

The inaugural calendar, printed to mark the year 1970, was a collaboration between the late John and Primm ffrench. The pair of local artists, who went on to double as art teachers at Monument Mountain Regional High School, conceived of the idea as a way to finance travel and education.  “You’ve got to print calendars so you can go to college,” ffrench recalls her father reminding her and her sisters, Sofia and Felicitas. Back in the day, John printed the whole calendar himself (and likely called the process silk screening, in a nod to the screens’ composition) and developed a reputation — if only among his immediate family — for being rather fastidious in adhering to the process. “He made impeccable prints. Everything was perfect,” ffrench recalls of her father, whose last run at printing the family calendar was in 2008 when he printed 600 calendars.

Just a glimpse of the Dolphin Studio’s 49th calendar; sisters Sofia Hughes and Crispina ffrench have come to respect their customers’ desire for a surprise each month. Photo courtesy Dolphin Studio

In the ensuing decade, there has been inevitable change: John died in 2010, Primm in 2013, and Felicitas — who suffers from multiple sclerosis — returned to the Berkshires from the West Coast and now resides in a nursing home. This has left ffrench and Hughes at the helm of a family business that, under their tutelage, continues to evolve. “We came to realize people really value the handmade mess,” said ffrench who shoots for perfect prints but with a fingerprint or drip here or there. It’s what the sisters call “perfectly imperfect,” and they have more than made their mark on the process. The product, now surpassing 2,000 each year, is something individuals from far and wide have come to look forward to not only hanging on their wall but also connecting with throughout the year.

Despite the passage of time, the annual calendar remains a family affair. Three generations of the ffrench Family — which equates to 10 artists — contribute each year. In addition to the three ffrench sisters, and the five children among them, a pair of vintage prints from each of their parents is incorporated. “I love doing the design; that’s my favorite part,” said ffrench, whose textile studio shares space with the screen print shop in Becket. “We have to look at what others are doing before we make our choices to avoid duplicates,” said Hughes, who notes both design and color as being of equal import in the process. “There is actually a lot of thought involved,” she said, pointing out that she designed October 2020, which means she will bump ahead to November for 2021. The sisters look at the annual calendar as both a business and a tie that binds their family together. “People who knew John and Primm can pick [their work] out, looking at the vintage prints,” said Hughes. And going forward, ffrench’s son Ben, who died in July, will continue to be incorporated into the calendar as well, either through his own vintage prints or in a design of his mother’s choosing, inevitably incorporating music — one of her son’s greatest passions.

Calendar pages from a year’s past adorn the walls at the Dolphin Studio. Photo courtesy Dolphin Studio

“It really is the gift that keeps on giving every day of the year,” said Hughes, who tracks each and every order that comes into the studio. The calendar serves myriad purposes. For many, it is a way of staying connected to the ffrench Family — John and Primm gave the calendars as holiday gifts, and there are a slew of current customers whose parents were friends of theirs; then there is the connection between the giver and recipient of the calendar; finally, people love the opportunity to bring beautiful, reasonably priced artwork into their homes — in this case, 12 pieces each year. “It’s a traditional craft,” said ffrench, “[and there is] so little of that left.” Among those who have come to covet the annual calendar, beware “the rules.” Namely, don’t look ahead. Hughes and ffrench receive countless testimonials each year about the joy that comes with the first of each month, and the big reveal to which many look forward.

In their marketing, which has taken off since they appeared in Martha Stewart Living several years ago, the sisters are careful to respect those who have come to rely on the “surprise factor.” Hardly ever, if at all, is the entire calendar revealed — even in the era of Facebook and Instagram — so breathe a sigh of relief if you fall into this category. Logistically speaking, the bulk of the printing takes place over the summer so that calendars are ready to ship by Sept. 1, if not earlier. They hope to sell out each year, and the goal is to have at least 100 calendars on hand after the new year, which, more often than not, requires a second (or third) printing. The business enjoys a high rate of repeat customers, roughly 85%, a testament to how attached many locals are to this annual tradition. And Hughes and ffrench are making a concerted effort to expand their market online. Known for repurposing textiles, ffrench’s affinity for reusing extends to the calendar pages, which are made into journals; they have also begun offering “notable dates,” vintage calendar pages embellished on a particular date and perfect for wedding gifts or birthdays. Additional (possibly interactive) ideas will be revealed in the coming year, as a way of ushering in the 50th year in business.

A single month — in excess of 2,000 screen prints — dries on a rack at Dolphin Studio in Becket. The family-run business was begun in 1970 by John and Primm ffrench of Stockbridge. Photo courtesy Dolphin Studio

Dolphin Studio — so named for the funky sea creature gracing the family’s crest — pays homage to the ffrench Family, one of the 14 tribes of County Galway in Ireland dating back to 1061. “We were seafarers,” one of the sisters told me, and the surname “ffrench” is evidence of a time when two letters were used to signify a proper noun. The alphabet, when it was introduced to Europe, was not given to Ireland due to the Viking stronghold. In those cultures, there are lingering names that reflect this lack of capital letters (think aaron and lloyd, to just two). In fact, the sisters have a habit of finishing each other’s sentences when discussing family history and the process of screen printing. “[There are] all sorts of intricacies that we just know,” ffrench said. “You get it once you try it and see how it works,” added Hughes.

Today, Kip Beacco runs the Becket-based print shop and Hughes’ daughter, Lily, made a video outlining the incredibly intricate process (check it out on Instagram). Suffice it to say the dedicated crew of about three have it down to a system — and tight quarters mean there is literally no room for extra help. “To have a product that’s been continually made for 49 years is very unusual,” said Hughes. “[I’ve been making calendars] practically my whole life,” she said, adding “yours, too,” in a nod to ffrench. For an idea that originated as a unique gift for family and friends, the history here is impressive. “[The business] started off super small,” said Hughes, “[it] grew and grew and grew as the years [went] on. It sort of snowballed along,” she added. This season, consider the gift that keeps on giving while infusing your kitchen (or the kitchen of a loved one) with a splash of original artwork. It might just be the first step toward interjecting the threads of family, history and connection — so often absent in today’s culture — into your new year.

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