January 25, 1999 12:00 PM

It was on his first plane ride 29 years ago that 10-year-old Marc Friedland found his future call-ling. “I just loved the little motion sickness bags,” says the stationer to the stars, now 39. “I used to write my letters on them, fold them up, stamp and mail them.”

These days, Friedland’s flights of fancy result in more elegant missives. He charges from $20 (for a berib-boned wedding invitation) to $200 (for one in a velvet box) for each (with a $3,500 minimum order), but no one—certainly not clients such as Oprah Winfrey, Dustin Hoffman and Steven Spielberg—is complaining. “You look at one of his invitations,” says Melrose Place creator Darren Star, “and you think, ‘I have to go to that party.’ ” Tom Hanks’s wife, Rita Wilson, now a good friend, wouldn’t throw a benefit, birthday party or baby shower without his invitations. Says the actress: “They go beyond just a card in an envelope.”

Friedland not only pushes the envelope, he sometimes eliminates it altogether. For a cyberspace billionaire who asked 600 of his closest friends on an Alaskan cruise, Friedland encased the invites in 10-by-8-inch linen-and-leather suitcases containing travel itineraries. There is no jungle (Costa Rica, for paper made there from fallen leaves) or ski resort (Aspen, again for leaves) to which Friedland won’t trek to get the perfect paper or prop. But there are things he simply won’t do: “Things the giver might think are really cute,” he sniffs, “but the receiver is really annoyed by, like glitter or sand falling out of the invitation.”

Many of his no-nos—and his creations—are collected in Invitations, Friedland’s new book that provides a voyeuristic peek into the way swells celebrate life’s special occasions. “I probably have invited over a million people to some of the world’s largest and most celebrated events,” he boasts. “I communicate for my clients in ways they are not capable of doing. I think I do well by them.”

They seem to agree. His Los Angeles company, Creative Intelligence, employs 25 and boasts annual sales of about $2 million. Through tony outlets like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, he also peddles a line of custom, engraved stationery. It’s a tad steep—$800 for 100 sheets and envelopes—but, he adds, “it’s really great!”

Not too shabby for a Woodbridge, N.J., native, the youngest of three sons of Jean, 78, a retired cemetery administrator, and Joseph, now deceased, who sold ladies’ sportswear. After graduating from Woodbridge High School in 1977, Friedland majored in chemistry and psychology at the University of Miami. Turned down by medical schools, he enrolled at UCLA for a master’s degree in public health. Soon after he graduated in 1984, Friedland began designing greeting cards as gifts for school chums. “I discovered a whole other side of me,” he says. “I never went back to anything else.” Working out of his West Los Angeles apartment, he mixed found objects with wry messages—an Alka-Seltzer packet, for example, affixed to the front of a card that read, “Thank you for dinner”—hand lettered on the inside.

By 1986, Friedland felt sufficiently confident to open a studio. Dudley Moore, his first celeb client, hired him to design a birthday party invitation after seeing one he had done for a Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, fund-raiser. “We did it as a script cover, and people flipped,” Friedland recalls. Says Rita Wilson: “Marc just gets it.”

To Friedland, who lives alone in a two-bedroom Beverly Hills town-house, nothing is more fun than heading to a client’s home—beloved mutt Luvee in tow—to create the next card. “I have no off-hours,” he says happily. “This is my hobby, and it is my life. It really is a business based on passion.”

Christina Cheakalos

Maria Speidel in Los Angeles

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