Even in a world where computers can do much of our work for us, the appeal of holding a pen in your hand and making your mark on a crisp white sheet of paper hasn’t waned. Emma Johnson meets some of stationery brands still encouraging us to put pen to paper.
The heavy weight of a pen, the feel of smooth, thick paper, the smell of rich leather, the dark splash of ink – as our world gets more and more digital, it seems the desire to write things down, sign our names, put our thoughts in a journal and share our ideas hasn’t been lost. The British stationery industry has perhaps always been a relatively artisan one, focusing on passed-down skills and traditional approaches, but it seems that this desire for beautiful things in which to impart our thoughts, record our day to day activities or to invite loved ones to a party remains at the centre of the British way of life. “As a country we have many traditions that are admired around the world, and stationery is definitely amongst them,” says Alex, from Mount Street Printers, who have produced beautiful personalised stationery in the heart of Mayfair for almost 40 years. “Engraved stationery production has almost disappeared from continental Europe, but continues to thrive in the UK, which is great for our country,” he adds. Mount Street Printers, which now offers everything from engraving to fast digital printing, has occupied the same site at 4 Mount Street since it opened, and has been successful in part due to its commitment to embracing new technology while still working with traditional craftsmanship.
Alex explains that it is traditional approaches to writing and the crafts of personalisation which have protected the industry against the onslaught of modernisation and consumerism: “I think, for instance, that The Royal Family have been incredibly supportive of traditional skills and processes throughout the UK, which has been so beneficial. It has enabled all kinds of craftsmen to thrive and be recognised for their work whilst continuing to produce the finest goods that are economically viable.” And it is this approach that has had an impact felt throughout the industry.
At G.F. Smith, where for over 130 years beautiful paper has been produced in the same Hull factory, the brand is still leading the charge for products made with a combination of sophisticated machinery and handcrafted skills.
Started by George Frederick Smith in 1885, the company became recognised as one of the great innovators in paper, and is established as the supplier of choice for creative and design industries in Britain and beyond. Colorplan – G.F. Smith’s pioneering range of coloured papers – has been an iconic and indispensable resource for designers since it was launched in 1936, and its range continues to defy expectations – both with its depth and scope of colours, but also its approach to preserving and supporting handmade skills, such as spine stitching and paper sourcing.
For beautiful fountain pens, roller balls and mechanical pencils, British engineering has again been at the forefront of the industry, with the likes of Yard O Led, Conway Stewart, Burnham and Sigma all important names when it comes to writing instruments. Situated in Spencer Street in Birmingham, in the heart of the jewellery quarter, and handcrafted in England since 1934, pens from Yard O Led are slim, delicate pieces with intricate filigree engravings, and the brand has retained its vintage feel with pens that are classic and collectable. For artists materials, there can perhaps be no more well-known name than Derwent, who have been supplying creatives with high quality artist pencils, watercolour pencils and a wide range of supporting materials for artists since 1832. Its renowned Pencil Museum still stands on the site of the original factory in Keswick, in the the Lake District, while it has maintained Cumbrian roots, building a purpose-built factory in Lillyhall in 2008. At the more modern end of the spectrum, plenty of designer brands have moved into writing instruments, often targeting the business sector with style-focused pens and pencils, designed to make a real impression in the boardroom. From Aspinal of London to Dunhill and Ted Baker, designer pens are making a name for themselves, while new brands who specialise in pens are also becoming more popular. The intriguingly-named Ajoto – which comes from a Japanese word meaning superlative luxury – for instance, designs all its pens at its dedicated factory in Manchester and is renowned for its smooth, fuss-free tapered design.
DESIGN & DECORATION
Perhaps one of the foremost names in British stationery has to be Smythson of Bond Street, who still make and produce all their stationery in Britain. Having created the first portable diary back in 1908, which became known as ‘the Panama hat of books,’ the brand has stayed true to its roots, still producing its ‘Panama Diary’ to this day, but adding to its collection with a host of other leather-bound notebooks and diaries, as well as notecards, envelopes, pens and paper. In addition, it is still a go-to for much of British high society for its personalised, bespoke stationery service, from classic, stamped initials, business cards and personally designed motifs stamped in gold or silver leaf, to a full wedding invitation and stationery design service, much of its work produced using artisan skills from years ago. Elsewhere, innovation comes from the past and the present. Luxury leather brand Jardine of London, has recently launched a range of beautiful leather-bound journals, featuring the distinctive Jardine star, which comes from the Jardine Star Brooch, bequeathed to Queen Elizabeth II in 1981 by Lady Jardine; while Leathersmith of London have been manufacturing quality leather-bound books, diaries, leather gifts and accessories in England since 1839 – each book handcrafted and bound in its bindery in Essex, using genuine leather and Azure paper. And, at Bound by Hand, fine leather wedding-guest books, notebooks, memory books and journals are all designed and handmade in a Devon studio.
INSPIRATION & STYLE
Coupled with the continued commitment to bespoke and personalised stationery, is a penchant for beautiful notebooks, diaries, writing paper and desk accessories – something numerous big name and independent shops and producers are inevitably capitalising on. Every stationery-lover must visit the gorgeous enclave that is the Liberty of London stationery room. Recently re-launched, it has always been a destination for beautiful paper, notebooks and diaries and its expertly curated collection includes brands from across the world – including El Casco, Papier and L’Objet – as well as designs from the likes of designers as diverse as Christian Lacroix and Kate Spade.
At Chase and Wonder, an independent British stationery and gift brand founded by husband and wife team Faye and David Aspinall, designs evoke a nostalgia for the past with a quirky nod to Victoriana motifs. Based in a converted cowshed in the Cheshire countryside, their beautifully designed, high quality and ethically-made gifts are all proudly made in Britain, and they supply numerous emporiums of style, including Liberty of London , Fortnum and Mason, Harrods, Paperchase, Paul Smith and Lane Crawford. “I think we are popular for our unique designs, the high quality of our products, and the fact that they are all made in Britain,” explains David Aspinall. “There is always a sense of nostalgia about our products, and we try to combine that with a wry sense of humour where possible.
All of our designs find inspiration from a variety of places, but especially, past Victorian splendour, antique curiosities, unique finds and even our dog, Ruby.” This quirky approach to design signals, for some brands, a moving away from a classic leather-bound feel, igniting the British stationery scene with fresh eyes for design. Take a leisurely walk around some of London’s best stationery shops and you’ll uncover such delights as Quill London, a stationery and modern calligraphy studio, featuring eclectic designs from as far afield as Japan and San Francisco; Present and Correct, whose focus on graphic design-influenced stationery has ensured a loyal business and corporate following; and Choosing and Keeping, a high end store with a penchant for classic pieces reimagined. As David Aspinall at Chase and Wonder says: “I think the future looks really positive. The world is moving on technologically, but there is still an innate human desire for the tactile, and receiving a greeting card typifies this. As with everything the focus has to be on the design and quality of the products for them to find a place in an ever competitive market – but the British are known for their design, and with new stationery companies starting every day, the future looks exciting.”
Pen to Paper – Where to shop
Bespoke British Pens
Renowned worldwide for creating and promoting high quality British fountain pens. Brands include Conway Stewart, Henry Simpole and Jack Row. »bespokebritishpens.co.uk
Chase and Wonder
British Stationery and gift brand; designs evoke a nostalgia for the past with a quirky nod to Victoriana motifs. »chaseandwonder.com
Have been making high quality artist pencils, watercolour pencils and a wide range of supporting materials for artists since 1832. »derwentart.com
Recognised as one of the great innovators in paper. Established as the supplier of choice for the creative and design industries in Britain and beyond.»gfsmith.com
Jardine of London
The name of this luxury leather brand comes from the Jardine Star Brooch which was bequeathed to Queen Elizabeth II in 1981 by Lady Jardine. »jardineoflondon.co.uk
Mount Street Printers
Purveyors of Luxury Personalised Stationery, Foil Blocking, Engraving, Thermography. Dedicated to personal service. » mountstreetprinters.com
Smythson of Bond Street
British stationery brand created the first portable diary back in 1908. They still make and produce all their stationery in Britain. » smythson.com
Yard O Led
Slim and delicate handcrafted sterling silver writing instruments, with intricate filigree engravings. Handcrafted in England since 1934.» yard-o-led.co.uk
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