Friday, August 10, 2012

Midori - Japanese Stationery Perfection!

If you visit Milligram (formerly NoteMaker) and happen to scroll to the bottom of the page, you can Shop by Country! You can see all of our design stationery that is Made in France, or Germany, or Korea, or Japan or even the USA. You can even see some Australian Designed local products too. We travel to pretty much all of these places pretty much every year.
We have this for a reason. I mean, we like idle distraction as much as the next workplace, but this is no idle distraction. After spending so many years plundering these countries of their finest stationery, it takes only a modicum of attentiveness to see that each has its own culture and that therefore, the stationery itself is like a window into the broader culture. The reason we go back every year to each is so we can watch that culture change, to see how alive it is.
Some of them don't change very much and some change a lot. We were talking recently about how Napoleon used to use J Herbin Ink. I guess one should expect little else of a country like France, more stubborn culturally than every proverbial mule combined, but that little Emperor could probably come back today and have his stationery cupboard stocked exactly as it was 200 years ago. Others, like Korea, change a can track this interesting interplay between a rich heritage of paper and stationery with a modern design aesthetic that insists on re-interpretation, like a Maverick that nevertheless returns to stable every night.
Out of all these little systems of stationery, these mores and taboos that find their way into the stationers of each country, I probably find the most comfort in the Japanese way of seeing and doing things. There are all of these physical traits to each piece, a Tombow pen or a Delfonics notebook, that just make me so enthusiastic! Such attention to detail. It's hard to create something beautiful through little more than dedication to utility, but these Japanese brands do it with such aplomb!
And with beauty, I don't just mean that something looks nice...i would probably call that cuteness. Cute stuff is great but it's too ephemeral to win any long term affection. Beauty, as an example, is the ruling in the Delfonics Rollbahn. It's not a firm line, it's dotted, so lightly that it can be hard to pick up it is dotted at all. It's light grey, not black, and it sits on ivory. The perforation happens a nanometre to the left of the grid ruling so that when you remove a sheet there is no harm done to that beautifully organised matrix of dots. The whole piece taken together is so humble, so deferential to your ideas...utility breeds beauty which only further encourages use. So i guess the appeal to me with Japanese stationery is the consummate design and execution. As a model of customer service, Japanese stationery designers are without peer. They're thinking about you and only you every step of the way and in such depth that they're thinking about you years from now, when your notebook is full and sitting on your shelf, better than ever. If they had your phone number, they would probably call you and ask if there is anything else you would like...
Anyway, to finally reach the topic of today's post, we come to Midori. Midori, you will have guessed by now, to me is this endless source of harmony because when i look at the traveller's notebook or when I thumb through their MD paper stock, i just marvel at how thorough the execution is.
MD Paper is Japan's first writing paper. Midori was established in 1950 and created MD Paper in 1960. The simple, noble goal is for the most comfortable writing experience (see? most comfortable!) and whilst I cannot say that it stands alone as the very best paper stock in the world, I can certainly vouch for the comfort of writing on it. It's thin, smooth and balanced, handles a Broad nib Kaweco pen with ease and is so enjoyable that I am writing random lyrics from The Human League that pop into my head. Beauty which only further encourages use...
But it's not just the moment of use which is enjoyable with Midori. Beyond that, the after-care one could say, they excel with typically Japanese perfection. The materials used - leather, brass, acid-free paper - not only last with time but improve! And here is where the Japanese cosmology of stationery really gets me, here is the hook. With this permanence, this graceful ageing, I can't help but fall for the noble, poetic, romantic connotations that made me a stationery fan in the first place. The Traveler's notebook declares itself as made for the Traveler's with a Free Spirit, it creates a strong presence through sensitivity and it will turn everyday that you carry it with you into a day of travel.
A trip to your local cafe is no longer the same long mac that you have every day, it's a sojourn in which you may just reflect on something that never occurred to you before and record it. The idea isn't to take the Traveler's notebook with you when you head overseas, it's to use it as a window into that mindset of travel and appreciation of the things that otherwise pass us by. Now, take that mindset with you every day! To me, that is some consummately beautiful attention to detail.

Shop Midori at Milligram (formerly NoteMaker).

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Monsieur Notebooks Leather Journals

I should probably send a warning out to any Accountants, Auditors or other folks who like things to reconcile neatly. In fact, if you don't like the uncomfortable paradox of an oxymoron, you should probably stop reading now. Obviously the political scientists presently reading will gladly continue, so thanks to them...

I say this because I've realised this past week or so that I'm a romantic pragmatist and to me, that just doesn't sound right! As with most revelations about the self, I came to this one through the use of stationery, in this case a Monsieur Notebook. These are leather journals that arrived in our warehouse about a week or so ago and which have been creating all kinds of existential havoc ever since.

Quickly about Monsieur Notebooks. They are hand made in India under the auspices of UK-based Hide Stationery Company. An interesting venture that is committed to providing fair wages and working conditions for the makers of its notebooks as well as to providing an excellent notebook to you, me and anyone else with enough sense to pick one up.

The romantic in me loves that these are genuine leather, for all kinds of reasons, and the pragmatist loves that these are actually just really, really nice notebooks. In fact, even if the cover was not genuine leather, if it was leatherette, or bonded leather, or linen, cloth, book board or any other material, the paper inside and binding method would still get these over the line as entirely capable notebooks. But it is real leather, and we all know the difference that makes!

Aesthetically, pretty much everyone appreciates how genuine leather wears and improves with time. That kind of goes beyond what I'm capable of describing with any concision at all, but I actually don't need to even try. Louis Armstrong put it perfectly in reply to the question 'What is Jazz?' "If you gotta ask, you'll never know"...

Functionally, leather is basically indestructible, certainly in terms of what can reasonably be expected to happen to a notebook in its daily travels. So the pragmatist is happy. Idealistically, leather has this special aura about it, so the romantic is very happy indeed!

Giving the floor to the pragmatist, I can say that Monsieur notebooks have stitched signatures of paper that are then glued onto the leather cover. You can be pretty rough with it and we're all encouraged to bend the notebook around on itself fully the first time it is opened. This means that the next time it is opened it will sit flat. A well trained notebook. The paper in the notebooks is fountain pen friendly for a fine nib but not perfect for a heavy ink or broader nib. The answer is the fountain pen journal, which has extra special paper to deal with pretty much any pen and ink in your armamentarium. I tested a broad nib Kaweco pen on it with blue black ink and report no issues. To be fair, it's no Rhodia Webnotebook in this regard, but what is?

The sketchbooks have 140gsm cartridge paper. Slightly textured, kind of rough, proper art paper. All of the notebooks have a ribbon page marker and elastic closure, a cute title page and a winking monsieur debossed on the back cover.

The romantic likes all of that, sure, but is struggling to see the forest for the leather bound trees. That feeling of real leather - dynamic, close to alive - we almost have a relationship with it. It changes with us, with use, wherever we go. It softens, conforms, yields and is forever giving our hands some sort of tactile interpretation of puppy dog eyes, ever endearing...

Almost to the point of distraction. Every time i've loosened the elastic closure on this thing I can't help but think of Antonia Pigafetta on board L'Armada de Molucca, under the command of Ferdinand Magellan, recording for posterity sights never before seen and sounds never before heard. Sometimes not even by him, as we read of 10ft giants, Cyclopses and all kinds of deep sea dangers... Anyway, what i mean is that there is a connection to an incredibly rich tradition that is only ever made through the medium of real leather. This is the real deal, used since forever for stuff that is important.

And i think this is the big appeal of Monsieur Notebooks. Leather lasts. It lasts a long time. People like thumbing through leather journals, inhaling this sense of majesty and of permanence. Perhaps it is the smell, or the touch, or just the fact that more than one sense is being engaged when going through a leather bound book, but for me, the imagination starts to run, to empathise with the words it is reading.

The idea I like, implicit with an affordable genuine leather notebook that is made for daily use, is that whenever i start to write there is some kind of acknowledgement that I might just turn out a classic. What starts as a glib observation whilst watching my dog chase a bird, or as simply a way to pass the time waiting for a train, can turn into something worthy of posterity. It's in a leather notebook after all, it will make it to Posterity looking and sounding better than ever. Fingers crossed that the lightning strikes, hey...?

So whether pragmatist, romantic or political scientist, you should really have a look at Monsieur Notebooks over at Notemaker. Luxury for your daily doodles, they say, but so much more to me.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Attention to Detail!

Writing recently with a Lamy Swift Rollerball Pen, something occurred to me which has occurred to all of us many times in the past but which I nevertheless feel is worth especial mention every now and then: It's the little things that count!

The little thing in this instance was the cleverly designed clip of the Lamy Swift. You can click through to read our Lamy Swift review and if you do so, you'll read some relatively unrestrained praise of a beautiful rollerball pen. Yet for all of its sumptuous aesthetic, weighty feel, perfect balance and lovely, bold ink formula, the thing that gets me going back to this pen is that clip. It's simple enough, right? The clip hides itself inside the body of the pen, like a petrified turtle, when you're writing. Why? So you can't clip it to your pocket with an exposed tip!

I love this. It means you don't get ink on your clothes or inside your bag and it means you don't run the risk of the tip drying out. But more than those practical benefits, i love the idea that designer Wolfgang Fabian took the time to be so gosh-darn considerate about things! I've never met Wolfgang, but i'm sure he's the kind of guy who still gets out of his car in a hurry to rush around and open the passenger door for his wife...of course he doesn't have to, but that's the thing with attention to detail, it leaves perfunctoriness in its wake!

Now let's say you don't design pens and maybe you're single...don't despair! There are still plenty of ways to exercise attention to detail and today I have my eye on one. Paperclips! That's right, paperclips! I remember receiving a card from a friend and fellow pen enthusiast a while ago and the reason i remember it is not that it was written with a Parker 51 using a personal, self-made blend of ink, but that there was a small note attached with the coolest paper clip i'd ever seen. I wrote back, seemingly, I'm sure, indifferent to any personal communication, just desperate to learn more about that paperclip!

This is what i mean about going beyond a perfunctory action and this is why whizbang technology actually isn't all that's already whizbang! It can only ever be whizbang! What the heck even is whizbang?!

But humble things done well, now that is impressive. Where you have a choice between something thoughtful and an expression of disinterest and you make the right choice, now that is cool! That old cliche that somebody can only prove themselves to be trustworthy when given the  opportunity to deceive applies to thoughtfulness too and we all get that chance, everyday pretty much, with things like clips, pins, notes and the format we choose for our dispatches.

But a cool paperclip will do more for you than simple brownie points. Let's consider the following scenario. A man in a grey suit, in a grey office, affixes a conventional wire paperclip to a document (probably a FINAL WARNING MUST PAY! notice) and hands it to his colleague, similarly attired, who proceeds to file the document by muscle memory, without so much as a hello, thanks or 'What time's lunch?'

Now what if, and call me crazy, Mr Grey was to hold his documents together, not with a paperclip, but with a Fermagli Gigante!? Let's make it a pink one. Mr Filer would almost certainly put down his ENTERED stamp and ask 'Mr Grey, where is this from?' Mr Grey would say 'Oh, it's just a fermagli gigante...i have hundreds of them on my desk in a little yourself!'

Try it! Be as stereotypically Luigi as you can and say Barrotollo di Fermagli Gigante! You're smiling, aren't you? Your neighbour, he's smiling too, right? Maybe giggling. With the release of endorphins that comes from such rewarding contact, such aesthetic pleasures, productivity can only go up! If we were to return to Final Notice Inc. in a fortnight, I'm sure that red ink would be substituted for the happy black of financial viability! Mr Grey and Mr Filer enjoying a daily espresso and brainstorming a new paradigm for their industry!

And if not, if maybe it takes more than a paperclip and a fortnight to build a business empire from the brink of bankruptcy, well at least there would have been a ray of sunshine piercing through the hazy grey of a workplace shrouded in the overcast conditions of its own perfunctoriness. And if you're Mr Grey, then at least you can say 'Not me! I'm actually paying attention to the details!'

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Leather Satchel or...

On a recent trip through the CBD, somewhere along Bourke st, I passed a somewhat incongruously placed footy fan wearing his beloved Tigers jumper. I know Melbourne is pretty footy-mad in May but you don't expect such sights at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning. Anyway, as I passed I overheard the answer to what must be a question he is surely used to answering by now as he said 'You gotta wear your heart on your sleeve...'

Though tempted to stop and point out that his 'jumper' is sleeveless so he might need to re-think his phrasing, I passed by without giving the comment too much of my attention. But it eventually came back to my mind as I sat on the train heading back out to our HQ in Yarraville. Ever interested in etymology I couldn't help but wonder what he meant by heart. There are a few ways to think about the word so I wrote them down.

There is that pop culture ♥ icon, normally followed by 'NY' and about a million other uses. The anatomical heart, an ugly lump of myocardium with its own electrical current or the physiological heart...a way of saying that the function is distinct from the form.

It is this last one that I like most. The first is misleadingly simple and a little diluted nowadays. The second is ugly and problematic. But the third? It's full of wonderful metaphor! It keeps us alive, humbly, tirelessly and reliably. So much so that you probably don't think about it...I know I don't. But there it is in the background, taken for granted but unwaveringly delivering what we need where we need it, right on time!

Content with my scribbled monologue, I put the Delfonics Rollbahn back in my satchel and pulled out something to read - The Space Race. How thankful I was to have a distraction from the rattling train, the industrial west's not so scenic scenery and the train's PA system that tells you it's Flinders st when you're in South Kensington.

It was here, just before finding my bookmark, that I realised - wait a minute! This satchel, this lump of stitched leather that I'd never really given any thought to, was actually keeping me alive in its own way! Nothing physical, of course, but still ever so important, delivering what I need where I need it, right on time! Where the cells need oxygen, the mind needs something to do, something to challenge itself, to broaden its horizons.

I looked at it again. Opened it. Closed it. Felt the shoulder strap. I probably had the same expression on my face that the proto-humans of 100 thousand years ago had when it finally clicked that 'it's not just a rock, dummy! It's a tool!'

So here was my satchel, here is my satchel, here forever will be my satchel, like a heart strung over my shoulder! Keeping me alive and happy, healthy, and properly functioning. Without it, there is no notebook, no pens, no observing and making sense of the world. There is nothing to read, no exploration, self-improvement or broadening of my horizons. There is no iPhone, no iPad, no laptop and no quick finish to that thing at work. There is no expression of myself, just a diminished representation to the world around me. This satchel is my heart...lucky I've got a good one!

It's tempting here to say 'And I love it!' but I'm sticking to my guns. Nobody really loves their physiological heart, the relationship goes beyond the jurisdiction of love. It's one of need. I need it, I rely on it, I would be kind of lost without it!

Maybe that is what the Tigers fan meant on Bourke St. Maybe he was just repeating something he'd heard many times before. This is no repeat. Appropriation, perhaps, but it comes from thought and is confirmed by feeling. This satchel is my heart, it keeps more than just a tiny part of me alive, and I need it. I wear my heart on my shoulder!

Click through to check out the rest of the NoteMaker team's Work Bags and what we carry inside everyday! Show us what's in your bag and win a new one! The coolest heart transplant of all times! (Please note: Competition now closed.)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Wall Planners & Financial Year Diaries!

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, dear Reader, but it's time to start planning! Whether just for yourself, your family, your workmates, your accountant, or for whomever, a plan has always made a big difference and remains more relevant than ever. A brief look back at some lessons and examples of planning has shown me that most of what I've ever been exposed to on the theme of Planning is kind of inadequate.
Let's start at the start. As with most life lessons containing a moral, planning has been addressed in the canon of Aesop's fables. The Ant & The Grasshopper is worthy of most primary school classrooms but strikes me as completely deficient in 21st century relevance. There is an ascetic Ant who spends all his Summer days storing food, even though it's really hot and unpleasant to haul grain from A to B all day long, while a self-indulgent Grasshopper takes it easy, enjoys the shade and lives high on the hog for half the year. Inevitably, of course, Winter rolls round and the Grasshopper ends up more or less starving while the Ant and his brethren enjoy the spoils of their summer toils.
I need to check myself here. Aesop wrote this circa 600BC when work was probably about as simple as storing grain, so I'm sure it would have been a box office smash in Ancient Greece. But nowadays, it just doesn't apply. This is not the fine juggling act of options, decisions, people and tasks that we now call planning, it's more like a single choice played out day after day.
So if Aesop fails us, to where do we turn? If you're like me, when you're in a bind you will Do What Cook Would Do! Captain James Cook, of course. History's greatest Navigator and Discoverer, whose ambition took him 'not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.'
Cook was the last Hero of the Age of Discovery. Indeed, his efforts brought that era to a close, along with the rise of the industrial revolution. As brave as Cook was, ever stoical in the face of disaster, and as smart and ahead of his time as he was, he wasn't really a planner extraordinaire. In fact, the best back up he had when losing track of his second ship was to write a message in a bottle, bury it under a tree and carve into the trunk 'Dig Here' before sailing on. This isn't James's fault, of course...what else could he do?
Cook does provide one lesson about planning that applies to us today. He is often lauded as a great polymath because his journals reveal all kinds of insights on botany, geography, ethnography, people management, resource management, political science and philosophy. Cook was none of this and even if he was, nobody in their right mind would take this approach these days. Dilettante now has a negative connotation because the amount of knowledge required in any one role these days is so overwhelmingly large that if you try to cover 3 or 4 bases you'll inevitably be found wanting in all of them. We are in an age of specialisation that requires many people coming together across many facets of a task and each doing a relatively small part expertly. Quality over quantity indeed!
So here we stand. Aesop has let us down simply because he dealt with a time that was far too simple and completely lacked the complexity we now confront every day. Cook even lets us down because, well, it was the Age of Discovery and there was a complete lack of information on which to base a plan and technology with which to implement it. Neither of these conditions exist nowadays, so how do we plan many people coming together across broad and multiple projects with expertise rather than plain old amateur enthusiasm?
I find the answer in a science fiction novel (here's hoping the boss doesn't read how we do things...) by Theodore Sturgeon from 1953 - More Than Human. The novel runs in Sturgeon's methodical, pseudo-macabre style and presents the idea of Homo Gestalt. Six extraordinary people with really strange, unique traits and abilities blend together to act as one organism, becoming this great gestalt consciousness. Sturgeon presents this as the next stage of human evolution but I see it as the ideal way to plan tasks in the 21st century!
Now we're not yet up to literally blending multiple minds into one but with work these days, we have so many specialised tasks each contributing to such a large, overwhelming edifice that it would kind of be ideal! Failing Homo Gestalt, we can actually kind of get close with planning, right? Sturgeon's creation develops ridiculous powers and abilities because all minds are as one and all talents can be directed via the one me, Homo Gestalt is little more than a well maintained Wall Planner!
As there are many facets to any task there are many facets to any plan. Individuals need to diarise tasks and run their own schedules but without that central gestalt consciousness, you'll end up with 5 one fifths of Captain James Cook rather than 5 experts. The difference is the well planned broader scheme, the context for work and effort, the common grey matter that those efforts are channeled through. If we think of consciousness as nothing more than the state of being aware, then Wall Planners, Team Planners and big, obvious, readily available business plans become your gestalt consciousness - a single conductor that waves its baton for your orchestra of specialists!
So do it now! Get planning! You can grab your 18 Month Moleskine Diary now and you will enjoy a Winter in Ancient Greece flush with grain. Or you can grab your Financial Year Diary for yourself and or a wall planner for your team, leave Ancient Greece behind, forget about getting lost in the pacific and touch the next stage of human evolution, vis-a-vis the 9 to 5.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Defy Bags & Craftsmanship

The video above from Defy Bags actually encapsulates a lot of the story of manufacturing, and as such, of society, over the last few's quite interesting (you can watch a nice big version here if you like).

Defy bags was founded by Chris Tag. Chris makes every bag, from start to finish, in Chicago and openly admits that a seed for craftsmanship was planted in his personality during childhood, watching his father and grandfather coming home from work at the General Motors factory in Dayton, Ohio. This was a time when American industry was unrivalled in its power. The American mainland escaped World War II relatively unscathed and so they found themselves, in that most o-matic of decades, the 50s (you know, cut-o-matic, slice-o-matic, grill-o-matic appliances), with a lot of hands, a lot of money and a lot of resources. One of the great industrial booms in recorded history followed as factory after factory was opened, staffed and producing goods, goods, goods!

 For a lot of people, though, the boom wasn't so sweet. As things progressed, all of these amazing machines, inventions and automated processes were being developed and a lot of those hands suddenly found themselves without too much to do! Machines overtook that unscathed landscape and manufacturing went away from the idea of a bunch of people in control of a few relatively simple tools to a bunch of relatively complex machines being operated by a few relatively simple processes.

This was great for quality of life compared to a time when there were no washing machines, no vacuum cleaners, no household appliances but not so great for the quality of those things that had forever existed. Have you ever compared, say, a flat packed dining table to a beautiful dining table from the 40s? There is no such thing as a dining table from the 40s that isn't beautiful, they were made by men with their hands, no bolts or screws or clips, just timber at the mercy of somebody engrossed in what they're doing.

Here's the main point about hand made stuff: there is no loophole for apathy. The work becomes engrossing, the responsibility all yours, the ownership of the task is unmistakable. You can look at the finished product as a direct reflection of fact, you can't look at it in any other way. In short, you do it well.

But back to the 50s and society in general. The space race was on between the Soviets and the States and with each thrilling instalment, this infatuation with automation, with 'technology' just got bigger and bigger. Using your hands became passe. By the time Neil Armstrong was on the Moon, Americans had nothing left to hang on to but their household appliances and unrivalled material quality of life. Vietnam was a disaster, Watergate was around the corner but nobody lived more comfortably than Americans. People were ignoring the aforementioned loophole, because things were comfy.

 But then a cruel twist of irony as the 80s came along and Japan was all of a sudden ruling the world of automated manufacturing. Where Hirohito had failed, Akio Morita and the Sony Corporation had succeeded. All of those once mighty factories, initially staffed with skilled craftsmen, later staffed with shiny machines, were finally shuttered. Veil American manufacturing.

All of these forces still exist; an infatuation with technology, a desire for a comfortable quality of life and a reliance on the economy of automated manufacture. But they are not everything. They are great for basic things but here is where the script gets flipped. We, most of us, the lucky ones, are no longer in a daily struggle for quality of life. Things are comfy. Nor is the idea of 'technology' so novel that we pay attention to informercials about kitchen appliances. Where hand made things used to be passe, we now understand that it is quite the opposite. As Shakespeare wrote for the Merchant of Venice, 'but at the length, truth will out' and we now crave the very things which were taken for granted and seen as archaic 60 years ago - for something that is handmade!

Why? Again, it's that loophole for apathy. The fact that when you hold something handmade, you are holding a direct reflection of the maker. To take the present subject matter as an example, each Defy Bag really does carry this story, that once there were proud men doing work they were proud of, that we lost our way but that at the length, truth will out. Chris puts it well: "I believe you don’t just create with your hands and brain. But with your hands, brain and heart."

There is an individual story, a uniqueness, a personality to each finished piece. It may manifest itself as something trivial and simple but in principle it is everything. If you've seen bags made on an assembly line, you've seen a worker put a piece of fabric into what looks like a giant transparent barbeque, and stand aside for 30 seconds while some science-fiction stitch-o-matic does its work. It looks kind of neat, and I'm sure a child would be really impressed with the speed and I'm sure the robotic accomplishment is an engineering masterpiece but in none of these qualities do I see signs that somebody has put their heart into what they are doing and that the finished piece is a reflection of a craftsman's principles and integrity.