Thursday, May 3, 2012

Clairefontaine Notebooks & 'The Source'



A very much wanted delivery of Clairefontaine Notebooks arrived last week, choc full of Clairefontaine Essentials Clothbound Notebooks. I was really excited, we all were. Due to outrageous popularity of late, these guys have been sold out but fountain pen users can now breathe a sigh of relief - they are back!



I am reminded here of that old phrase 'You don't miss your water 'til the well runs dry...' It seems that we at NoteMaker and even myself personally have kind of neglected this amazing paper, the amazing little biography of Clairefontaine. I searched Field Notes for Clairefontaine expecting a bevy of posting about what essentially was the one piece of stationery that 'got me' in the first place and could only turn up a single post, which dealt with the quirks of an infant King as much as the paper in question.



So shame on me - it was only in a time of dire Clairefontaine shortage that I realised how great the Essentials notebooks are and now, as repentant as any sinner, I'm here to divulge my thoughts on Clairefontaine paper.



I remember this fairly vividly. It was whilst innocently thumbing through a Rhodia Pad (as we stationery fans know, Rhodia paper is made by Clairefontaine) for the first time that I first 'got' design stationery. I don't mean that I began to understand the appeal or the idea on an intellectual level. I don't mean that i saw it as a source of economic independence. I mean that I got it, a visceral sensation down to the marrow of my bones, and I have since counted myself one of the many who have fallen under this Siren's song, almost certainly never to return.



I couldn't believe it. I hadn't even written on it. That, I proceeded to do with a 3.15mm lead Lamy Scribble, a 4B lead made for sketching, it is agreeably smooth on the worst paper. I think I was transported back to some childhood nirvana, the sheer joy of making any mark and getting that instant gratification of seeing yourself transposed onto paper. I was just making wholly unintelligible loops and lines here and there over that pale blue 5x5mm grid, actually giggling, incredulous at even the idea of comparing this paper to what I had previously known.



I've since learned a little bit about why Clairefontaine's Mill in the Vosges region of France is so amazingly good. In 1858, Clairefontaine set-up in a Paper Mill that itself was built in 1512. They started making stationery, as opposed to just loose leaf paper etc, in 1890 and were the first to make school notebooks, those petits cahiers, for all of France.



That Clairefontaine is a Paper Mill first and foremost is incredibly important. They have this tunnel vision for paper quality and they are quite unique among widely available, consumer-marketed stationery in this capacity. Clairefontaine has absolute control over the whole process of manufacturing. This might sound rather unremarkable but paper quality is a microscopic thing and tiny differences make a huge impact, as anyone who has had their fountain pen or rollerball feather on poor paper will attest. From one notebook to the next, Melbourne to Toulouse, your paper will be exactly the same. I mean, other brands' paper may look the same, may even feel the same, but once you start writing on it, testing the integrity of that sheet, how closely interlocked those fibres of pulp are, how amicably it abides the application of your ink or pencil lead, you can sometimes be disappointed. When you source your paper from a third party, unfortunately these tiny details of quality just aren't your call.



Not with Clairefontaine notebooks. Never, in fact. The best fountain pen in the world may skip from time to time or you'll run out of ink. Your iPhone can have a tantrum and your MacBook can give you that spinning wheel. Your car will break down, the train will be late and you might even break the strap on your backpack. But as a daily tool goes, that thing you rely on for your work, Clairefontaine's paper just will not let you down. Ever. Paper is overlooked in this capacity as a tool but it totally is. I find few things more frustrating than writing across a page and having the poorly made sheet shed itself of paper fibres, like a leper, which then get drawn up into my nib and disrupt the flow of ink. Or writing with a ballpoint and having those little blobs of loose papery swill accumulate under the ball. It's the equivalent of Microsoft Word crashing just as you start to move the cursor towards SAVE after a good hour of work!



As I seem to have started a little rant here, I may as well finish it. I really want to use both sides of the sheet of paper and few notebooks give you the reverse side in mint condition. I mean I can live with a little 'echo' and so long as I'm not using a dark ink, I can even deal with some bleeding from time to time but there is no comparison for turning the page over to find two brand spanking paper adonises ready to take your thoughts. We at NoteMaker have turned away some really cool stuff because it's performance in this regard does not cut it.



That's kind of the practical side of why, personally, I love that Clairefontaine paper. But there are other reasons beyond basic utility and reliability and I think these can be seen as arguably just as important. Clairefontaine is a Paper Mill, it is the source, the undiluted, inviolable beginning of the final product. It's the farmer's market of paper! That whole slow food movement is all about getting back to the source of your food, right? Many authors, Michael Pollan probably the most widely read of them, have made quite a fuss about why we should worry about this. It's not just gastronomy at play here, it's a deeper human phenomenon as far as i can see. We love, probably need, to know and to trust the provenance of the things in our lives. To do so is comforting, a form of honesty with the inanimate objects in our life.



We all worry about this. It's why universities have a rigorous peer review system for original research and it's why we subsidise and rely on University research so much. With each degree that we move away from that source (think about an article in Nature vs an article in New Idea) things get progressively shakier. Can you trust it? How far have we deviated from the source?



To sum it up, Clairefontaine is really one of very, very few stationery makers who can show you exactly how, from start to finish, they make that amazing paper and bind it into a notebook. They are singular in the quality of those notebooks.

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