Hi Amy, thanks for joining us today. Can you tell us how you came to start Mark + Fold; have you always had a special appreciation for stationery, or did this develop later in life?
If you were speaking to a four-year-old Amy and asked what she wants to do when she's older, she'd say "to make notebooks". It's a lifelong obsession, but that's not uncommon with stationery lovers. We're normally that kid at school who enjoyed lining up their pencils in colour order.
My parents are both architects, and I spent a lot of time in their offices as a kid. I got to play around with all kinds of amazing technical pens and giant rolls of tracing paper. I've got vivid memories of going with my mum to pick up drawings from the 'repro' place and being surrounded by these huge plotting machines and the smell of ink. It was an exciting place to be as a six-year-old. Clearly, it left a lasting impression on me.
When I was a kid, my mum would take me to Paperchase in Tottenham Court Road. It was a bit of a mecca for people who liked paper, pens and all things stationery.
I've always kept a diary and have a collection of notebooks dating back to the end of primary school; A lot of them came from that very store. There's one I remember in particular that I got when I was about 9. It had a corrugated black card cover with craft paper pages, and this great slot that let it close on itself without any elastic. It goes without saying; I've loved notebooks for a very long time.
Fast forward to when I was studying for my MA in design at LCC; I was working with a few design agencies and was constantly surrounded by print design and production. I worked as a book designer for a while, designing 'coffee table' style books where the cover, paper and materials really matter.
It was around this time I started binding books myself. It gave me an understanding of how a book is actually made, which not many people have. Often graphic designers will spend months working on the contents of a book, and then at the very end, they'll ask, "what paper should we print it on?" For me, it's the first thing to consider. I see the process more as building an object, sculpting it out of paper. The typography comes after.
So was that the lightbulb moment when you decided to start your own brand after you made that first book?
Not exactly. My very first book was actually a diary I made for my best friend as a Christmas gift. I laid all the pages out in QuarkXPress, printed them on my bubble jet printer then managed to find a spiral binder, I think I was about 14 at the time. I've got memories of even lower-tech bookmaking as a kid, stapling bits of paper together, designing the covers and stuff like that. I've always been really particular, and even at that huge Paperchase, I often couldn't find quite what I wanted.
Getting a new notebook was my own little ritual growing up, if i had a bit of money in my back pocket, I'd go and treat myself. I'd spend a long time picking up every single notebook or diary, assessing the paper and materials before choosing my favourite one. There was this period of time when the quality of notebooks available went drastically downhill. I remember going to shops that I used to love and being completely underwhelmed by what was available.
As I got older and learnt more about book production, I came to understand that companies were using the cheapest possible methods and materials to make a notebook. Many started using magazine-style binding, which is far quicker and cheaper to do. It works great for magazines, but they're designed to be read from and not written in. When you hold a magazine in your hands, it's comfortable, and it's not a problem if the pages arc. But if you're writing in a book, it needs to lay flat.
Companies started focusing all their energy and budget on notebook covers because if they can make a notebook catch your eye from across the shop, there's a high chance you'll buy it. Unfortunately, after a couple of days using it, you realise it's a bit of a con. The materials are rubbish, ink's bleeding through the pages, and the binding is really stiff. The only consolation you get is that you've only wasted £10. I've never understood the 'cost first' mentality when designing, "It has to cost 10 quid, so what can we make for 10 quid?". Can't we just create things that are good quality and made properly, then work out what that costs?
Most people have something they like to spend a little more money on, I've always loved notebooks and stationery, but there weren't many options to reflect that. There has always been the really 'high end' stuff, but it's all a bit 'look at me!'. Lots of polished buckles and alligator skin, I can't imagine what they're like to write in. I wanted to create high-quality notebooks for those who like modern design, clean lines and simplicity.
In the past you've mentioned your frustration with the over feminisation of notebooks produced by large manufacturers. What do you think the reason for this is?
I suspect that big brands have just looked at market research, saw that more women buy stationery than men, and decided to specifically target women with bright, floral patterns.
It's likely a choice originally made out of fear of a decline in demand. The rise of digital communication in the 90s was a massive threat to the paper industry, and many stationery companies went bust. When everyone started sending emails instead of faxes, the companies making printer paper knew they were in trouble.
There's a difference of motive between large companies and independent brands. Our aim is to create beautiful objects, put them out into the world and make the people that use them happy. Obviously, we need to make money, but we're not really in it for the money. Big stationery companies have shareholders to appease, so are more focussed on 'stacking em high, and selling em low' It's all about how many units they can shift. If they find that turquoise is popular, they'll do turquoise. We're not going to do turquoise for the simple reason that I don't like turquoise.
When they were faced with the prospect of no one using notebooks or diaries ever again, it's not surprising. Big companies panicked and started targeting the largest demographic of the stationery market whilst trying to be the cheapest option available.
I have a contrasting view of that period of time, more like a revolution for paper. I even wrote about this for my MA. Our need for 'functional paper' is lower than ever, and when we use paper now, it's often for the really special stuff. Wedding invitations, birthday cards or certificates, it's because of the material itself, not because it's the only way to record information. There's an element of justifying our use of paper now. Surely the level of quality should be going up, not down.
It's been interesting observing the stationery industry over the past 20 years. Even since we started Mark + Fold, lots has changed. The average quality of what's available now is constantly improving, 'lay flat' binding is much more common, even with notebooks from bigger companies. They're realising they can't get away with putting out low-quality products anymore.
I think the over feminisation is part of all of that. It's a bit patronising to suggest that "feminine" has to be all flowery patterns and butterflies.
Tactility is such an important part of the products you make. How do you communicate this when the majority of people will only be able to view your products through pixels on a screen?
It's a big challenge, we do supply some physical stockists, but the majority of our sales have always been online. Having really good, honest photography is a big part of it, and I like to take most of our photos myself. I have such a genuine love for paper that I think it comes across in the images. I want people to feel the texture of the paper through the screen and see how special our notebooks are. There aren't many people who have spent as much time photographing notebooks as I have.
There's also a great community of stationery lovers on the internet who love to discuss their favourite notebooks. Sometimes one of our products will pop up on a blog, accompanied by a detailed assessment of how 20 different pens worked with the paper and what's the best combination. We're really proud that our products can stand up to that kind of scrutiny.
Sounds a lot like one of our founders, Noah. He's a long time pencil collector.
Yeah, I've heard about his love of pencils. When we were first discussing a collaboration I sent one of our notebooks for the guys to test out. I heard Noah was a little skeptical of how nice a notebook can actually be, but after trying it out, he was fully converted.
The Cumbrian paper mill which makes the
paper for Mark + Fold notebooks
Quality is obviously at the forefront of everything you create, but tell us about the sustainable nature of your production?
Notebooks do have a finite lifespan by their very nature, but there's a slightly outdated view that paper is always harmful or wasteful. Obviously, chopping down acres of the Amazon is something we should all be against, but a sustainably run bamboo forest, like the one our paper comes from, is a whole different story. At full pace, bamboo can grow a meter every 24 hours, and for every tree used, 3 more are planted. It's a positive cycle and a very healthy relationship with the resource. Some people might think buying cheap and putting less money into a paper manufacturers pocket is a better option, but the complete opposite is true. A £2 supermarket notebook has probably travelled halfway round the earth.
Environmental considerations are becoming an increasingly important factor when we make a purchase decision. More and more brands are giving us sustainable, lower-impact alternatives. It's not just fashion brands that are promoting themselves as 'sustainable' now. You can see it with all kinds of everyday products. Now these options are available to us, consumers can start to ask those ethical questions rather than having to buy whatever is available.
Rethinking products through a 2021 lens is great, but this isn't essential to make something more sustainable. We've just started stocking a German fountain pen that I've been using personally for about 20 years. It refills straight from an inkpot using a suction mechanism, there's no need for plastic cartridges. There's a lifetime guarantee on it, so if it ever breaks, you send it to them, and they fix it. I've done this once myself. They haven't thought, "ooh let's make a fountain pen and market it as sustainable" it's just great design, a neat little system. If you go to a 'packaging free' grocery store and refill your containers with lentils and rice, it's easy to think of that as something quite new, but that's what people were doing decades ago.
Is there any room for innovation within stationery? And what does the future hold for Mark + Fold?
It's hard to say what might change in the paper world, but I'm certain it will still be an important part of our lives. There's a great quote by a Japanese designer named Kenya Hara, who I get a lot of inspiration from "Paper's such an incredible material that since we invented it, it's always been there". Everyone thought the internet would make paper obsolete, but it just hasn't. Paper's been around for a long time, but to say it will never change would be like saying we've got enough fonts, so let's give up on typography, ridiculous.
For Mark + Fold, I've got a long list of special editions and exciting things we want to try. There's lots of numbered editions and one-off print runs on the horizon. We've talked to a lot of customers recently about their notebook collections and how they serve as an archive of your life, a library of your past thoughts and ideas. We're really excited about designing notebooks, diaries and product systems with this in mind.
Images: Alexander Newton Photography for Mark+Fold 2021
We have collaborated with our friends at Mark+Fold to create the perfect limited edition notebook.
Our A5 Notebook is expertly bound in Belgium using FSC certified paper made in Cumbria, United Kingdom. Featuring thread-sewn sections bound together with cold glue so that the book lays fat at 180°.
The pages are made from beautiful thick 120GSM paper with a perfectly smooth surface and excellent opacity - great for both ink and graphite.Click here to view our limited edition Makers Notebooks