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Paper production is becoming ever more commodified, but there is still a vast choice of stock available to designers, and more should be specifying papers to suit each brief, says Daniel Mason

THE RANGE of papers in the UK appears to be infinite. From the small numbers of speciality producers and suppliers, through to the large merchants, the choice available to a designer can be daunting. Paper is used in the production of literature and packaging as a means of communicating brand and information – its role is key in the success of any design. Yet how do you make the correct choice given that myriad stocks offer the same level of printability and opacity? How can you make coherent decisions?

Paper merchants and producers are aggressive in promoting their products. Lavish brochures, designed by luminaries of design and fine arts, are produced to great fanfare with launch parties to rival gallery openings. But can these events help a designer to negotiate the maze of choice? Geoff Burrows of GF Smith, one of the originators of such events – which involved Sir Peter Blake in a recent promotion – sees the printed promotional items as ‘important ink-onpaper demonstrations, helping to show designer and client just how that particular paper is going to look once run through a printing press’.

Printers also have a hand in keeping paper supplies diverse and buoyant, yet their reluctance to use unfamiliar papers can limit their clients to stocks that are known, tried and tested. Often it is left to the designer to specify specialty papers, engaging consultants, merchants and printers in the process.

London-based designer Yorgo Tloupas specified Colorplan for an invitation for Lacoste’s show at New York Fashion Week because it complemented the processes he wished to use – letterpress and die-stamping. ‘The choice came straight from the client’s brief, which was to reference its Spring/Summer clothing collection to the French game of Pelota, similar to cricket,’ Tloupas explains. The design bears an embossed coat of arms in a classic style, calling for a particularly heavy, elegant paper, ‘something a bit classic, not too glossy, offwhite and very thick, like a board. The final choice was over 1000gsm, and print processes were key to the design – the envelope was sealed with a traditional hot wax stamp,’ adds Tloupas. Design group Point Blank Collective specified Omnia, a branded sheet supplied by Fenner Paper, for Innovate’s brand book, a heavily inked, colourful book that would normally be printed on a coated stock. Point Blank preferred not to use a commodity paper, and Omnia offers an uncoated surface that – uncharacteristically – can hold a full image. A store card for Savile Row tailor Kilgour, designed by Saville Parris Wakefield, underwent rigorous proofing on at least seven stocks before Kilgour creative director Carlo Brandelli selected Omnia, in this case because the paper provided the densest black result when printing a distinctive stingray image out of black. Tloupas believes that having a good relationship with a printer or paper consultant is vital to making an informed selection. ‘When working with a printer in Paris who did a lot of work for [fashion designer] Yohji Yamamoto, I’d call him up at the beginning of a project and he’d suggest really unusual processes. We were able to do weird headed paper for Louis Vuitton that we would not have otherwise done, with amazing results,’ he says.

Some designers source unusual papers, but the paper industry could become so commoditised that everything is dictated by price. This will lead to a limitation of choice, with specialist suppliers and stocks being withdrawn.

Justin Hobson of Fenner Paper says, ‘The number of paper mills that have closed down in recent years is huge. Large, modern paper machines that have been built in recent years can produce five or ten times what a traditional, smaller mill might produce. A new mill in JiangSu, China, established in 1997, is producing two million tonnes of paper a year. This compares with the Sittingbourne Paper Mill in the UK, which closed in January this year (it was established in 1876). It was producing 210 000 tonnes and was quite a big mill. Choice is being eroded and it will get worse,’ Hobson warns.

Ultimately, the more that print is used to communicate the emotion of ideas, rather than just deliver information, the likelier it is that a healthy choice of paper supplies will be preserved. Paper has a long history – it needs to be celebrated and coveted.

Daniel Mason runs the consultancy Something Else, advising designers on specialist printing and packaging techniques and brokering innovative projects. His new book, Materials Process Print, is published by Laurence King on 29 October

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