This is going to be a different kind of consumer round-up. Not because the products I’ve chosen in themselves embody more or less design skill than goes into, say, a whisky bottle or a washing machine – they don’t. In fact, you could argue that some of them are scarcely designed at all. This is why I like them. No, the impossibility this time is finding anything I don’t like.
I have chosen office stationery. To me, the stationer’s is a magic kingdom, a treasure cave. Possibly only an ironmonger’s or hardware shop has quite the same effect on me. Quite simply, I want it all. I want to have everything in the shop. The objects on sale are just so intensely desirable. If this is a fetish, it is a long-standing one. As a child being taken round Woolworth’s, I would come to rest gazing at the crayons and ruled notepads and ink cartridges, and have to be torn away. It was even better than the Pick’n’Mix counter.
Nothing has changed. For me the principal lure of a big corporate organisation is the stationery cupboard. When I go to visit my pet national newspaper, I am sometimes discovered, in a trance-like state, in the postroom. I am usually gazing at the boxes of Bics and Pentels, the neat stacks of headed paper in various sizes, the teasing assortment of notebook formats, the thick, creamy bespoke envelopes, the giant balls of rough twine, the glittering vats of paper clips. Oh yes. All this and the intoxicating smell of cedar from the new pencils. No wonder people make off with the stuff as if they were magpies. I’m not in the least surprised that the novelist and traveller Bruce Chatwin found himself unable to write without the aid of his favourite French notebooks. These objects have strange powers.
So Ryman, the stationer, has a head start over most other retailers so far as I am concerned. It has other things to recommend it: it is unselfconscious, and entirely unconcerned with selling high-value cultish objects, unless you count mobile phones, which I don’t. Its window displays, if such they can be called, are touchingly amateurish piles of stock. I like the irony that London’s biggest branch is at the bottom of Great Portland Street, virtually opposite Oliver Peyton’s achingly chic new Mash restaurant, and close to a million © fashion shops. But Ryman just goes its own way.
The nearest thing it stocks that might remotely be des-cribed as a fashion accessory is a stainless-steel-bodied Parker 45 pen – that’s the one with the semi-enclosed nib that’s not quite so good as the earlier porpoise-like Parker 51, and moreover it has some vestigial gilt bits. Still, not bad for 25, so long as you leave the cap on so as not to display the plastic underneath. In contrast, I unreservedly recommend the two-ounce bottle of Parker Quink. How quaint that they still measure in ounces. How beguiling that the ultra-simple label still bears the trademark Solv-X. And what a nice, solid shape it is, with a no-nonsense knurled top that might as well be Bakelite. Filling pens with ink is splendidly ritualistic. For those who can’t see the point, there are only two acceptable disposables: the Bic crystal medium-point ballpoint, and the standard green plastic-bodied Pentel. To those I’d add the now-indispensable Stabilo Boss fluorescent marker felt tips in yellow, pink, green and blue.
I must thank the architect Will Alsop for pointing out the continued existence of the Helix Oxford school geometry set. That’s the rectangular enamelled tin containing protractor, set square, compasses, pencils, sharpener and so on – even a little timetable sheet for you to fill out. Ryman still has them, and they’re remarkably cheap. Alsop, I gather, still uses the compasses. For the same age-group (children, that is, not Alsop), there’s a pretty good Wooden Art Case stuffed with crayons, pastels, water colours, brushes and so on, about the size of the average notebook computer.
I am very keen on the vernacular stuff – the plain envelopes, the rolls of paper – but to choose these would be a bit of a cheat. Let me instead commend the look of their own-brand packs of copier paper. A ream of Copy Superior A4, with its varying shades of blue lettering on white, is as satisfying as a bag of plain flour. The best notebook is the spiral-bound Colourstyle A5 with its clear-coloured plastic cover (yellow’s best) and radiused corners; the best folder is the pop-fastening Snopake A3 Polyfile, again transparent and in various colours. And a three-roll clear pack of original cellulose Sellotape in its grown-up 25mm width is, I think, essential.
A shame that one of my old favourites – the East-Light lever-arch file with its archaic graphics – is no longer stocked, but there are other treasures to compensate. Item: the Dormy Office Printing Outfit Number One. I cannot imagine any office seriously using this successor to the children’s John Bull printing kit, but somebody must buy them: I don’t get the impression that Ryman is a sentimental organisation, stocking things out of nostalgia.
It is hard to improve on the traditional range of filing cabinets – again, these are practically vernacular objects. My choice is Bisley’s little 15-drawer cabinet with chromed handles, preferably in Oxford blue. Imagine the sensuality of a different weight and texture of paper in each drawer. If carbon paper still exists, you would keep it just for the smell.
Paperclips? Ryman does natty zebra-striped ones in its own range. Storage boxes? Try the © Assi flatpack cardboard system, in various bright water-based colours. They will probably fade in sunlight, but they’re cheap. All such stuff is exactly what you’d expect from a no-nonsense outfit like this.
Given the utilitarian nature of so much on offer, however, I was rather surprised to come across the Rexel
Staple Wizard. I first came across this machine in architect Stirling/Wilford’s Stuttgart office, where it looked absolutely at home. It is a Heath Robinson stapler for the electronic age, a deliberately and needlessly complex battery- powered gadget that looks like a child’s toy but isn’t, despite its choice of bright plastic colourways. A manual stapler is much quicker, but this is more fun until, after about six goes, you get bored.
No, there was almost nothing I really disliked in Ryman. I even felt mellow about the cheesy left-over 1998 calendars and all the gaudy and unfunny greetings cards. But, if I’m really pushed, I will pick out just one thing. The Hewlett-Packard inkjet printer cartridge, which has become an industry standard. As an object it is designed brilliantly. I use the things constantly. But I hate the sheer wastage involved. Not only do you throw away a printer head and a bit of circuitry every time you change one, but they are horribly over-packaged to buy. Archaeologists will be digging up used printer cartridges in thousands of years’ time and wondering why we didn’t use something a lot simpler. Something like a bottle of Quink.