“Oh My God…… it Even Has a Watermark……..”
In a world of iPhones, refined stationery – be it one’s fountain pen or business card – remains an elegant and personal touch
Article by Winston Chesterfield Photography by Álvaro Serrano
The film American Psycho – one of my favourite films of the last 20 years – is replete with memorable scenes. Whether it’s the ludicrous muscle-flexing, winking and pointing at the camera during a rather heartless sexual encounter or the near operatic axe-murder scene with a transparent raincoat and Huey Lewis soundtrack, American Psycho has a cult like following and was to the pre-2008 banker yuppies what Wall Street was to the Big Bang 1980s traders.
It also reintroduced me to the magic of business cards.
Until I watched American Psycho, I had dismissed them as old fashioned and obsolete, not to mention unforgivably ugly and tacky. They were the sort of thing I associated with people who made professions out of attending conferences, addictively collecting frequent flyer miles, wearing cheap suits, drinking tropical cocktails in sad airport bars, selling insurance or Florida condos.
Then, American Psycho – which is still puzzlingly described as a horror – and its slick, black comedy reshaped my view. Successful, expensively attired, powerful and intelligent men – “Masters of the Universe” – working themselves into a sweat-inducing funk when comparing the barely discernible design differences of their business cards. Sure, the message underlying the scene might have been dark condemnation of materialism, but virtually everyone remembers it fondly as an hilarious example of comic egocentricity.
The thing is, the film is not wrong. Business cards really do matter.
When I hand mine over after a meeting, I always note how the recipient runs their finger over the gold foil logo, or the raised lettering, feeling the weight and thickness of the card. You leave a physical reminder of yourself with someone, a souvenir.
It’s why I make my own Christmas cards – and utterly shun this faux-thoughtful ‘Paperless Post’ nonsense. How depressing it is to receive an email-merge message of goodwill; a lazy pile of pixels, with no smell, no fingerprints or smudged ink, no gloriously imperfect handwriting.
Such things are symptomatic of a lazy generation of grabbers and takers – but not givers – and the immediate gratification culture of low creativity. Stationery – proper, decent stationery – is a sensory experience and a giving experience. It’s also a pleasurable luxury. And it says a lot about who you are.
Though originally an Egyptian invention, paper making was arguably mastered by the Italians. I have fond recollections of wandering through old wood-panelled shops in Renaissance Tuscan towns, gazing in glass display cases full of soap and fragrances, over to shelves of writing paper, and finely bound sketch and writing books with marbled covers.
These paper shops in places like Florence make an art out of a material that has long been seen as a commodity, thanks to the printed press and the likes of Canon and Hewlett Packard. And with this commodity on the decline, being replaced by the digital page, the return of really good paper is a symbol of a return to the personal.
London also has its fair share of fine stationers – the most notable being the late Victorian Smythson of Bond Street, famous for being stationers to the Queen. Although now arguably better known as a supplier of fine leathergoods, the Smythson stamp on the reverse of an invitation or ‘At Home’ greetings card was a sure sign of a host who wouldn’t scrimp on the champagne. And it’s not really about the branded stamp either. It’s about the rustle of the tissue lined envelope when you open a Smythson card; the impressive weight and thickness that makes you think a Smythson invitation could temporarily fix a leaking roof.
Wren Press, another royal warrant holder, are best known for their invitation service and personalised stationery – an indulgence, certainly, but a very affordable one. A set of 100 personalised sheets of writing paper (with a personal monogram – very Great Gatsby – or your home address) costs about £1.50 a sheet – £2.00 if you select tissue-lined envelopes. Though your first thought may well be “That’s an awful lot of money” – it’s best to remember that you’ll probably only send 20 a year.
Pens used to rank as one of the most sensible long-term investments a gentleman can make. I know this, because my father told me so when we picked up a Mont Blanc on my 22nd birthday. Men of my father’s generation kept valuable pens inside their suit jackets for decades, always at the ready if a contract, chequebook or receipt needed a scrawl.
I grew up with a computer, so pens were always slightly anachronistic. I used them at school in my early years, but by the time I was writing essays, laptops had replaced traditional notebooks and pens became more occasional and ceremonial.
As a result, the beautiful Chopin edition Meisterstuck I owned was little-used and ended up getting lost in a drawer somewhere.
As you get older, and more senior in professions, you realise that pens are actually extremely useful. Not only because your John Hancock is more valuable the higher you are on the ladder, but because you end up making small comments, reviews or small edits rather than writing full blown tomes. And the best way to do this – the civilised way – is by hand.
However, not all pens are equal.
Yes, the fountain pen is fussy – with messy and frequent refills a common complaint – but it provides the most marvellously enjoyable writing experience, enabling you to create luscious, calligraphic art. Next is the rollerball, which is a notch down on smoothness but more efficient and long-lasting than the fountain pen. The rollerball pen uses liquid ink, which makes the rollerball feel smother and more liquid than a ballpoint – which is certainly the least appealing of the trio. This gives the rollerball a more fluid action which also gives it a finer writing line.
Notebooks & Diaries
The last items of stationery that are often perceived to be past their sell by date are the good old writers’ notebooks and diaries. In this age of mass electronica – where seven year olds have touch screen devices and Kindles can hold in excess of 5,000 books – it’s easy to see why.
We get reminded about our friends’ birthdays by Facebook, we get messages telling us our next meeting is eight minutes’ walk away, we get encouraged to use apps as if they were virtual pads – essentially, we have robots and algorithms looking out for our lazy instincts. Yes it makes it easier, but you have to ask the question whether it makes it any better.
Using notebooks and diaries is about pleasure and sentiment. I have several old Moleskine notebooks from my university years filled with pen drawings and caricatures, quotes, thoughts, ideas – the musings of a young, naïve man. There is an intimate, scholarly beauty to them – and they don’t need charging either.