It’s that time of year again. Rummaging through shelves and great book bins to hoard that perfect File-O-Fax or diary for 2011. For some, it’s a basic necessity for school or the office and boring chore. Others find the experience of buying (and using) stationery a strangely thrilling experience. And you don’t have to be a scrapbooking nerd to love this stuff. From being tools of organisation to repositories of memories, it’s not just about what you buy — it’s about how you use it and what it means.
Whether it’s the sense of commitment that comes from finding the perfect diary for the coming year (warm yellow not white pages please!), or the satisfaction that comes from adding another Sharpie to the collection sneakily amassing in your desk drawer, the strange fetish for beautifully handcrafted sheets of paper or the most charming parchment and quill set seems hard to understand.
For one thing, you’re not just buying paper or ink — you feel as though you’re investing in your own time; honing your mode of expression and communication with not only others, but yourself.
And it’s not just about pencilling in appointments or remembering birthdays marked on a calendar. These days, organisation is becoming even more personal, with DIY calendars, notebooks, diaries and desk planners. It’s remarkable how these products, standardised by size, weight and colour, can still yield in small ways to individual style. It seems to be a throwback to the times of flourishing quills, creamy parchment and individually crafted wax seals.
In fact, researchers at the University of Exeter, Craig Knight and S Alexander Haslam (2010), have found that when workers have greater decorative or organisational input in their office spaces, it increases productivity and efficiency. A great neologism they use is the idea that this behaviour produces a sense of ‘organisational citizenship’. Self decoration promotes identification and personal empowerment. And for the businessman or woman, the right stationery becomes a function of your power, according to Dana Casperson, author of Power etiquette: what you don’t know can kill your career.
Stationery stores like Kikki K rouse our sporadic desire to organise life – a desire that usually peaks at the end or beginning of a year. Tasteful and poetic, simply walking into the gleaming white spaces and carefully arranged stations inside inspire awkward comparisons with the hastily arranged sheafs of paper littering your office desk or the clumsy pile of messages (written on the back of envelopes) stacked next to the phone.
Then there are stores like Smiggle for the more playful and colourful types. And new kid-on-the-block Typo is for a more droll, organic and cheeky experience—the sticky-tabs boasting words like ‘crap’, ‘shit’ and the ever relevant ‘f’ word certainly seem to resonate more accurately with the student textbook ear-marking experience. But stores like Typo aren’t just stationery outlets; they’re ‘concept stores’. There is a theme threading through each paper-clip, wall art set and journal studded with obscure quotes; an imperative to write, record and remember imbuing every detail.
Making the transition to quirky little arts and crafts stores tucked away in street corners seems to be the next natural step. There are also modest offbeat online communities dedicated to sharing their rare finds, like The Quick + Dirty Dirty and Swanky Stationery blog where discussions not only focus on the business side of selling stationery, but nurturing the artistic social practices like letter-writing that have developed around these objects. A more eclectic online community resides at Friendship by Mail where members sustain the authentic pen-pal experience as well as sharing the reasons behind their reverence for notepaper.
Centuries of particular social practices have developed around stationery—from Egyptian papyrus used only by the most educated scribes, to the vitally important elegance of a lady’s penmanship and the historical significance of letter-writing as a means of exchanging political discourse using, of course, proper language. As author and paper expert Herbert Holik writes, ‘the history of paper is also the history of human culture and civilization.’ It’s changed from being an artistic product used only to the wealthy or educated to one used by the masses.
Stationery allows us to communicate. This process has steadily unfurled from its traditional associations with class and gender to become more democratic, creative and above all, personal. It has the power to reflect a person’s personal aesthetic and philosophy.
While most people may never spend a good hour debating the relative merits of different types of sticky-notes or make that critical choice between a medium and fine point pen, surely you can stop, take a break and smell the papers?