Do you ever look at the stationery you’re using and wonder how it came to be? I do. With this in mind, I recently visited G.F Smith, a paper maker. I had come across G.F Smith online when reading about various paper projects so when I saw that they have a space you can visit and a gorgeous paper art installation, I popped over one lunchtime to visit this Great British company.
I work in west London so I set up a lunchtime slot to visit. Although I was expecting a quick potter around, once there I was greeted by Matt, who could not have been more friendly and helpful and basically set aside nearly an hour to show me round the whole space, explain the history of the company and its activities now, and walk me all around the Tidal installation. G.F Smith occupy a fantastic space right behind Oxford Street.
If you look carefully around this area there are actually many independent and design-led companies and it’s quite a different experience to Oxford Street itself. The space has a beautiful glass frontage giving a glimpse to all of the colour and inside there were a whole host of different faces, from employees having a business meeting, to customers new and old, and visitors, like me. Even before you go in, the frontage is awash with suspended coloured paper, an artwork in itself by Made Thought design consultancy to create a visually disruptive effect through paper, arranged from white to black and all of the colours in between from G.F Smith’s Colorplan paper range (more on that later). I also discovered that G.F Smith are a friend of our favourite podcast, The Pen Addict (and it was coincidentally mentioned on a recent show!).
G.F Smith, the space, and its collection of historical documents
G.F Smith are a paper company, founded in the north-east of England. In Hull to be exact, the current UK City of Culture. The company specifically supply beautiful paper to a range of creative industries, as well as high quality books and frames. G.F Smith’s paper is still produced in Hull, and up on the wall there’s a sheet that tells you what colours are being produced up that particular week. The week I went saw Bright White, China White and Natural Vellum White on the mill.
G.F Smith trace the beginnings of Colorplan paper can back to the 1930s when the design, print and packaging industry grew alongside new mass communication. Three Colorplan colours, “Smoke”, “China White” and “Bagdad Brown” were created. Colour in media really exploded in the 1960s and G.F Smith responded to this by creating an paper range unrivalled in colour and scope.
One of the highlights of my visit was spending some time with the amazing collection of documents relating to the company going back through the ages to the late 1800s when the company was founded. Matt told me a couple of stories about the company and how it evolved while looking at these documents, wearing obligatory dust gloves to preserve these paper items, of course. It was fascinating.
There are also examples of G.F Smith’s work throughout all of these different micro-eras. Some of them show how there are typographic, design and colour themes that are just timeless.
Some of them are also delightfully of their time, check out this 70s paper catalogue:
The space also showcases some of G.F Smith’s collaborations. Currently, there’s a beautiful Mulberry installation. G.F Smith make bespoke paper for Mulberry to home their beautiful wares: a deep green (which always signifies British-ness to me), leather textured paper with a simple silver hot-foil embossed logo. G.F Smith looked at the leather that Mulberry use to make their bags and tried to replicate the texture for this paper.
The space itself is also full of fun quirks:
Colorplan is G.F Smith’s flagship paper and it comes in an awe-inspiring range of options. Firstly, there are a huge array of colour and texture choices. A customer can choose to vary the shade and weight of the paper, creating over 8000 variations of Colorplan that can be made taking all of these choices into account. For a “non-bespoke” product, I find that staggering. The colours are all lined up with a generous swatch of each (great in comparison to looking at tiny patches of colour).
This was the real treat of my visit. Downstairs there is a simple room housing a simple paper project, with beautiful results. Row upon row of hand-laid tubes of paper are lined up, weighed down with a small internal weight (no sticking to the floor!) to create waves of colour. It’s literally paper in a room; there isn’t any ambient music or information on the wall, people aren’t loitering like an art gallery. But what a beautiful effect!
Oh what it would be like to swim in this wave of colour. It has a pleasing roundness to it, and spotlights highlight the seemingly vast range of Colorplan shades. Similar tones are grouped together, which I thought might be a risky strategy for white, off-white and near-white neutral shades, but in reality their proximity just highlights the subtle differences between them. And the installation is as simple as that. I walked all the way around it, snapping pictures and burbling about how gorgeous it is!
My G.F Smith guide, Matt, told me that this space is hopefully going to be used to host a changing installation, which is really exciting.
Paper is beautiful. It’s a blank canvas but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be beautiful in its own right. As G.F Smith understand, it is the world’s most fundamental creative material. Through my visit I learned so much about G.F Smith, its history and work, and left feeling genuinely inspired by the quality of their products and the creativity they are showing through their installations. It’s clear that they are incredibly proud of their Colorplan paper, and it is showcased wonderfully throughout the space. I loved the simple but beautiful Tidal installation, it’s a celebration of paper.
I went to find out about how paper is made as well as learning about G.F Smith as a company, and I can safely say mission accomplished on both fronts. On one side of the store there is a small installation detailing each step of their paper making process. I won’t go into every step in detail, but one thing I learned is about how paper gets it colour. Colour recipes are a combination of direct dyes and pigments: direct dyes are used because they sink very deeply into the fibres of paper, and pigments are added as they sit on the surface, providing resistance to light.
By saving documents throughout its life, G.F Smith highlight why paper is so important. It’s useful and long-lasting, and is the footprint for everything before the digital age. I loved finding out about a company that really takes that to heart.
You can book a visit to the event spaces at G.F Smith by email and I can’t stress enough the friendly reception I had. I would highly recommend a visit if you’re a paper junkie like me and are looking to do something different to the usual stationery shopping! You can actually learn about the paper making process, and knowing a bit more about that has only given me a greater appreciation for it. Now I just need to get myself a Mulberry bag so I can get my hands on the bespoke paper box…
For you to look at
G.F Smith’s search for the World’s Favourite Colour
G.F Smith’s Paper Smith shop – where you can buy various paper products online
Paper City Exhibition in Hull (the current UK City of Culture and G.F Smith’s hometown) – running later this year
I visited G.F Smith of my own accord and all the views expressed in this piece are my own.