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As American as French Paper!

2011 October 26

Couldn’t resist the title of this post, and if it’s a little cute, well, that may be fair. We’ll get to that.

I’m subscribed to e-mails from French Paper Company, the 140-year-old, quirky, very independent and beloved-of-designers paper mill located in Niles, Michigan. Yesterday I received this e-mail, titled “Plant a Flag for American Manufacturing.”

French Paper Company, American Manufacturer for 140 years

Waving the flag, unabashedly

Though the e-mail begins with commemorating 140 years of French Paper, it quickly proceeds to a surprisingly frank appeal for support. Company president Jerry French states bluntly that “…2011 has gone down as the worst year in the history of American-manufactured paper sales. As one of the few remaining independent paper mills, we’ve struggled like our competitors…”

He then proceeds to an appeal to patriotism/nationalism at least as direct as the flag-waving graphic, above:

If my great-great-grandfather J.W. French were alive today he would be shocked to learn that the manufacturing of tangible American products has become a rare and vanishing commodity. […] When you choose to use French Paper for print projects that might otherwise run on foreign sheets… you are symbolically planting a flag for American manufacturing, employment, and America’s future. Grassroots support of products like ours and others manufactured at home will help America stop importing its own demise.

Pretty strong stuff. And, aside from “whoa,” I’m really not sure what to say. Like a lot of designers, I love French Paper, and the French Paper Company. Their papers are awesome. Their promotions are awesome. From right here, I can see at least two French Paper posters on my walls, plus two or three French Paper promotional trinkets on display. There are no other swatch books nearly so much fun to flip through, just for entertainment.

And I’ve tried to use French Paper over the years, with some success. I was able to get approval for French Paper for the first stationery system I designed at my first job; the stationery isn’t worth pulling out for display but if nothing else it had at least one cool aspect, because it was on French Paper. I’ve probably managed to work it into a few small projects since over the years, including a modest stationery project a while back, plus my own handmade cards last New Year’s.

Still, that’s not a lot for 11 years as a professional designer. I remember meeting Jerry French himself at a promotional event in Des Moines, many years ago, and hearing almost as plaintive an appeal to designers. We loved his papers, so why didn’t we use more? “Is it price?”

The answer, then, was certainly “yeah, in part,” and nowadays that’s probably an even bigger component. Speaking personally, it probably has more to do with the fact that I really just don’t spec that much paper these days; much of my work is destined for print media, but “production” decisions including paper selection are often made by others. Whose preferences, I believe, do nothing to alter the fact that “in America, an increasing percentage of the paper used is generic, shiny, clay-coated stock produced by manufacturers overseas,” as Jerry French laments.

And I don’t know quite what to say to that, either. In theory, the ubiquity of zillion-color electronic displays might argue for more use of quirky colors and textures in printed media, rather than just making printed projects into static versions of digital color promotions. In reality, I suspect that just assuming “full-color” printing on a shiny white surface for everything seems simple and safe, and probably especially so in what are naturally-enough risk-averse times for a lot of organizations. To some extent I’m also reminded of stories I’ve read, including one item just the other day, about how America’s preferred color choices for cars have become increasingly “generic, shiny” and neutral. I think white, black, silver and gray have been the most popular choices, in one order or other, for years now. (And I myself drive a gray Toyota Camry, so…)

Beyond that, I’m a bit troubled by the blatant appeal to “help save American manufacturing, for America,” in a confusing variety of ways, really. I’ll admit to a relatively internationalist outlook, as well as being a regular reader of The Economist, so flag-waving appeals to nationalist pride seem, especially in a complex world, a bit misguided at best. But, it still saddens me to think of French Paper Company going into eclipse, and beyond that I certainly am concerned about the future of our nation’s economy, as most of us are I imagine.

I appreciate the principal of free trade, and given the considerable number of my clients located one or more time zones away, I always feel awkward about “buy local” crusades. And I certainly enjoy many of the fruits of ongoing innovation and  globalization; the iMac on which I’m composing this very post was manufactured overseas, along with so many other things. Still, at the same time, it’s very difficult for me to look around our society right now and feel comfortable with rote responses about how these forces are what we must embrace and are great for the consumer after all and cannot be turned aside and the future will be a “service economy” and workers will simply need to “adapt” and “retrain” etc., etc., etc. That kind of thing just doesn’t seem like an adequate answer, right now.

I wish I knew what, exactly, was, for either the French Paper Company or the larger economy (or myself) or, of course, how to go about putting a better answer into effect if I had one.

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