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The Write Stuff: Britain's stationery fetish

From a £400 Alice Temperley Filofax to a gold-nibbed Montblanc pen, Britain's stationery fetish is refusing to be erased by technology
  • @susborne

At a party tonight at a townhouse in Mayfair, Alice Temperley, a fashion designer whose customers include Hollywood and British royalty (the Middletons are fans) will break from the event after her show at London Fashion Week to launch a new product.

It looks like an evening clutch, rimmed with gold and lined with pony skin with a print pattern inspired by guinea fowl feathers. But it isn't a clutch. It's a Filofax, and it costs £400.

The Guinea, whose gold zip reveals cream pages with leather alphabetical tabs, is a furry symbol of the poshest aspect of a fetish for stationery sweeping Britain's desks and handbags. Booming demand for paper, pens, notepads and diaries is revealing the stationery geek in us all, and defying the touch-screen age of instant communication.

Smythson, stationer to the Queen and employer, as creative director, of Samantha Cameron, reported profits of £2.4m last summer, up 400 per cent in a year, and the highest in its 125-year history. At the department store John Lewis, sales of premium stationery are up 177 per cent (pick up a Campo Marzio leather document holder for £60) while artisan stationer's, for those with more modest budgets, are struggling to meet demand for novelty erasers that are too good to rub and notepads with leaves that would be the envy of an ancient Egyptian papyrus merchant.

James Ward has a stapler habit. "I keep buying them on eBay," he says from his home in Surrey. "I've got one for each decade of the 20th century. My favourite is a Rapid e6, which has a really nice simple 80s look to it."

Ward, 30, who founded the annual Boring Conference, was inspired by his fondness for stationery to start a stationery club, which met regularly to discuss the merits and demerits of selected pens. He later disbanded the club when the debates became too heated and is now folding his passions into a book, to be published next year. Its working title is "Adventures in Stationery" and in it Ward will profile each of the objects on his desk, detailing their history and meaning to him.

"My favourite pen is the Bic M10 Clic," he says. "I used it when I was about 12 before experimenting with other pens but I've come back to it now. There's something about the M10. It has a cool, 60s, almost Mad Men feel to it."

Ward has a healthy social life. He just really likes stationery, and he's not alone. He talks about its nostalgic appeal, that back-to-school, new pencil case feeling. "But I think there's something else," he says. "You go into a branch of Ryman's and there's possibility in everything. The blank notebook you could turn into a novel, the Post-its you'll use to organise your life. You imagine yourself being a better person and these things coalesce around paper clips and drawing pins."

Ward also talks about stationery love as a reaction to the sometimes ungratifying advance of technology. "When lightbulbs arrived candles became romantic," he explains. "We put up with the scratchiness of vinyl but when CDs came along those imperfections became the art and charm of the object. People are becoming more removed from their objects so they are reaching for something more tangible. That's why you'll see people in cafes using an iPad as well as a Moleskine notepad."

Charlotte Rivers is a design writer whose new book, I Love [illustrated with a heart symbol] Stationery was published yesterday. It's a celebration of the cutesy, nostalgic end of the new market, the antithesis of the pony-skin Filofax (think hand-stitched journals and greetings cards adorned with painted cupcakes). "There's a love of all things handmade and for craft in general," Rivers says. "It's a return to something older, slower and more tactile."

Or are we just playing catch-up? Chris Manson co-founded a TV company that sold in 2004 to Virgin Media for £194m. Last year, he opened a stationery shop in Tunbridge Wells in Kent. He now has a second blott store in Guildford, Surrey, and a website, blottshop.com. "I think previously the offering here has not been very sophisticated," he says. "Japan has lead the market for decades and now we're catching up." Blott's imported Japanese pencil erasers, which come in 230 varieties, create scrums of children every weekend, says Manson, who plans to open four stores this year.

DJ Taylor, the author and critic, claims not to care much about stationery before detailing the tools he cannot live without. "I can write on the top of a bus or in a crowded room, but I have to have right pen and paper," he says. Taylor, who writes longhand, uses a Uni-ball Eye rollerball fine pen on A4 WH Smith wide rule refill pads (70gsm, with margin). "I suppose we're all fetishists, aren't we," he says.