The fashionable diary war clashes on. John Windsor thumbs the latest designs
Saturday 30 August 1997
You would not recognise Frankfurts' newest, coolest design as a Filofax. It looks more like a miniature UFO. A soft rubber shell conceals springy sheet steel. Pull it open and it lies taut and flat like a steel tape rule. Prod it, and it curls up again.
But the invention that seems likeliest to win Filofax's sales war against the Psion electronic diary and umpteen Filofax-lookalike brands is not a Filofax at all. It stood beside the springy UFO at a reception for the new designs at the city's Museum of Modern Art - a humble Apple PC disgorging dummy Filofax pages of listings: restaurants, theatre, sport, the arts. The dream is to connect it with the Internet. Press a key or two, clip the latest listings into your Filofax and take it with you on business or on holiday. All that Filofax's London-based chief executive Robin Field now needs is a global information provider on the Internet.
Blank A4-size computer print-out sheets with perforated and punched Filofax pages are already on sale. So computer-literate Filofaxophiles, who prefer flicking through pages to laboriously keying an electronic organiser, can maintain a master-file of information on computer, periodically downloading edited and updated versions into their Filofax. German retailers sell regularly updated Filofax restaurant listings - but, so far, nothing on the Net.
The end of the over-fed Filofax? When I lifted out mine, which looks like a replica of the one in Psion's knocking advertisements, stuffed with extra pages and scraps of paper, I expected Mr Field's staff to cry out in horror. Not at all. "Wow! That's a real Filofax!" they exclaimed. They mulled over my stache of dog-eared visiting cards, art gallery invitations and dry-cleaning chits as if they were historic printed ephemera.
But that's the British for you - in love with the quaintly scruffy rather than shiny chic. Over dinner, Mr Field, the 46 year old corporate turn- round specialist who rescued Filofax in 1990, put his own Filofax on the table - a six year old pocket-diary sized Slimline Executive model, without fastener, in soft black kid leather that had acquired a patina with daily use. He is clearly fond of it. It stays slim because he uses it strictly as a personal organiser - containing mainly appointments - not as the ever-expanding contacts book that mine is. Most of his contacts are kept in his secretary's desk Filofax: only the often-used ones are in his pocket. You could say he's well organised.
I had apologised for bringing out my bulky reporter's notebook at table. "You'd be more confident taking notes in a Filofax like this," he said, stroking the kid leather. Indeed, I would have been.
German Filofax culture is quite different. They are a brand conscious nation. It is the brand-name, the prestine, not the charmingly distressed, that confers status. Fashionable Brits may have tired of designer labels, but Germans still hanker after clothes by Joop! and Escada, leather goods by Seeger, Bree and Mont Blanc. Mr Field said: "The Germans always want to know who designed it. The British just want to know how much it costs".
A Mont Blanc leather organiser fitted with Filofax pages was priced 765DM (pounds 264) at Theissinger, Frankfurt's biggest personal accessories retailer. Its leather was as smooth as plastic. Leather blemished with warble-fly punctures or barbed-wire grazes conferring added character in the eyes of us Brits - will not sell in Germany.
If Germany is becoming the natural home of the Filofax it is largely because of the young "marketing muscle" that Mr Field has newly appointed in Frankfurt, home of one of the company's six overseas subsidiaries. Last year, while turnover for the company worldwide grew by only 2 per cent (from pounds 42.7m to pounds 43.6m) it rose in Germany by 22 per cent. Germans now account for 14 per cent of Filofax's turnover.
The initiative to commission revolutionary new designs came not from London but from Frankfurt. At the reception there, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, Jean-Christophe Ammann, delivered a paeon of praise for the Filofax as art object - how many British museum directors would do that? - and the huge Parmezan cheese and Australian and Californian Chardonnay were consumed by industrialists, bankers, and young trend-setters in designer spectacles. "I'm surprised," Mr Field confessed, "when we have held similar exhibitions in the UK we have had a much smaller turnout." (You get a hint of the future that might be being planned for this small consumer product when you learn that its German managing director, Volker Jungeblut, used to work for Mont Blanc - whose collectable annual limited edition of fountain pens has risen in value at auction by 350 per cent in five years. And that the German company's young PR wizard, Moritz Hunzinger, helped to launch Swatch for the brilliant and eccentric Nicolas Hayek, notorious among collectors for playfully manipulating special-edition Swatch prices by glutting some countries and starving others.
Mr Field is reluctant to play the limited-edition game (although last year the company did issue, at pounds 500 each, a 75th anniversary limited edition of 1,921 replicas of the Filofax used by Grace Scurr, in which she saved the company's vital trade contacts from the blitz). "I want all everyday Filofaxes to have first-class design," he says, "I'm not aiming to turn them into collectables". But you might just find that, whichever of the seven new designs go into production, the first few hundred will be signed and specially packaged.
As for tho UFO, it was commissioned not from a German but from the studio of the London-based designer, Ron Arad, best known for his shoot-steel furniture. Rene Chavanne, the 31-year-old Austrian who dreamed it up, was a pupil of Arad's at the School for Applied Art in Vienna. Explaining his design, be told me he wanted to get away from leather.
The Australian Marc Newson designed a plastic Filofax with a zip, a cross between a lunch box and a petrol can. It is shiny and smart. The only tribute to the British-style overstuffed Filofax is Achim Heine's design, with 12 rubber washers on each cover and a supply of string to wind round them, making tangled nests for pens, dry cleaning chits and personal rubbish.
The Filofax-Internet brainwave? It was hatched by the professor of product design, Volker Albus, and his students at the University of Design, Karlsruhe.
There are signs that the Germans might be coming round to the British Filofax aesthetic. Herr Ammann, the Museum director, said in his address: "Confronted by the empty pages of a new Filofax, you recoil from sullying its virginity. But every Filofax should be full to bursting, with paperclips holding together diary notes, everyday routines, love letters. Leafing through a Filofax gives a feeling of sensuality - at least, mine does."
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