Talk about a paper trail. Every other week, Crane & Co. creative director John Segal rents a car to make a 170-mile drive from Manhattan to the company’s printing presses in Western Massachusetts. It’s a decompression commute as he travels from the busy city to the pleasant historic mills along the Housatonic River. His favorite part of the trip — besides stopping for a coffee — is walking onto the factory floor, hearing the hum of the machines and taking in the unmistakable smells of ink. “Anyone that works in the printing industry knows that rush, and it’s amazing. How do these huge, brutal machines press ink into paper with such delicacy and grace?” says Segal. At his New York studio, he creates designs for over 400 different boxed cards, but it’s at the production plant where Segal sees his ideas come to fruition.
For many decades, Crane has used the same engraving, embossing and letterpress techniques on the 100 percent cotton paper that helped make the company famous. Noted letter writers like Paul Revere, Eleanor Roosevelt and Queen Elizabeth put pen to paper on classic Cranestationery. Today, celebs such as Tom Brady and Jimmy Fallon still use Crane paper, renowned for its tactile qualities and long, flexible fibers.
Segal is tasked with keeping Crane paper relevant in a digital age. The Globe spoke with him about his own writing habits — he puts at least one or two missives into the mailbox every week — and how he manages to make paper a stylish alternative to e-mail and texting.
“I recall visiting my father’s office as a child and raiding the supply closet — so much to choose from. Rows of pencils, stacks of legal pads and steno notebooks, reams of paper (cotton bond, the good stuff), ‘corrasable’ typing paper, onion skin, carbon paper, Whiteout, reinforcements, mucilage. Early on, I thought I wanted to be an architect but was always drawing intricate pen-and-ink street scenes on the side. I did six illustrations, put them in a manila envelope and dropped them off at the impenetrable, mysterious, and prestigious New Yorker magazine, handing them off through the glass window. To my great surprise, they bought and published a drawing of a diner on Route 1 in Trenton New Jersey, and a bridge in Wiscasset, Maine. It was enough to validate my hope and belief that I could be an illustrator — although I barely knew what an illustrator did back then.
“I went to design school and started contributing designs to greeting card companies as well as writing and illustrating children’s books. I also worked with Crane, and about four years ago came on board full-time. Along the way, I become interested in the tradition of fine printing. This was years before there were hipster letterpress printers and the rediscovery of fine writing and good paper. We live in an increasing digital age but there is a minority who are profoundly interested in analog traditions and have a heritage appreciation for great American companies like Crane. For years, Crane packaged 10 cards and 10 envelopes in our iconic blue box, and that was that. But the needs and wants of our customers have changed. While stationery, especially Crane, was bound by the convention of what’s ‘proper’ — now it’s a vehicle to make a statement about yourself.
“Our products are always changing depending on trends, fashion, and where the market is going. Stationery is about human connection — writing a note takes effort, shows thoughtfulness, and stands out. Look at the rising trend of ‘young people’ towards analog choices like journals, vinyl, and Polaroid film. To these digital natives, technology is a given, not a novelty, and using stationery is an agent of self-expression.
“Our designs include stripes, dots, shiny foil, flying pigs icons, sketches of biking brides and grooms, leopard-pattern envelope liners, and colors like aqua, copper, clementine. I’m happy to report, though, that the ‘urban lumberjack’ or New American rustic look (plaids), which infected all corners of retail culture and consciousness, has run its course. It was a bit much, and it’s probably safe to wear a flannel shirt again.
“I continue to attend trade, gift, textile and stationery stores for overall trend spotting and looking to see what sticks. If everything is rose gold, for example, the market is telling you it wants rose gold.
“Today, I still have a great love for ephemera and vintage office and stationery supplies. I own around 30 pens, including my father’s 30-year-old Mont Blanc, a pen that I hope to pass on to one of my kids. And I continue to hand-write notes, of course. My last note was to a friend to congratulate him on the publication of his first novel. I want to keep the writing tradition alive.”