Little Black Books

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Fifteen years ago, Moleskine bet on paper and won. Now it ponders its future in the digital world.

At the beginning of my interview with two Moleskine executives in the company’s sparkling new Manhattan offices overlooking the Hudson River, I made a serious faux pas: I pulled out another company’s notebook.

I’ve owned a handful of Moleskines in the past, but I’ve never become a regular user. Instead, I spend $1.50 for a Muji pad or even less for a homely, generic, spiral-bound notebook from the drugstore. It’s not that I’m blind to aesthetics—the creamy paper, the tactile elastic band, the handy fold-out pocket, and even the crisp type of a Moleskine are addictive. But as a freelance journalist, I just can’t regularly spend $18 for a reporter’s notebook. So I make do with second-rate paper and cast envious glances at the comely black bundle on the café table next to me.

[Image gallery: See our favorite Moleskine collaborations]

Moleskine has always wagered that its dedicated followers will pay a premium for a superior product, and so far (thrifty writers notwithstanding), it has been an enormously successful bet. Despite inauspicious conditions—the terrible economy, the decline of print, the rise of smart phones that double as notebooks—the company’s fortunes could hardly be better. It had 200 million euros in global sales in 2009 and forecasts 20 percent growth this year. Its notebooks are sold in 62 countries, from 20,000 retail outlets, for a total of 13 million copies a year—basic notebooks, of course, but also specialized products like City Notebooks (travel guides to everywhere from Athens to Zurich) and Passions (journals dedicated to hobbies like music or wine). And Moleskine is testing the waters outside the world of print, too, with a newly released cover for the Kindle e-reader and an iPhone app in the works.

Tord Boontje

Since 1997, when it revived and rebranded a generic French oilcloth notebook popular with artists and writers (Bruce Chatwin called them carnets moleskines), the Milan-based company has built a black-sheathed, thread-bound empire. Thousands of fans post their journaling to Flickr or show off their own “hacked” versions on message boards devoted to the notebooks. Moleskine was listed at number 17 of the 999 Phaidon Design Classics, not to mention number 122 on Stuff White People Like, that gimlet-eyed chronicler of bourgeois taste. When the young café-goers of my northern Brooklyn neighborhood pull out several thousand dollars’ worth of Apple products from their tote bags, they invariably have a Moleskine or two to go with them.

The company’s masterstroke was capitalizing on the link between the notebooks and icons such as Picasso, Van Gogh, and Hemingway, who used similar-looking ones long before the brand existed. The lineage strained credibility (“It’s an exaggeration,” one of the company’s founders told The New York Times in 2006), but it was genius. It offered what you might call the transitive property of creativity—the illusion that the only thing separating your doodles from Kandinsky’s is nicer paper stock. The company’s V.P., Maria Sebregondi, had the idea of turning the anonymous black notebooks she saw in Paris as a student in the early 1980s into a product. “At the moment you go to a Moleskine notebook, you connect yourself with a long tradition, with a rich history, with a contemporary creativity, with beautiful projects related with the arts, culture,” she says. “And you’re part of a community, a bigger creative club worldwide.”

Paula Scher

Even though Moleskine’s connection with Hemingway and the like is mostly a founding myth, the company has allied itself with an impressive crop of contemporary creative types. Artists, designers, writers, and architects from Maira Kalman to Dave Eggers have readily put their own Moleskines on display as part of the company’s traveling Detour exhibitions. (The books are donated to Lettera27, a Moleskine-funded nonprofit that supports international literacy programs.) For Pentagram’s Paula Scher, whose “Alpha-doodles” of 14 hand-drawn fonts were exhibited in 2007 in New York, it was a natural fit. “I have a pile of them. I use them all the time,” she says. “I like it as a tactile object, the way I like my sunglasses.”

Dave Eggers

Eggers’s writing- and tutoring center in San Francisco, 826 Valencia, recently collaborated with Moleskine on MyDetour, in which the nonprofit’s young students wrote and drew in Moleskines. “If we could afford enough of them, we’d give them to every student we work with,” Eggers wrote in an email. “Writing in them makes writing fun, and anything that makes writing fun facilitates literacy overall.”

Tomoko Suetake

Despite Moleskine’s understandable support of print, the company has been trying to reach into the digital world. In 2009, it introduced MSK, a program that formats web pages for printout so they can be tucked inside notebooks. It’s not the most elegant system, but it’s a first step toward envisioning a digitally minded Moleskine. The next step is the iPhone app that was initially scheduled to be released last summer. It is now on hold, but the company says it will be a digital correspondent to the paper notebook. A draft press release suggested it would “take geopositioned written or visual notes and share them on social networks.” The layout could be changed to match users’ favorite Moleskines, and notes could be put in MSK formatting and printed out. Users would launch the app by plucking a digital version of the elastic band.

Sebregondi says the company has never seen a sharp division between laptops, cell phones, and paper notebooks. “Fifteen years ago, when we started the Moleskine venture, we strongly bet on the fact that writing and paper could have a future,” she says. “At the end of the 21st century, it seeme
d that words would disappear and only images would count. And at that time, thanks to digital devices, all of a sudden, words and writing had a new life, different from the one of the past but very strong, through SMS, through emails, through blogging. So we think that there are really new opportunities in this continuum between analog and digital.”

[Image gallery: See our favorite Moleskine collaborations]

Toshiko Mori

The article appears in the October 2010 issue of Print.

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