The notebook as (framed) art

PenWorld is a place of pens and ink and cases, paper and notebooks and covers, pencils and markers and sketchbooks, plus the handwriting and artwork that can be created therewith. It’s probably fair to say that PenWorld’s residents, among whom I count myself, look at this assemblage of objects through both aesthetic and utilitarian lenses. Of course, true collectors generally have a different perspective — after all, a stamp collector is unlikely to salivate over a rare mint find in order to lick it and mail a letter! That scenario aside, most of us who own multiple fountain pens, for example, still look forward to inking them and using them. We may stare at them appreciatively, which is why those wooden cases for 12 or 24 pens usually have a glass top. But that top raises up so we can take them out and write with them.


Our individual aesthetics also may differ. Mine runs toward what I think of as “elegant minimalism,” exemplified by the über-clean lines of the Porsche Design leather pen case. It’s beautiful, but in the end it’s about sliding off the top and using one of the two pens inside. Same thing for notebooks. I love the chromatic intensity of the Fabriano Bouquet Note Pad Set as well as the more understated design and colors of the Mossery Pocket Notebooks. Some day soon, however, I will break the spell and write in one of them. They are just notebooks, after all, and I can always order more.

But what if we can’t order more? That usually means a product has been discontinued, or for fountain pens it may mean controlled production runs — limited or special or certified editions in the printing and printmaking jargon that pen makers have adopted. European manufacturers are prolific in this regard with some composer or writer or city or car, or the current year, being feted by a few hundred or thousand pens. Or it means a pen that at some level of the handcrafting is not reproducible. The pinnacle of this is arguably the maki-e and other lacquered styles from Danitrio, Nakaya, Namiki, and other Japanese companies.

The same thing is true for some of the other PenWorld staples. I don’t know if there are limited edition erasers, for instance, but there are many small craft companies making fabulous leather notebook covers — ColsonKeane, Davis, Esquivel (for Field Notes), Inkleaf, Midori, O-Check, and more. They may not be as individualistic as the Namiki Origami Rabbit fountain pen, but they are close to having a one-off cachet.

Ultimately, most of these limited-production items end up being used. There surely are many shadow boxes on walls containing rare or heirloom pens. And there is a lot of framed artwork that was created using the tools of PenWorld. But the tools themselves, unless they are archived because they belonged to a famous person or were used on some memorable occasion, rarely end up behind glass.


All of the foregoing was the backdrop for my discovery last winter of Calepino notebooks (cliquez ici pour Français). Except for the “stock” Nº1, Nº2, and Nº3 notebooks with ruled, graph, and plain paper, respectively, all of these notebooks that I have seen are limited editions. Some of them are collaborations with commercial enterprises, such as the recently-announced Vetted X Calepino Notebook & Pencil Set.

Other projects, however, seem to have been floated on the enthusiasm of founder Fabrice Richard. One was the Blanc Albâtre Kit, limited to 60 boxes with two sets of three notebooks each. They have white (instead of the stock off-white) covers and also include six white pencils and three buttons (see photo above) color-coded to the ink in the respective notebooks. And they are even more cool in person than they look in the photo!

But those are nothing compared to the result of the collaboration with Nantes artist Emilie Bransac. This series was limited to 50 copies of three notebooks each, with hand stitching on the covers, plus a small cloth bag to hold them, a pencil, the three buttons, and a hand-stitched shopping bag with the three colored motifs from the buttons. “Cool” does not begin to describe all this. “Sublime” maybe, but I’m open to suggestions.

By any measure, or at least my measure, these notebooks are works of art. The Blanc Albâtre I will use happily and enjoy the 90 gsm paper. But Ms. Bransac’s hand-stitched little gems are now behind glass:


There is a straight-on view above and a more oblique view below to show the slight “platform” on which the notebooks are elevated.




This project was initiated to celebrate Calepino’s first anniversary, with this video to announce the event and to showcase Ms. Bransac, awl and needle in hand, at work:

The Calepino blog also has a photographic record of the anniversary gathering.

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