The Art of Katazome Printing

Katazome translates from Japanese into English as ‘stencil dyeing’. The technique - at first mainly used to print textiles for kimonos - originated in Okinawa, Japan and it was developed as a more economically friendly way to print over a large surface area, in comparison to weaving the pattern as a jacquard or embroidering a design. The use of katazome printing on paper was a secondary application of this technique and became prevalent in post-war Japan in the 1950s.

 In 1916 he graduated from the design division of the Tokyo Technical College. Inspired by the bingata (multicoloured, stencil-dyed) textiles of Okinawa, he began to research traditional materials of other regions. Being involved in the entire process - from design, stencil cutting and application of the dye - helped him to understand the technique which informed his design. 

Serizawa’s designs were influenced by many cultures: he collected African masks and textiles and Southeast Asian fabrics and paintings for inspiration, and was influenced by the bold graphic design of the mid-nineteenth century. Serizawa contributed works to the mingei (‘folk art’) movement and was awarded the status of ‘living national treasure’ by the Japanese Government in 1956. You can see his direct influence in many of the katazome prints that we sell at Choosing Keeping.

Fruit Sticker Album: 20 Years of Collecting

This week we interview graphic designer Carl Middleton to discover the origins of the Fruit Sticker album, which is about to reach its 20th birthday, and how he produces them.

What is the story behind the fruit sticker albums/when did you start producing them?

For about two years I rented desk space in an architect’s office. This was way back in 2002. Each year the offices would open their doors and allow the public in as part of an Open Studio event. I had made artist books and fanzines previously so decided to make something new for the event. I had always been fascinated by fruit stickers and had seen various situations where people had casually collected them. One inspiration came whilst visiting a printer in south London – I noticed a fridge door completely covered in fruit stickers. I thought these little stickers deserved a better place to reside – and so the idea for the Fruit Sticker Album was born.I made the first fifty albums by hand, printing, folding, binding, trimming and individually numbering the albums. These sold out on the first day and I had to work through the night to produce the next day’s stock! They were so popular I have been making them ever since – next year will be my twenty year Fruit Sticker Album anniversary!

Why do you think people enjoy collecting fruit stickers?

A lot of parents purchase the albums hoping to encourage their children to eat more fruit – for siblings it helps as a vehicle for competitive, healthy eating. But some people (like me) are simply fascinated with the range of designs and details across these little, self-adhesive works of art. Adults buy them too – I think collecting is a normal human desire, we all secretly collect something, so why not Fruit Stickers?

I have been asked lots of questions about “how they work?” and “what the rules are?” – it’s quite simple really; buy a Fruit Sticker Album, buy fruit, eat fruit, put the sticker in the album, repeat – once the album is full, buy a new one! – Stick the stickers in any order, anywhere at any time of day (but not whilst driving or using heavy/industrial machinery).

How did you come up with the internal design for the album? 

I needed to design each page to provide a simple framework to store the stickers (similar to a stamp collecting album). After a little research I found that the rectangular shape was ideal to accommodate a broad range of sticker shapes. There are some stickers which are massive and don’t fit, but most people put these in the inside cover or facing pages (after all, there are no rules, you can stick them anywhere!). 

Italian Leather: A Medieval Craft

The leather industry in Tuscany dates back to medieval times when the combination of a lively mercantile economy, abundance of resources thanks to the cattle eating population and close proximity to rivers, which are key for tanneries, made this area of Italy the natural centre of the country’s leather industry. Indeed Italian leather remains globally renowned for its impeccable quality to this day.

Choosing Keeping’s own leather coin purses and card holders are made just outside Florence in a small workshop where some of Tuscany’s master craftsmen work to create handmade pieces that have remain unchanged for sixty years. All leather pieces they create are moulded; this means that there is no stitching involved and the result is an extremely smooth item with near invisible seams. On our visit in 2019 we were shown the laborious method, which takes days from start to finish and is carried out by highly skilled workers, many of whom have been working at their craft for decades.

The raw calf hide is first cut and fleshed - this is done by hand with a specialised knife called a coltello. The edges are then carefully thinned so that, once formed, the leather perfectly overlaps where it joins, creating the seamless illusion of the finished piece. Once prepared in this manner the leather is wet to make it supple and malleable before being fixed onto a wooden form according to its design.

These forms are made from beech which is an extremely hard and durable wood: they are designed to last. Indeed the longevity of the mould aids the endurance of the craft as by their very nature the designs can remain unchanged for centuries. An example of this is clear in the timeless and effortless curves of the three sottomani that we commissioned and which are created on an extremely classic design and mould.

Once on the form the leather items get the full spa treatment, spending half a day in a specialised sauna which is used to dry out the leather, before they undergo further pampering in the form of tanning, colouring and burnishing. Only the best natural ingredients are used in all processes such as vegetable based glue as well as dyes made from natural pigments which give each item a unique finish as colours vary slightly from batch to batch. The glossy shine of the finished product is thanks to the final polish which is carried out by hand with a specialised buffer. 

With the advent of the industrial revolution and mass manufacturing, such traditional methods are sadly falling out of practice; inexpensive copies increasingly replace the highly skilled labour of artisanal products. As always we are glad to collaborate with these small manufacturers who continue to champion craftsmanship and quality over quantity and cost.

Wallace Seymour: Innovation in Colour

In a world where we are increasingly used to consuming finished products, with little thought spent on ingredients or production processes, we at Choosing Keeping remain preoccupied with the historical significance and cultural value of the products we sell; always keen to return focus to the quality of ingredients and unique stories of manufacture.

This philosophy makes us natural allies with Pip and Rebecca, the pigment and paint experts behind Wallace Seymour, who are interested in creating paints with carefully selected natural ingredients that speak for themselves and without the plastic sheen of mass manufacture. Based in Yorkshire, they prioritise the careful sourcing of ingredients from around the globe which are then tested, mixed and packaged with great care and with a true appreciation for the raw materials. At Choosing Keeping you can find specialist watercolour sets, drawing inks and newly stocked oils and gouache which include natural colours such as burnt sienna from a long closed quarry in Bagnoli, a Tuscan village in the shadow of Monte Amiata, and Honister green earth which is collected as a byproduct of the mining industry, otherwise destined for landfill.

Wallace Seymour, founded in 2011, is at the forefront of paint making innovation, using bespoke machinery as well as specialised new recipes. For example, the formula for their ‘dedicated natural paint system’, a type of gouache, includes a small amount of oil in the mixture in order to emulsify the pigment - this keeps the colour vibrant without demanding the use of turpentine as a wetting agent as with regular oil paints. They are able to combine such technological developments with an impressive historical understanding of raw materials to create paints for the artist who understands the importance of function as much as form.

The history of paint and pigment dates back to antiquity; indeed it is deemed to be one of mankind’s earliest inventions, first appearing in cave paintings that are as old as 40,000 years old according to surviving examples. Ochre, from iron oxide, is one of the first pigments used and its familiar orange-yellow tone varies according to source; in the landscape oil or gouache sets mixed by Wallace Seymour you will find four unique shades of this historic pigment - the tonal difference dependent on source as well as the varying presence of clay and sand in the mineral.

Other pigments are derived from semi-precious stones which have been hand mined; Pip and Rebecca work closely with quarries where they collect raw materials such as lapis lazuli, Vivianite and Celadonite. Natural pigments are also found in the organic world - our botanical offerings contain pigments derived from biological sources such as stil de grain yellow from buckthorn berries, carmine red from the Cochineal beetle and madder lake - a deep red that is derived from the root of the madder plant. One of the oldest plant pigments, madder was used in textile colouring by the ancient Egyptians, indeed a cloth dyed with this rich red pigment was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Thanks to Pip and Rebecca for image resources! Find all Wallace Seymour here

On Celluloid: Checkerboard Champion

Invented in 1863, celluloid is considered the first thermoplastic resin. It is formed from the mixing of nitrocellulose and camphor (which is what gives it its signature minty scent) and was once used prolifically in the production of all sorts of everyday items such as spectacles, toys and of course fountain pens. Its manufacture today is limited due to the flammable and unstable nature of the resin - far more easygoing and cheaper-to-produce plastics began to take the place of celluloid from the 1950’s. 

Celluloid was first produced at a time which is unfathomable today - a time before plastic. For this reason early pieces were often imitations of natural materials as it took until at least the 1920’s for the public to be interested in a plastic that looked like plastic. This trend has carried through to more recently manufactured celluloid products; the tortoise shell or mother of pearl imitation pieces still reflecting a time far more suspicious of this once new material. Unapologetically man-made, the checkerboard pen case is a bold and fashionable storage solution for all manner of stationery and small tools. 

As a material, celluloid is very malleable when heated - for this monochromatic design small squares of alternating black and white are heated and pressed together before the newly formed sheets are moulded into the desired shape. Whilst unstable in production, once cooled the resulting item is extremely durable as well as both water and shatter proof. 

There are still a few celluloid products to be found at Choosing Keeping. From our beloved Ohnishi writing tools, to Platinum’s celluloid edition of the 3776 fountain pen (rare for its being produced from modern made celluloid), it is our Japanese trays, pen cases and trinket boxes that are perhaps most familiar to Choosing Keeping. They are dead stock, meaning that once they’re gone, they’re gone, and after years of a seemingly bottomless supply we are sadly nearing the end of some of our last designs.

The bulk of Japanese celluloid has its birthplace in Katsushika City which was well known for its production of celluloid items from 1914, and most notably for its contribution to the toy industry - from celluloid dolls to wind up metal aeroplanes. Now a suburb of Tokyo, it was once a rural area where factories started appearing as the urbanisation of the city centre expanded and by 1928 it was the largest export of toys in the world. Whilst manufacture suffered during the war (many Japanese products were boycotted by the UK and USA) the industry survived and began to thrive again in the 1940's and 50's. Indeed many of the factories still exist today, producing toys and other plastic items made from modern materials rather than celluloid: Sadly these early plastic items are destined to become ghosts of stationery past.

Turning Pens with Mr. Ohnishi

Do you ever think about the amount of work that goes into making a single pen? Or indeed where it comes from? In 2018 we travelled to the suburbs of Japan to meet expert craftsman Mr.Ohnishi, in his small workshop, to discover how he produces his range of celluloid and acetate writing instruments.

Each Ohnishi Seisakusho pen is hand turned by the man, the myth, the legend: Mr.Ohnishi himself. He was the apprentice of “the Father of Pens” Mr.Kato, and when Mr.Kato sadly died in 2010 at the age of 85, Ohnishi inherited the company. He has continued to produce writing instruments using the materials and skills inherited from Mr.Kato in the spirit of Mr.Kato’s mantra: “Make an economy pen for the people who want it”. Although the Ohnishi range is not inexpensive, compared to decorative Urushi lacquer pens and other Japanese speciality pens it is very affordable!

Each pen or pencil starts life as a celluloid, an early thermo-plastic typically used in spectacle or camera film production, or acetate rod - these look like sticks of rock and can be seen floating around the studio. From this Mr Ohnishi cuts the length of the pen components using a small saw; as many of the rods are finite due to celluloid no longer being manufactured, it is important that this task is done with precision to make the most of the increasingly rare materials. Each section is then placed into a bamboo chuck which spins around with the aid of a belt driven motor and where several wooden rings of varying thicknesses slide into different positions on the bamboo to hold the pen in place. Mr Ohnishi then uses a sharp tool to bore out a hole which will be the inside of the pen. Once this is completed for both the barrel and lid, the sections are put onto a horizontal lathe which is where the external profile of the pen is turned. Around the studio you can see many sharp tools designed to cut through and shape the celluloid as it spins on the lathe, many of which are made by hand by Mr.Ohnishi himself to meet his personal specification. 

Even though you can see some callipers on his tool bench, when we watched him make a pen from scratch he did not use these as he could just tell if the pen had reached the perfect silhouette with a combination of a well trained eye, muscle memory and by feeling the weight of the celluloid or acetate. He even carves the threading into each component by eye so sections of the pen perfectly screw together - it is fair to say Mr.Ohnishi has put over 10,000 hours in to master this skill! 

As the tools cut through the celluloid the individual colours in the material come alive and once polished look like the inside of a precious gemstone. We absolutely loved the cotton-candy offcuts of the celluloid as they spin of the lathe. Finally the individual components are assembled to reveal the finished product! The Ohnishi fountain pen comes with a German Fine Schmidt nib which is smooth and suitable for everyday writing.

You can find hand-turned fountain pens, ballpoint pens, 0.5mm mechanical pencils (including hand-turned dainty push buttons) and pencil extenders in our vitrine at Choosing Keeping. Top tip: Celluloid is no longer manufactured industrially in Japan so due to lack of supply we have seen several Ohnishi models become increasingly unavailable and eventually discontinued - the design you like may not be around tomorrow so snap it up!

See the full gallery from our trip!

Design Classics: 1929 Swiss “Fixpencil” by Caran d’Ache

A bit of stationery knowledge coming your way! Mechanical pencils are a modern day (relative to others) piece of stationery kit - the result of a long and arduous road to engineer a system to hold a very brittle and breakable lead securely within a casing. Many attempts were unsuccessful and we owe the first effective model to Carl Schmid, a Swiss engineer who devised the mechanism in 1929 for the art materials brand Caran d’Ache also marketed under the French alter ego Ecrifix

Technically, this is a sub category of mechanical pencils - a “clutch pencil” - with an internal shaft guiding the lead through manually by opening and releasing the jaw allowing the graphite to slip and slide in an out of the barrel.

Kudos to Caran d’Ache for keeping this stationery classic in its catalogue, unadulterated both in form and production, allowing us to give thought on the history of our tools. Thanks to its design pedigree and stealth appearance, the Fixpencil remains a compulsory component in the draughtsman’s repertoire, and still a firm favourite with architects and designers. 

In 2005, its cult status was immortalised as a stamp by the Swiss Post as part of a series on Swiss ‘Design-Klassiker’.

Small details make this old friend eminently practical: a front section which is sandblasted to prevent sliding off the front, while the push button on the end conceals a criss cross of blades to sharpen the lead into a fine point wherever you are. 

US patent granted March 8th 1932 here pictured

On Premana: A Long History of Scissor Making

1000 metres above sea level, in the Lombard Alps, you will find Premana. The heart of the Italian scissor industry, this is the birthplace of our iconic scissors which have been a staple of the Choosing Keeping catalogue since the very beginning. We were lucky enough to see behind the scenes of the production process on our visit in 2019. 

To the untrained eye it looks like any other quaint mountain town, complete with winding cobbled pathways and old stone houses, but don’t be fooled! If you look beneath the quintessential alpine dwellings you will discover the juxtaposition that defines Premana - heavy machinery built and optimised solely for the process of perfecting and finishing scissors and other cutting utensils. There are around fifty unique companies operating out of Premana and each one has its niche - from forging blanks to the finishing touch of gilding: together, they make up a harmonious ecosystem that is fulled by scissors. 

An excellent example of how the environment informs industry (the best paper mills, we have been told, will always be found next to a good, clean water source), the surrounding mountains are rich with iron, from which the first cutting utensils of Premana were forged three centuries ago. Today, the scissors are made from steel and are no longer finished completely by hand; the factory workers are assisted by modern advancements in technology  to complete the numerous processes that are involved in finishing the blades, from sharpening to polishing. 

In each factory man and machine work together, each a vital piece in the puzzle of Premana’s industry. Walking through one of the larger factory rooms we passed a particularly unnerving human sized arm-like robot that was spinning in a cage (yikes!) where it completes around 14 unique processes. At the end of the room was the factory worker responsible for the final check of newly assembled scissors. With great focus and through a series of fast movements and taps he listened, able to detect the most minute of irregularities. 

Premana takes extreme pride in the quality of their production and stay true to their history of careful craftsmanship. Able to maintain their reputation for excellence, combined with an ability to keep up with the global market which has sadly been the downfall of many similar local industries, the factories of Premana have been able to keep production thriving.

Read the full article and see the images from our trip!

A mascot for the end of lockdown!

When visiting the shop from Monday 12th April, the observant amongst you will notice a ‘lockdown addition' to the Choosing Keeping fascia. The Choosing Keeping swallow, an accidental logo and emblem that has adorned our packaging for the last eight years in the form of our iconic stickers, has now been immortalised in gold leaf on our front door. The “verre églomisé”, or gold gilding, glistens in the sunshine, inviting you back into the shop.

Choosing Keeping is surrounded by many West End theatres and we often think that our dark green and gold exterior looks like something from a set. If the shop is a stage with a revolving cast of interesting characters passing through, the shop’s fascia is the proscenium arch, framing the activity inside. During the pandemic much time has been spent queuing outside shops, looking in through the glass, watching the scenes of life unfold, reminiscent of the Edward Hopper paintings “Seven AM” (1948) and “Drugstore” (1927 - pictured below). The exterior design of any business is almost more important now than ever before!

Hand painted traditional sign writing requires skill, focus and precision. Firstly, a layout of the image is positioned on the reverse side of the glass, using a long tipped chisel-edge sable signwriting brush. The gelatine adhesive is then painted onto the glass to form the design. A mahlstick is used to keep the arm steady, aiding the balance of the signwriter's hand and ensuring that the paint is not smudged by mistake.

Sign writing and gilding by Nick and Seraina at NGS.

Cartiers: A Papermaker's Game

We have been fascinated to follow Antoinette Poisson, the work of three graduates of the Beaux Arts School in Paris with a particular passion for Papiers Dominotés. This oft-neglected woodblock printing phenomenon, popularised in the 18th century, is a precursor to wallpaper as we know it today. With the help of a few enthusiastic collectors, Antoinette Poisson are responsible for bringing back into fashion a charming folkloric piece of French decorative art history, nearly 400 years later, with a fresh eye and interpretation. The Parisian studio produces boxes, lampshades, papers, notebooks, even perfume. While these items may seem at first glance unrelated, Antoinette Poisson are operating in a way much in keeping with the original Dominotiers, who often conducted several commercial activities — as haberdashers, stationers, paper merchants, and dealers in all things pictorial. These same artisans also produced playing cards, for which they earned the moniker 'Cartiers'.

Though playing cards made their first recorded appearance across Europe around 1380, they were then mostly hand-drawn and painted one by one, a very expensive object.  It was only with the development of printing that card games became available to the masses.

Wood block for printing 20 'valets' or jacks. Produced in Nérac, between 1720 and 1751. 

These card games — in a multitude of regional variants — were as fashionable as they were entertaining; over the course of the 18th century, over 8 million sets of cards were produced for the Paris region alone. Historically it is believed that playing cards essentially derive from chess (think queen, king, knight, and numbers for pawns.) According to this interpretation, the four suits would be Scandinavian in origin, borrowed from their four-player chess games, while their representations took on national flavours: polo sticks, coins, swords and goblets in Italy; hearts, bells, leaves and acorns in Germany; and today’s accepted standard: clubs, diamond, hearts and spades taken from the French. Interesting to note however that early card games did not feature numbers. In fact, prior to 1800, card backs were plain, not patterned as we know them now, nor were corners rounded to avoid fraying, an innovation that came later in the 19th century. 

The process of manufacturing cards followed the developments of printing, at the time quite crude: woodblock printing in black and hand-coloured with stencils. Cards would have been printed as a full set, backed four times over with cardstock (hence the name “cards”) to give them stiffness, then cut out, heated, given a layer of soap, and finally polished to ease handling and act as a protective layer. Two types of paper were employed in making cards: a coarse lightweight card made from old rope known by the name of “main brune” or “papier méjan” sandwiched between two layers of fine white rag paper, or “papier pot” for the printed front and “papier cartier” for the backside — both mostly without watermark. 

It quickly became obvious that the passions and decadence aroused by such entertainment required official control and moral countenance; those responsible for making playing cards would be both regulated by way of a professional guild charter and the production of the cards themselves controlled by standards of production and limited by taxation. In practical terms, to combat fraud and black-market card games, Cartiers were contained geographically to certain towns and were required to produce set regional card designs.

'Une Dominotiere', engraving from Assemblage des nouveau manouvries habilles, Martin Engelbrecht (1684-1756)

So these couldn’t be so easily illegally exported or traded without attracting suspicion they used watermarked paper, which could only be obtained from an official supply, in order to combat forgery. Cartiers did not greatly profit from this popular occupation and remained humble regional craftsmen, essentially artists, limited to a high volume, low-cost production. They were cast apart from the more noble professions of printers and booksellers, forbidden to use printing type beyond a few words at most to accompany their depicted illustrations. 

By contrast, as is so often the case with elitist hypocrisy, while card games became officially prohibited under Louis XVI, they were happily tolerated by officials, as long as aristocrats and the nobility were the ones playing. The Royal Court was of course included in this unofficial exemption, where the King and Marie-Antoinette were known flamboyant card players, copiously gambling the country’s coffers away in games of Pharaon, l’Hombre and Piquet, to name just a few of the endless variants then popular across Europe.

Modern prints by Antionette Poisson - on the right a reproduction of the playing card design which would traditionally be cut to make the deck.  

Production of 'jeu de l’oie' or the Game of the Goose where players roll dice to move around the track. Printed in layers to carefully build up the board design.

On Preserving Flowers: A Visit to Hafod Grange

At the very end of a long, winding dirt road climbing up the valley which overhangs Port Talbot and its lush green landscape, you will find Hafod Grange. A small grouping of buildings houses a very humble factory - no secret formulas or state-of-the-art technology hidden behind closed doors - rather it is the people and place which infuse each paperweight with the full weight of its magic.

For starters, consider that the object itself, a paperweight forever preserving the perfection of the botanical specimen it encases, came about in 1968 as part of Barry Needham’s art therapy to ease his muscular dystrophy.

In his resilience, patience and dedication to the task, he succeeded in his self-imposed challenge, creating something which for over 50 years has brought joy and amazement without fail. Furthermore, he unknowingly created an ongoing livelihood for his family, as Gareth Needham together with his childhood friend Alun, continue to give life to their relative’s design as part of a thriving family business.

Alongside the uplifting Needham family story, each paperweight also imparts within, the spirit of the Welsh countryside. In Spring, hundreds of perfect dandelion clocks have to be collected in just a few weeks. This work isn’t the result of a poly-tunnel production, but a painstaking treasure hunt in the local fields and by the roadside for the sought-after untouched flowers usually considered weeds. One season’s harvest will go towards a year’s worth of production, but how to store the delicate blooms, these ephemeral symbols of wilderness until they are ready for casting?

Possibly the most wondrous moment of the trip to Hafod Grange is the discovery of a mysterious all-white spotless room fit out with formica cupboards - as if a science laboratory plucked from Clockwork Orange - most incongruous in an otherwise dark and  rural stone building, home to a dusty assemblage of machinery

Each cupboard door can be opened to reveal hundreds of perfect dandelion clocks mounted individually on a toothpick, protected from wind and human breath, until it is preserved forever. More heartbreaking than the object’s own melancholy beauty is this singular place, a shrine dedicated to the stopping of time, or rather to the conservation of a fleeting moment, and together of hundreds of individual fleeting moments.

More contemporary art installation than production site, we are left from our trip not with entitled and satisfied ownership over the object’s secret, but with a deeper sense of its implicit poetry and our own wistfulness.

View all the images from our trip

On Pen Collecting: An interview with Michael Gutberlet, CEO Kaweco

This week we have the pleasure of interviewing Michael Gutberlet, CEO of German pen maker KAWECO est. 1883, on the topic of pen collecting following a visit to Kaweco's head office and factory in Nuremberg where we were treated to a viewing of his private pen collection sparking our interest to find out more. At its height, this comprised thousands of Kaweco pens and accessories and has since been bought-in as Kaweco’s own company archive and museum. Such a collection endearingly imparts on us the impression that Kaweco’s amazing reversal of fate was made possible thanks to Michael and his father Horst’s passion, enthusiasm, even obsession - a mark of the family’s idiosyncratic character and drive.

The Gutberlet family has owned Kaweco since the 1990s when the company had found itself in financial trouble as many other pen makers did in the wake of the computer era.

The Gutberlet’s own family business as pen component makers gave the new owners an innate understanding of the pen making scene and certainly a technical savoir faire essential to successful production. Nevertheless the Gutberlets’ particular contribution was to recognise and zone-in on the brand’s most eye-catching and singular model, the 'Sport' 1930's design, adapting it both technologically and aesthetically to the modern day by way of contemporary colours and industrial materials, like aluminium and brass.

Another dimension to Michael’s amazing turnaround of Kaweco’s fate, is his astute understanding of marketing - ie: where pens should sit in the retail market - away with dusty pen shops - Kaweco is a certainly a youthful and fresh product which can stand up to any smart phone or MacBook, alongside fashion and lifestyle.

Read the full interview here