The Allure of Mohawk Paper in a Digital World
Packaging agency Bigeye’s podcast features Chris Harrold of Mohawk discussing creative and memorable uses of papers in today’s digital world.
The following article first appeared on Bigeye's Industry Insights blog, November 2, 2020.
In Clear Focus: Bigeye’s podcast features Chris Harrold, SVP of Marketing and Creative at Mohawk Fine Papers. We learn the history of the NY family-owned paper makers whose purpose is to make print more beautiful, effective, and memorable. Chris shares the story of Mohawk’s new Renewal line which uses non-traditional fibers including hemp. We discuss how designers use paper to amplify brands’ qualities and reflect on why younger designers find paper so appealing in a screen-based world.
Adrian Tennant [Host]: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS: fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. An Assistant Professor of Education at the University of North Dakota, Virginia Clinton conducted a meta-analysis of 33 research studies about reading on screens. Her analysis found that students of all ages, from elementary school to college, tend to absorb more information when they’re reading on paper rather than on screens, particularly when it comes to non-fiction material. The analysis, published last year, is at least the third such study to synthesize reputable research on reading comprehension in the digital age, and to find that paper is just better. Reading comprehension is just one dimension. There’s also the tactile appeal of paper compared to cold touchscreens. One man who knows a lot about the qualities and advantages of paper is our guest this week, Chris Harrold, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Creative for Mohawk Chris joins us from his office in Albany, New York. Chris, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!
Chris Harrold: Thanks, Adrian. It’s great to be here.
Adrian Tennant: First of all, could you tell us a little bit about Mohawk’s history?
Chris Harrold: Absolutely. In 2021, we will be 90 years young as a company. So back in 1931, George O’Connor, a local Yale-trained attorney, bought a paper mill out of receivership. Of course it was the depths of the Great Depression. And here sits a paper mill, making all manner of products and, for a number of reasons, he chose to rescue that company and save this local employer. And four generations of O’Connor’s later, we’re looking at our 90th anniversary in 2020 making fine paper right here – the banks of the Mohawk River, thus the name, Mohawk, where it flows into the Hudson River.
Adrian Tennant: What are your responsibilities at Mohawk?
Chris Harrold: It says Senior Vice President of Marketing and Creative, but people think of me as the chief storyteller – I take that as a compliment. I joined Mohawk in 1990, so it’s been 30 years here in a number of roles, sales and marketing- focused. And today lead our marketing team, and the creative team. And, we’re a company of a size and nature that we’re not siloed. We’re sort of like sandboxes and we all like to play in each other’s sandboxes. And the benefit of that is, the product team interacts with my marketing team and the marketing team it works with research and development. So it’s a very collaborative environment and pretty dynamic given that we’re the ultimate analog manufacturers in an otherwise digital world today.
Adrian Tennant: What does Mohawk’s paper manufacturing process typically look like?
Chris Harrold: It’s interesting. I actually spoke to a group of students at the City University of New York last night, did a Zoom session, which is a class about print production. And I opened with and spent some time talking about the history of paper-making. So I go there to answer your question because the elemental ingredients in making paper haven’t changed. Plant fiber, water, and some method to dry the paper out. hasn’t changed in actually 2000 years. So the manufacturing site here: we have two mill facilities which contain three paper-making machines and they rely on those three elements. If you want to reduce paper mills’ operations to three basic ingredients, three elements, it would be fiber, water, and energy, basically. And so that’s the wildly oversimplified version of what we’re in the business of doing, of basically drawing plant fiber into covetable, printable, high-performance sheets of paper, ranging from stationary uses to – you know, if you receive a photo card from some of the usual suspects like Shutterfly or Minted this Holiday season, you’ll be holding a sheet of paper made here in, New York – or for that matter, if you imbibe and drink Tito’s Vodka, every label of the paper is made in our mill, on the Mohawk River. So it’s a pretty vast range of applications that our paper is used for.
Adrian Tennant: Which other brands use your papers?
Chris Harrold: We have a decades-long history of engagement with the graphic design community. So, you know, notably, it probably reaches back into the late 1940s with Alvin Eisenman and the design program at Yale University and just because we’re neighbors, only a couple of hours away, that group early in the Fifties was engaged with Mohawk using our flagship product Mohawk Superfine. And, over decades, a lot of great design thought leaders, when they were taught print production and paper, they came here, they made a pilgrimage to Mohawk to learn about paper. And what that did was just foster a little cult army of paper devotees, and more specifically Mohawk devotees. So, designers like Massimo Vignelli relied on Mohawk Superfine for all of his most significant pro print projects and then all those folks who paid attention to great designers like Vignelli followed suit. So in terms of brands that are using us today, again, I mentioned, we’re in the Holiday season. You know, people are getting ready to make photo books and photo cards. We are a primary provider for brands. Like I mentioned, like Minted and Shutterfly, for Holiday cards. And then large consumer brands are using Mohawk to make printed collateral, which I know we’ll probably get into a little later in terms of advertising and marketing and how paper and printing fits today.
Adrian Tennant: Now, Mohawk harnesses renewable energy sources, such as wind power, to manufacture its papers. Is a sense of responsibility for the environment and sustainability, something that’s always been ingrained in the company’s DNA?
Chris Harrold: Yeah, it’s a good question. And one that we’re always thinking about, because at the end of the day, you know, we are a manufacturing business that, again, to go back to the three elemental inputs that consume plant fiber – mind you, most of that is in the form of wood fiber – so trees, right? – plant fiber, and water. So we consume it, use it, and then have to discharge it back into the river and energy. So all of those have a potential impact and so for – gosh, Adrian, all the way back to the early Eighties, when the Environmental Protection Agency was then a new Government agency, the O’Connor family, who owned Mohawk, had a very clear-eyed commitment to stay ahead of regulation and its innovative spirit to understand how we can minimize our impact, be responsible, and ultimately lead our industry. Even though within the giant paper industry we’re specialized and small, over those 40 years, we’ve carved out a reputation for some pretty innovative approaches to – it’s been called lots of things – conservation, environmental responsibility, and more recently and I think importantly, sustainability. It’s always on the radar. It’s core to our values, and we’re always reaching to better ourselves and be more responsible.
Adrian Tennant: Bigeye works with several beauty and skincare brands, some of which include cannabidiol or CBD. I understand that you recently launched a hemp-based paper at Mohawk. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
Chris Harrold: The paper is called Mohawk Renewal, and Adrian, in the spirit of where I was going with this discussion around environmental sustainability, over those 40 years I talked about, we’ve done a lot in terms of using wind power to drive our electrical demands. So we were in the early days back in the Nineties, paying premiums to buy alternative, renewable energy. We were an early adopter of using post-consumer waste – in other words, real recycled paper fiber. And we were really hungry to find the way we could stretch and do something new around fiber. And so 2018, really notably in 2019, we had an enormous number of inquiries coming from. Designers and brand owners who were working on CBD or cannabis products who were really anxious to get paper made with hemp. Now, mind you, hemp has been used over centuries as an input material to make paper, but it had been obscured because of, you know, illegal – it wasn’t legal to grow hemp in the United States. For instance, so the source of supply was dried up and there wasn’t a hell of a lot of it out there. Now with CBD products proliferating everywhere and the legalization of cannabis, there’s way more hemp farming here in the United States. So anyhow, so the supply is a little bit more accessible and the demand is clearly there from the packaging space to look for hemp-based papers, basically that amplify the product that’s contained inside of the package. So we started a journey, looking at hemp fibers. And while we were on that journey, searching for good sources for reliable clean fiber, we also discovered there’s some other pretty interesting, innovative companies that are starting up that use agricultural waste straw of note, and also some other sources for cotton fiber. So the net of it is this Adrian: the Mohawk Renewal line is actually made up of three different kinds of paper, harnessing three very different fiber sources – hemp, straw, and recycled textiles – cotton, notably cotton and denim thread. Though our exploration began as a way to answer the demand for hemp-based papers for CBD packaging, it actually ended up in a pretty interesting, deeper space than we thought we’d go into with straw-based paper, as well as cotton textile… Mind you, all of it, really, if you look at it from a sort of a philosophical level, we harnessed very centuries old fiber sources to create a new future, if you like, and mind you, the benefit environmental ty of all of those fibers, hemp and straw are rapidly renewable, right? They’re annual crops. So if you compare that to the growth of a hardwood tree, you know, that may be 30 or 40 years before it’s viable to be harvested for paper fiber versus hemp and straw, which are again, annual crops. And then, cotton textile waste, like t-shirt scrap, would have just been destined for the landfill. And what we’re doing is effectively reaching into that waste stream and pulling that out to repurpose it.
Adrian Tennant: So for the Renewal line, it sounds like you’re sourcing the hemp and the straw from US farmers. Where do the scraps of cotton come from?
Chris Harrold: The straw is 100 percent sourced from the United States. It’s from a mill called Columbia Pulp, who’s opened a mill specifically to process straw in southeastern Washington state. But hemp, just to put a finer point on that, the supply chain for hemp fiber is actually, it’s fairly underdeveloped because the fiber that we use is really the waste from the stalks that are left once that incredibly valuable flower is taken off a hemp plant. So we’re actually importing a good deal of it from Europe and simultaneously we’re advocating for, and involved with, a number of really innovative new processing companies that are looking to build a North American supply chain. The cotton is all coming from the Caribbean and Central America, which is where so much of this clothing is being manufactured. So in other words, t-shirt underwear manufacturers, say like Hanes, for instance, they’re cutting t-shirt forms and garments out and then that scrap is being pulled out of the waste stream and brought to Ohio where we have a processing partner who’s making that into viable pulp. So we’re sourcing globally with aspirations to make it very local. The perfect circumstance would be hemp farms in New York state within a hundred miles of the mill could send us their waste and we could process it on-site. Mind you, we’re a ways off from that, but that’s sort of the vision we have.
Adrian Tennant: In what kinds of ways do you see packaging designers amplifying brand qualities through their selection and use of papers in general and sustainably sourced ones in particular?
Chris Harrold: So an interesting project that just came in from a small new startup called Bathing Culture in California: a couple of guys built this company. They’ve both been surfers and they both really were anxious to have a soap that they could use to get all the grit off them after they come in from surfing, but also do it in a sustainable fashion. So it’s about packaging at every level including glass containers and obviously the soaps themselves, and what goes in those is nourishing products. , But they also had a need for a box container. And they really at their core, are really trying to be as sustainable and responsible as possible. And so when they discovered. Mohawk Renewal straw, in this case, they thought it was like the perfect brand amplifier, right? It was very consistent with their ethos. And in fact, when they designed their package, which is like beautiful, simple, one-color printing, they even took time and space on that box to tell the story of what the box is made of. So the glass container that you can refill with your soap is clearly a responsible story. And then even the box itself is made from a renewable annual crop to contain their product. And then, another interesting example, back to the hemp, CBD, and cannabis space – Burgopak in London, I met the Managing Director and lead designer at a conference in Chicago when we could travel, back in 2019. And they were really anxious for hemp paper and they’re designing a product line that’s childproof for the cannabis space and then products that don’t need to be childproof for the CBD space and have used our hemp-based paper, just ingenious designs that served the needs of brands all over the world. Certainly in North America, they’re seeing an enormous uptick and a huge amount of interest and real demand for hemp-based paper packaging specifically to your point to underscore the product that they’re containing.
Adrian Tennant: Chris, you launched Mohawk’s Renewal line of papers on Earth Day, right in the middle of a pandemic. What are some of the ways that you’ve seen Mohawk’s business affected by COVID-19?
Chris Harrold: Yeah, we did launch it at the broad, it felt like the depths of the pandemic. April the 22nd of 2020. You know, I think Adrian, print marketing and print advertising budgets just felt like they were frozen in time in second quarter. So it was really demand dropped off significantly for printing papers. Good news is, we’re climbing out of what felt like a pretty deep crater, which I think is a reflection of. demand coming back. For instance, I keep mentioning the Holiday greeting card business. That DIY space, the photo book space, is actually pretty healthy right now. People are at home, right? I’m assuming it’s a direct reflection of there’s time to organize all those zillions of photos you have on your phone and then make them into something like, “Oh gosh, I guess I’ll make that photo book I’ve been putting off!” For instance, we saw there was a spike in graduation announcements because people weren’t gathering to celebrate graduation. So demand dropped, it’s coming back. It’s got a ways to go, but we’re navigating through it.
Adrian Tennant: We know that many families canceled their usual summer vacation plans, including travel by air, due to concerns about contracting the coronavirus. We’ve heard that many folks favored road trips in RVs and the National Parks saw more visitors than usual. Do you think that the collective yearning to be in uncrowded natural spaces is an opportunity to maybe reinvigorate a broader green consumer movement?
Chris Harrold: Uh, you know, I think what all this isolation and restriction has done feels a bit like slow cooking, right? Like, I think consumers collectively have discovered like, “Okay, I’m home” and they’re valuing things that may have gotten lost in the blur of living faster, traveling more. And I think paper-based things be it books or packaging has come to the surface and looks valuable. I think the green dimension of it – there’s a moment there. I think whether you’re making a photo card or you’re buying a box of chocolates, the fact that it’s made responsibly resonates. But I think, just as a focus group of one myself, I’ve been astonished to see a toy catalog from Amazon. Like I didn’t see that coming! Like in my mailbox is this pretty artfully created catalog for the holidays – from Amazon! And I think, we’re probably all experiencing some version of scroll and screen fatigue and printed things – mind you, printed responsibly – feel like they’re special and maybe a bit more permanent.
Adrian Tennant: Well, even though we increasingly use digital communications for person-to-person interactions, some products and experiences can’t be digitized. And the traditional printed book business you mentioned, which many observers predicted would be replaced by e-readers is actually booming. So what’s the secret? Why is paper not only staying relevant in the digital world, but also subject to innovations, like your Renewal line?
Chris Harrold: Adrian, I think everything in the world is not the size and aspect ratio of an iPhone. Even though we’re all I suppose, a bit dulled to that. So here’s an interesting example, I just got this big package that came from London, a friend who’s just an amazing, sort of a print impresario. And it celebrated Varnishing Day from the Friends of the Royal Academy. And here’s the deal: since the mid-18th century, at the end of the summer, artists will varnish their works, their paintings, and there would be a huge exhibition at the Royal Academy. Guess what? They didn’t have the exhibition this year and what they did instead was they memorialized the work of maybe 50 artists who did commission small works, that were printed on paper, and put into this incredibly beautiful box that’s just artfully made. It’s the kind of thing you would never get rid of, right? It puts a coffee table book to shame. So I think that, as consumers are exposed to printing, beautifully made and, artfully designed and carefully constructed, in my opinion, it begins to carve out a new important space for print. And I think the permanence of printing perhaps part of its superpower and also it’s tactility, right? I mean, just the way we, as human beings, react to consuming data or visual information while we’re touching it, it just affects our brains differently. And I think that’s super important. And I think it’s what separates print from the way we consume information on screens, it’s proven by tons of research that haptic element of printing, to your point earlier, with students and learning by reading and books, we’re just hard-wired. We can’t avoid it affecting us differently.
Adrian Tennant: I think you attended art college in the 1980s. In your view, are today’s art and design students getting the education they need about the potential and practicalities of working with paper?
Chris Harrold: Absolutely not. In graphic design, and I’ve spent three decades around graphic designers, I think there’s so much information around tools and tool sets that needs to be disseminated and – mind you, as well as type design, and visual acuity, and all these elements – printing on paper is really been relegated to the corner, right? It’s like the Thursday lecture toward the end of the semester. It’s a real need in the design education space and, I suppose even in the larger art education space, but we’re working to help solve that problem. Again, we’ve had a great supportive following in the graphic design world for decades and it’s not uncommon for them to reach out to us to say, “Hey, help us help ourselves and disseminate information about print, and about paper, how we can better our efforts to educate students.”
Adrian Tennant: What are some of your favorite examples of work that you think really take advantage of the qualities of Mohawk paper?
Chris Harrold: That Varnishing Day box I got blew my mind because it ticked all the boxes, in terms of its use of print, the structural design of the box, and, um, you know, the prints are all on Mohawk Superfine – something we’ve been making since just after World War II. It’s the gold standard in the design community. It certainly had been for many decades. Again, I referenced Vignelli and having these artists work represented on Superfine. It just feels like the perfect compliment to the artwork. Another interesting story – all very current events, the Rhode Island School of Design, they would normally have a runway show to show off all this work done by these ingenious, young fashion designers. They couldn’t do it in the middle of COVID. What they leaned into though is print. What they did is they printed a catalog, really beautifully designed, and guess what? They use renewable recycled cotton. So it’s this very meta thing, right? All this clothing printed on cotton textile paper, artfully designed, beautiful book. And again, a keepsake. So those are two that really go to the top for me that have come across my desk in the past six weeks or so.
Adrian Tennant: Do you see the potential for younger designers, those Gen Z-ers, who’ve grown up with digital devices and have never known a time without the internet, . do you think they’re thinking about paper in a different way than say Gen X-ers?
Chris Harrold: I don’t think they actually spend a heck of a lot of time thinking about paper, but here’s my observation. When they see printing in a beautifully designed print on paper, they think it’s like witchcraft! Wow, Whoa, like it’s not this similar to their interest in say, having an old-school Polaroid camera or learning how to use film and, you know, sort of reaching back to experience things that they’ve never been exposed to that are not digital. “Wow, this is amazing. How do I do this?” Right? They’re sort of like not spoiled by lots of frames of reference to print, but on the other hand, they have zero exposure to it or a little exposure to it. Yeah, I think there’s an appetite and again, like we were talking about design education, we’re trying to stay out there and engage them and inspire them and hopefully educate them on how to do this and why it’s viable today.