Susan Merritt visits the Strathmore Archive

In 2014, Mohawk uncovered a treasure trove of rare, historic and beautiful Strathmore paper promotions called The Strathmore ArchiveSince then, we’ve hosted a series of exhibitions, special events and we’ve invited design enthusiasts into the archive, sharing these rare artifacts with them. 

We were pleased to recently host Susan Merritt, a contributor to the AIGA Eye On Design blog. In her writings for Eye On Design, Susan examines visual communication, design history and material culture. Originally published on Eye on Design September 30, 2015, the article below captures Susan’s experience visiting the Strathmore Archive, and her unique findings.

The Amazing Paper Archive Mohawk Almost Threw Away | By Susan Merritt

When Mohawk purchased Strathmore from International Paper in 2005 the company unknowingly inherited The Strathmore Archive, a dense collection that spans the twentieth century. Mohawk didn’t realize that these materials were part of the deal until eight years later when six pallets piled with cartons were discovered in a dark corner of their Albany, New York, warehouse. The boxes, which came very close to being discarded, were moved to corporate headquarters as soon as Mohawk realized that they had become the caretaker of a very rare collection.

Design historian Paul Shaw told me, “We’re fortunate that this archive has been rediscovered since there is nothing comparable from any other paper manufacturer. The Strathmore Archive is significant as a window into the world of graphic design as it was emerging in the United States as a profession from the end of the 1890s to the 1990s.”5

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Pieces from the archive are featured in a booklet to accompany a pop-up exhibition and presentation by Paul Shaw at the HOW Design Live Conference in May 2015. Paper is Part of the Picture by Aurora Design, courtesy of Jennifer Wilkerson

Among the artifacts is an extensive assortment of paper sample books, a marketing tool originated at the end of the nineteenth century by Horace Moses to promote Strathmore Deckle Edge Papers, a line of machine-made paper produced at Mitteneague Paper Company, which became Strathmore Paper Company in 1911. These artful printed pieces demonstrated the creative potential of the paper and inspired customers to place orders. The idea worked. Today, the paper sample book continues to be a prevalent sales tool across the paper industry. “It’s so impressive that Strathmore started this in the 1890s and they never stopped. The through line is their commitment to inspiration and education,” said Chris Harrold, Mohawk creative director.

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Chris Harrold looking through a box of bound volumes of The Strathmorean, Strathmore’s in-house newsletter published from 1913 into the 1990s

Harrold is in the midst of unpacking, organizing, and documenting hundreds of items including one-off designs, serial publications, full-blown promotional campaigns, and direct mail pieces. The earliest is an 1897 sample book by Will Bradley who designed and illustrated a number of small letterpress-printed hand-bound booklets for Mitteneague. They were designed and illustrated in a manner similar to Colonial American chapbooks with woodcut-style illustrations, coarse lettering, Caslon type, and rules that outlined sections of the page.

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Paper sample books designed and illustrated by Will Bradley

An extensive campaign, The Strathmore Artists Series, formerly The Strathmore Collection, was initiated in 1921 under the catchphrase “Paper Is Part of the Picture.” This effort coincided with the publication of A Grammar of Color, an elaborate book published by Strathmore to educate the industry about the use of color based on the Munsell System of Color. The “Paper Is Part of the Picture” campaign demonstrated how the Munsell system could be successfully applied to actual printed pieces. A notable example from 1922 designed and illustrated with woodblocks by Adolph Treidler demonstrated the concept of integrating the paper color into the illustration. The paper literally became part of the picture. A diagram and explanation on the back cover described how Treidler applied the Munsell system. In recognition of the archive, Mohawk reintroduced four heritage colors into the Strathmore line: Golden Olive, Pyro Brown, Dusk Blue, and Riviera Rose.

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Cover of paper sample designed and illustrated by Adolph Treidler for the Paper is Part of the Picture campaign, 1922

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Chris enthusiastically unfolds the 1922 paper sample designed and illustrated by Adolph Treidler for the Paper is Part of the Picture campaign.

“The Strathmore Town Series” campaign featured direct mail pieces for imaginary shops and businesses in a fictitious town. These brochures advised readers on how best to market certain types of businesses. They even included clip art that customers could order separately for use in their own materials. In 1924 fashion illustrator and industrial designer Helen Dryden illustrated “Originations by Fashion” for the imaginary Strathmore Woman’s Shop. Her elegant illustrations picture fashionably dressed women in different “around-the-clock showings” with smaller illustrations of individual articles of clothing and fashion accessories scattered around the page.

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Pages from Originations by Fashion, booklet number 3 in The Strathmore Town series, illustrated by Helen Dryden, 1924

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Since different designers were commissioned to create these campaigns, the result is a rich array of type and lettering styles, an assortment of illustration techniques, and various approaches to design and layout. The broad range of interpretation of the thistle, which Moses adopted as the trademark of Mitteneague Paper Company in 1905, really caught my attention. From realistic illustrations to stylized renditions and decorative patterns, the variations seemed unending. I found myself anticipating the thistle with each new piece that Harrold pulled out.

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Thistle logo illustrations by a) T.M. Cleland, b) Adolph Treidler, c) Will Bradley, d) Ralph Barton

Among other pioneers represented in the archive are Lester BeallLucian BernhardT. M. ClelandWilliam A. Dwiggins, and Rudolph Ruzicka. Also included are works by Oswald Cooper, Seymour Chwast of Pushpin Studio, Susanna Suba, and Walter Dorwin Teague. Many of these illustrators and designers were later awarded the AIGA medal.

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Left) Lester Beall, 1950. Top Right) Pushpin Studio, 1964. Bottom Right) Kenneth Kuenster, 1970

Another valuable historical resource uncovered in the midst of the collection is the in-house company newsletter, The Strathmorean, which was published monthly from 1913 into the 1990s. “These are an archive unto themselves rich in social history about the company and the people who lived and worked in the Strathmore mill town,” said Harrold. They also include information about designers and their involvement with Strathmore. One newsletter reported that designer Helen Dryden would be joining Strathmore paper merchants at the University Club in New York to discuss A Grammar of Color.

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Chris showing Susan the Grammar of Color

“The archive sheds a nice light on Mohawk and creates a renewed interest not just in Strathmore, but paper in general,” said Tom O’Connor, Mohawk chairman and CEO. “It really is amazing that the archive was almost thrown out.”

The significance of this sleeping giant and its influence will surely continue to be unpacked long after all the boxes have been emptied.

This article was originally published on September 30th, 2015 on eyeondesign.aiga.org. Eye on Design is run by AIGA, the professional association for design. As the profession’s oldest and largest professional membership organization for design—with 70 chapters and more than 25,000 members—AIGA advances design as a professional craft, strategic advantage, and vital cultural force.

Susan Merritt 

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