The Write Stuff

Field Notes makes paper fashionable again. Just don't tell the designer.

FIELD RESEARCH: Aaron Draplin's studio is filled with hundreds of old notebooks, ledgers and pamphlets.

Most new products are designed to fill a need, create a new market or just make something better. Aaron Draplin's product is none of these things. It's three staples, paper and cardboard with a simple brand name—Field Notes—printed across the front, and its function is simple: something on which to write shit down.

"One hundred years ago, everybody had to write," Draplin says. "What do we have now? A bunch of fucking dicks with iPhones. No one can write, no one can spell. We’re losing that shit.” 

But Field Notes has turned paper and staples into a successful brand. And unlike Moleskine, the previous darling of the designer stationery world, you won't find these notebooks limited to office supply stores and Powell's—you'll find them in fashion boutiques around the country.

“Seeing $300 jeans with $9.99 Field Notes next to them?” he says, rolling his eyes and sighing. 

Draplin is not the first guy you'd expect to have products stocked in clothing stores. Heavyset and sporting a thick beard, the Michigan native is alarmingly open and honest—both in his expletive-heavy condemnations of modern culture and in expressing his sincere passion and nostalgia for the written word.

"I think in this world where we're sitting on these computers with awesome hardware, awesome software, it's kind of getting old. There's a lack of randomness," he says. "But you sit and write or draw? It's a little Wild West. You just feel this freedom. I think that's why people are digging this."

He ambles around the cluttered studio of Draplin Design Co. in an eastside industrial district warehouse, pulling out prototype notebooks and "reference material." He opens a drawer full of vintage ledgers and agricultural memo books, which he collects from antique stores and estate sales.

"Look at this, this is where this shit starts," he says, holding up an old pamphlet with a husk of corn on it. "To see the way that they used to promote some dumb little corn seed, it's just incredible. That's how the American farmer got his job done…. I've got over 800 to 900 of these things."

Draplin made his first notebook in 2002, subsequently printing more and more, handing out thousands to friends, before one ended up in the hands of Chicago designer Jim Coudal. "Jim helped me wrangle it into something legitimate," Draplin says, and in 2007, Field Notes was launched commercially. Almost immediately, they began garnering attention from style and design blogs, eventually making their way onto the shelves of 500 stores around the world, including art galleries, clothing boutiques and designer accessory stores. You can even buy them at J. Crew. 

"It was an item cool people, creative people were using, and it just caught on," explains Bob Davis, creative director and buyer for Pearl District boutique Lizard Lounge, which displays Field Notes alongside $105 wooden-rimmed sunglasses and $100 flannel bow ties. "I'd seen them before they became popular, and they didn't necessarily resonate with me. Then I saw them at a cool trade show with a lot of hipster types hanging around and thought it'd be cool to have them in the store."

"Will they go out of style? Oh yeah!" Draplin says. "The people who have a loop for frivolous shit, they're one out of 100. There's 99 other motherfuckers who take notes because that's their job. The UPS guy that comes in here, he uses them. I gave him one a year ago he just fills full of shit. I would much rather see him using the things. It's just paper. It's not cool. The fonts aren't cool at that point. But it works for him. And that is a cool thing.

“Really, it just comes down to this: Just write shit down.” 

WWeek 2015

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