There’s no doubt about it. We’re flipping out on Field Notes™ which we think is the coolest vintage notebooks on the planet for classic tomboys like us. This Chicago brand is literally re-writing the note book on reviving the glory days of note-taking and adapting it for the modern world. In this interview, Bryan Bedell, a designer and photographer for Field Notes, reveals their ‘origins story’.
For any classic tomboy worth their pants and suspenders, FIELD NOTES™ is the coolest vintage notebooks on the planet for us. It hearkens back to the Amelia Earhart and Katherine ‘African Queen’ Hepburn days; days when tomboys were in the wild or in engineering rooms jotting important stuff down in their favourite little notebooks, usually stuffed in their dungarees or backpacks.
From their classic notebook packs to their Two Rivers, Shenandoah and recent Byline series for reporters, make no mistake, this Chicago-based brand is really, really passionate about and meticulous with their products. Fun piece of trivia. If you look closely, there’s a hell of a lot of Wes Anderson influences going on in their designs, from the Futura font type, colour palettes and patterns. It almost feels like you’re in a scene literally torn off from one of his films.
So whether you’re going on those camping trips, expeditions and treks or working in the library, heck even hitting the grocery aisles, there’s a FIELD NOTES™ notebook for each and everyone of us.
So just how did this spiffy brand come about and if you think it was started by a band of boring, bespectacled librarians, you’re utterly, utterly mistaken and for that, we’re slapping a fine on you because in fact, it was the brainchild of designer and collector of American ephemera, Aaron Draplin.
In 2006, Aaron decided to create an homage to the utilitarian pocket notebooks found in the first half of the 20th century at full-service gas stations, midwestern feed stores, and all points in between. He called the hundred or so books he’d printed, “Field Notes,” and sent them out to friends, including Jim Coudal. The day that first book arrived in Chicago, Jim called Aaron and in less than a week, the company was born.
Inspired by the vanishing sub-genre of agricultural memo books, ornate pocket ledgers and the simple, unassuming beauty of a well-crafted grocery list, the Draplin Design Company of Portland and Coudal Partners, a Chicago creative firm, created the FIELD NOTES™ brand, a collection of smartly-designed, vintage-styled pocket notebooks, calendars, and various office accoutrements. Life was simply good after that, we can tell you that!
Beginning with packages of three graph-ruled booklets wrapped with a thick “kraft” brown cover, FIELD NOTES™ has since printed dozens of variations and introduced wildly popular limited editions, exploring new colors, papers, printing processes, and special packaging. A real dream for most of us tomboys who avidly avoid the Hello Kitty stationary that’s out there. (Urgh!)
Every FIELD NOTES™ paper product is manufactured in the U.S.A. From the paper, sourced from some of the finest mills in the Midwest, to even the inks used, the production of FIELD NOTES™ has never required travel on a cargo ship or plane; just the roads crisscrossing the country
We spoke to Bryan Bedell, a designer and photographer at the company to tell us more about these incredible little notebooks and stationary items.
Tomboy Tarts: Hi Bryan. Thanks for doing this interview. First, off, wow! FIELD NOTES™ is doing a great job preserving the old agricultural memos and notebooks of yesteryear. What’s the brand’s culture like surrounding these notebooks?
Bryan Bedell: Designer Aaron Draplin (in Portland, Oregon) has always been interested in that aesthetic, and has been collecting old farm/industrial notebooks for years. He finds them at thrift stores, garage sales, flea markets, etc. (More info in this film: http://fieldnotesbrand.com/memo-archive/)
So he designed FIELD NOTES™ as a tribute to his collection, and hand-printed a small batch and sent them to friends and colleagues. We got some here at Coudal Partners in Chicago, Illinois, we were at the time an advertising agency but looking to get out of advertising and get more involved in making and selling our own products. FIELD NOTES™ was a perfect fit, we love the style and we love Aaron so we agreed in 2007 to work together to make and sell FIELD NOTES™ together.
We’ve made many editions but always try to stick to our aesthetic of early-to-mid 20th century American design, maybe dipping our toes into the 60s and 70s a bit (Aaron loves those “Thick Lines,” ha) and investigating various printing and manufacturing processes to reproduce the look of the old books accurately, rather than superficially.
TT: Bryan, today’s generation is all about taking notes on iPads or digital platforms like One Note and Evernote. What is FIELD NOTES™ challenge in a landscape dominated by digital note-taking?
BB: There’s a place for digital note-taking, and we’re not trying to replace that or even compete with it, but everyone needs to write things down, all the time, and some people prefer paper to pixels. Our slogan is “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now,” sometimes the act of writing it down is just as important as the thought or memory itself!
TT: What goes into the design process of creating a new range of FIELD NOTES™ products?
BB: It varies quite a bit from edition to edition, sometimes (“Two Rivers,” for instance) it takes months of detailed planning and co-ordination to make many pieces fall in place. Other times (“Traveling Salesman,” for instance) it gets down to the last minute and we just pick some papers and colors and run with it! The limited editions are fun because we get to try new materials and processes and to be honest, we make them mostly to keep ourselves entertained and learning new things. Sometimes we just see a new printing technology (“Snowblind” for instance) or paper (“Workshop Companion”) that we want to be the first to try!
TT: What are some of the interesting ways that your customers have used of FIELD NOTES™?
BB: So many! We’ve been used in many weddings (for the officiant, or for vows, or as wedding guest favors), many people carry them on their travels, including some scientists and explorers (notably Ben Saunders who walked to the South Pole with our Expedition FIELD NOTES™!) We’ve heard from soldiers and jet fighter pilots who use them, police and firemen, artists, designers, writers, poets, salesmen, and (going full circle) a few farmers who actually use them for what they were originally intended!
TT: FIELD NOTES™ makes us think of a Wes Anderson film because they are so retro and he enjoys using the exact old-school fonts you guys are using that were popular in the 40s – 60s. What was the inspiration behind the brand?
BB: We’re big Wes Anderson fans too, but we’ve all been in love with Futura (and the Kinks!) back before he made it all trendy again. As stated above, it was largely Aaron’s collection of old notebooks and our shared love of design and printing history in general that really inspire FIELD NOTES™.
TT: What is the philosophy behind the brand?
BB: Really, we just try to make products we love ourselves, and hope everyone else loves them too. We try not to get hung up on the business end of it too much, we’re not trying to look good on paper for venture capitalists or sustain unrealistic growth, or total world domination or anything. We just focus on doing what we do well and taking pride in our design, our quality, and our relationships with American suppliers and manufacturers, it’s served us well so far.
TT: Is international shipping available for FIELD NOTES™ products and if so how can audiences outside of the US get their hands on your products.
BB: We sell direct, around the world, on our website: fieldnotesbrand.com. You’ll also find a map and list of our retailers around the world. We mostly deal with small local shops, and we rely on our customers and fans to ask their favorite local shop (bookstores, stationers, general stores, boutiques, barbershops, anywhere, really!) to contact us about selling FIELD NOTES™
WANT TO VISIT THE FIELD NOTES™ STUDIO IN CHICAGO?
Swing by the FIELD NOTES™ studio in the West Loop (same building, different entrance as they are moving now as we speak) to buy the notebooks in person. Bryan is also on hand for guided tours of the space and you’ll also be able to check out their museum-y thing of past Quarterly Editions. Wear your best ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ bellboy suit while you’re there. A pen-drawn moustache would also help.
If you already know what you’d like you can also order FIELD NOTES™ products online and choose the “Local Pickup” option. They will have your order ready at their front desk.
Monday through Thursday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Closed Saturday, Sunday, and U.S. holidays.
Yes, FIELD NOTES™ is shipped internationally. Just remember to ask the company what kind of shipping charges apply and which countries they ship to. They’re really friendly and won’t bite.