G. F Smith and the power of paper in a digital age

Far from being out of date, British merchant G. F Smith explains why paper is finding a new lease of life in the digital world.

The Fabric of Hull by Made Thought for Paper City

“We always say thank goodness for the digital age, because it’s highlighted the power of paper,” says John Haslam, joint managing director of G. F Smith, the world’s largest specialist independent paper company.

“It’s about understanding a market and targeting that audience with better photography, better print, better paper and a better return on investment. A white envelope doesn’t get opened, but if you see a beautifully embossed yellow envelope that’s the one you’ll pick up straight away. That’s the one you open. That’s the power.”

Sitting in G. F Smith’s luxurious London show space, filled with samples of paper arranged in a jewel-like display of shades, Haslam explains that the brand’s forward-thinking “onward spirit” is rooted in the original vision of founder George Frederick Smith. The Hull-based entrepreneur established the company in 1885 as an independent family business employing people who shared his passion for paper.

“We found a little bit of paper that he’d had in the safe when he first set up the business and it said he wanted to travel the world, find the most beautiful paper and bring it to Europe,” Haslam recalls.

“He wanted to employ the most remarkable people and offer the most superb service. That’s the same values we have today – the best paper, best people and best service.”

G. F Smith currently employs 185 people at its headquarters in Hull, spanning operations and production. It is here where the team cut, shape and emboss the paper to make into envelopes and cards, alongside book binding and framing services. Far from simply selling sheets of paper, 60% of production has a value-added element and with orders starting at a minimum of 25 sheets the service is open to independent creatives and large corporates alike. 

“We’re trying to reeducate people to actually use paper and see the written word as a powerful communicator,” says Haslam.

“You don’t write to say thank you, you send an email – it’s so impersonal. Now because everything is on a digital screen the trend [when people use paper] is much more for texture and touch, and an understanding of the power of texture.”

Paper helicopters unveiling Marrs Green as the World’s Favourite Colour

The sales team – known as paper consultants – see themselves as adding a creative angle to the client’s decision process, Haslam explains. To find the right paper for each customer the consultants first ascertain what kind of product they wish to create, which conditions it will be used in and who is the target audience.

“It’s like making a Tesco cake and a Tesco Finest cake: it’s still flour, it’s just different variations of the flour,” says Haslam, who explains that the science behind the manufacturing comes down to the different tree fibres selected.

“Most paper is made using 100% pine or spruce, but then you start adding different wood in like eucalyptus and birch, which have longer fibres. Longer fibre and shorter fibre working together will create stronger paper. If you want it to be saturated with dye you need to use a combination of birch and eucalyptus, so the dye soaks into the fibre completely.”

Taking a bespoke approach to paper creation is crucial when your list of clients includes the likes of Prada, Gucci and Burberry. The green G. F Smith created for Mulberry, for example, is the deepest, darkest green available and was chosen by the British fashion house’s creative director, Johnny Coca, for its richness and prestige.

The majority of the paper in G. F Smith’s own brand collections Colorplan, Accent and Naturalis is manufactured at the merchant’s preferred mill in the Lake District. Launched in 1936, G. F Smith’s flagship Colorplan range is sold around the world, mostly recently expanding into Indonesia. Colours range from luscious dark brown Bitter Chocolate to the eye-popping Tabriz Blue.

GF Smith Collection jpg

G. F Smith also works as a merchant selling paper into the UK market for global manufacturers like Germany’s Gmund and US mill Mohawk.

“I often wrangle my brain about whether we should be a paper merchant, but if you think of the finest wine merchants like Berry Bros & Rudd, you go there to find the finest wine and you trust them to offer you the best service,” says Haslam.

“We’ve gone back to thinking that we are a merchant in the truest form and we want our creative audience to treat us as a specialist merchant that will offer the best service and advice they need.”

Marrs Green

The latest colour to enter the Colorplan range is Marrs Green, which in July was officially named the World’s Favourite Colour following the first authoritative global survey of colour preferences conducted by G.F Smith in collaboration with Hull City of Culture 2017.

The making of Marrs Green

The vote, spanning 33,500 people in more than 100 countries, found most people preferred a shade ranging from blue to green, with the majority falling in the middle on a colour called Marrs Green. A deep green hue tinged with blue, Marrs Green was submitted by Annie Marrs, a UNESCO worker from Dundee who chose the colour as a reflection of the natural environment in her native Scotland.

Marrs Green was announced to the public as the winning colour via an explosion of paper helicopters over Humber Street, the road at the heart of Hull’s City of Culture celebrations. The launch was supported by a pop-up exhibition of limited edition products in Marrs Green from brands as diverse as Tokyo Bike, iconic lighting company Anglepoise and heritage clothing label Sunspel. 

Brands from Anglepoise to Sunspel celebrate Marrs Green

Marrs Green was also officially inducted into Colorplan by design agency Made Thought, which created a paper tapestry featuring all the colours included in the Colorplan range since 1936. 

The Fabric of Hull tapestry was exhibited at Paper City, an exhibition curated by G. F Smith for the City of Culture 2017 project, which featured a number of special commissions.

These included Island Life by artist Jacqueline Poncelet, an optical illusion-style installation using folded sheets of Colorplan paper, and a four-metre-long paper model of a fish designed by Manchester creative studio Lazerian to reflect Hull’s maritime heritage. 

This summer’s tie-up with Hull City of Culture 2017 on both World’s Favourite Colour and Paper City was a phenomenal opportunity, says Haslam. 

“We are one of the biggest employers in Hull, but not many people in Hull knew of G. F Smith because we’re a paper company not a big PLC, so now a lot more people in Hull are aware of what a company in their city does.

“It is really important for us to celebrate Hull. It’s a really beautiful town and the historic side of the city is really being developed. People from Hull are very proud and we’re very proud we’re from Hull.”

The Local Fish installation by Lazerian for Paper City

Independent thinking

Haslam expects that in 10 years’ time there will be G. F Smith show spaces in New York, Asia and definitely in the North of England. The idea is to offer a holistic brand and marketing experience. 

“The show space tells all about the truth of the company and the power of colour and embossing, whereas downstairs the whitespace is more of the challenge to the market, the disruptive part,” he explains.

When the show space opened in December 2016 it carried an exhibition of the Colorplan Wave, an installation of paper tubes recreating a wave-like motion that was first used to launch the collection in India. Current exhibitions includes elements from Paper City and the G. F Smith heritage cases, showing how design and trends have evolved during each decade of the company’s rich history.

The G. F Smith London show space

The door of the show space is open to anyone with an inquiring mind. “We’re more interested in people who don’t know about us than people who do,” says Haslam simply. 

“Global growth is just something we do along the way, but the vision is to be a privately owned, independent family business with sustainable growth. We believe as long as everyone does their job to the best of their ability then the company will drive forward.

“We try to create a family atmosphere where everybody is valued, appreciated and we have good fun along the way. It’s very much about continually disrupting and challenging the market. That’s what George Frederick did in 1885 and that’s what we do today.”

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