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.”
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 Deckel 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Among other pioneers represented in the archive are Lester Beall, Lucian Bernhard, T. M. Cleland, William 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.
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.
“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.