As a design-loving non-designer, I envy practitioners two main things: mad Illustrator skills, and the ability to see something in need of a redesign—and then actually go and redesign it. Sometimes these redesigns are badly needed (see: toilets for the developing world) and sometimes they just make everyday life a little better. Pentagram designer Aron Fay’s new notebook, Compwhich gives the cheap and quickly tattered composition notebooks of your grade school days a fresh, considered, quality upgrade—falls into the latter category.

I can attest, and you can see from the images here, that it is indeed a beautifully made notebook. I won’t bother relaying the specs; Fay’s attention to detail has already been gratuitously adored by enough people to make the soft-spoken designer blush. To his credit, he seems as surprised by the degree of adulation Comp’s Kickstarter campaign has inspired as he is by the criticism that’s bubbled up around it. So far he stands accused both of creating the world’s most perfect notebook ever, and bringing about its destruction. Has he, one FastCo writer ponders, “robbed the composition notebook of the very humility that makes it so approachable?” Gasp. Fay’s response? “I made a notebook.”

I’ll spare you the Twitter quibbles as well as the lofty allusions by some to its place in the annals of artist notebook lore. But when all that dust was kicked up around the Comp’s campaign launch, the more interesting design story got buried—and by “more interesting” I’m assuming that, like me, following a yellowing paper trail through the unchartered terrain of undocumented design history gets you all hot in the seat. Plowing through primary sources hundreds of years old and amassing a small collection of moldy (literally) old notebooks wasn’t what Fay had in mind when he first set out. He’d designed books before (and made them, too) and it never required late nights in the library. But Fay’s year of research actually turned out to be the most rewarding part of the process.

To complement his graphic design major at MICA, Fay minored in book arts and printmaking, and to help fund his studies he worked with a fine art lithographer and letterpress printer. Musty old print was in his blood. Later, as a designer on Michael Bierut’s team at Pentagram, where he’s worked for the past five years, he was given a standard issue composition notebook to work from. Everyone on Bierut’s team gets one—a nod to his own love for the disposable, everyday notebook. After using the same style of notebook for five years, Fay got to know it pretty well: its attributes, its shortcomings, the weight of the cover, the feel of the pages. One day he got curious and wanted to know where the thing came from. But Bierut, who had recently exhibited an array of notebooks from the hundreds in his own well worn collection at his exhibition at SVA, didn’t have any leads. So Fay started digging.

Most people can trace the notebook back to around 1887, when manufacturers brought the model over from France to the U.S., where brands like Mead, Norton, Roaring Springs, and dozens of others have been pumping them out ever since. No matter what corner store you buy one in, and regardless of the maker, they all look relatively similar because there’s no copyright for the marbled cover or any of its components. If you ask why no one has thought to differentiate their brand from the rest, you might also ask why a company like Mead would mess with a good thing; its composition book has been a top seller for decades. 

But how is it possible that one of America’s most ubiquitous products, beloved by school children and their parents and teachers, could fall into a historical black hole? How did it look before America got ahold of it, and how did today’s spattered black-and-white cover pattern evolve from the ancient Japanese art of Suminagashi? And wait, how the hell is the Montgolfier family (of hot air balloon fame) wrapped up in this mess? Did their ingenious industrialization of the artisanal skill of hand-marbling ultimately, in fact, cause the downfall of the craft and lead to what marbling historian Richard J. Wolf can only call “dramatic” shifts in the “virile” pseudo-marbling trade of early 19th-century Europe? Are you all hot in the seat yet or what?

Like most minimalist designs, Fay’s Comp book only looks simple. The fact that he went nose-deep in dry books for a year in order to create Comp’s plain white pages will be a surprise to anyone but a designer. And while Fay learned loads about the international intrigue of the 18th and 19th century paper trade, it’d be a shame if the only thing that came of his studious puzzling is the Comp notebook. It’s lovely, don’t get me wrong—I’ve already ordered three. But as a designer, Fay makes a living lending clarity to the complex, and revealing the things we thought we understood in a new light. Who better to unpack a tangled chapter of design history?

Good news is he’s already got his eye on expanding the Comp website into a digital design archive. Right now, though, he’s got a successfully Kickstarted notebook to make. In the meantime he’s been nice enough to scan some of my favorite the most historically interesting spreads from his growing composition notebook collection, which includes train station ledgers, collaged recipe books, sewing patterns, household accounts, and something written in French calligraphy so gorgeous it’ll make you weep. So are all these technically composition notebooks then? Sure, as far as Fay can tell a composition notebook requires just two things:

  1. A marbled cover (either printed or pseudo-marbled)
  2. Interior paper you can write on

Whether you buy yours for $5 in a bodega or $20 on his site is entirely up to you.