Paper and Planet

Pulp’s new series about sustainability.

An interview with Chiara Medioli, vice-president of Fedrigoni, about the challenges posed by environmental issues when choosing and using paper.

By John L. Walters
Illustrations by Rob Loweaka Supermundane

People’s commitment to sustainability is going to be stronger after the crisis caused by the pandemic,’ says Fedrigoni’s vice-president Chiara Medioli. She is aware that companies are under the spotlight when it comes to making sustainable packaging and materials, whether they are big manufacturers like Fedrigoni; famous brands that use paper and board for communication and packaging; or smaller firms such as design studios, who play a crucial role in specifying materials and advising on their use and consumption. So it is vital to think clearly about choosing the right paper for each job. Virgin, non-recycled paper is a suitable choice for a book or art catalogue that will be treasured for years, while recycled board may be the most sensible option for an item of packaging that will be discarded soon after use.

Medioli uses the analogy of a good cook who is concerned about the quality of the ingredients, but also sensitive to the guests about to eat. ‘Sometimes people think they are doing everything they can with the sourcing of the ingredients, but if they make something indigestible (i.e. unrecyclable) it becomes someone else’s problem down the line.’ To understand paper, one has to understand what it is made of, and the role of its raw materials in the ecological big picture. ‘We use water, minerals and pulp to make paper,’ says Medioli. ‘You use water and it goes back into the cycle. The minerals (for coated paper) are mainly calcium carbonate, essentially ground stone, and there is an abundance of stones. The third raw material is pulp, which comes from the wonderful, renewable machine that is a tree.’

Fibres and forests

Medioli explains that humans have relied on forests for thousands of years, using timber for shipbuilding, construction and energy. Today, paper and board production accounts for twelve per cent of wood production worldwide. It is in the interest of those who manage the world’s forests trees are healthy and grow fast: during the growing phase (the first ten to fifteen years) a tree absorbs the most CO² from the atmosphere. Papermaking is essentially an electrochemical reaction between fibres that enables the paper to hold together. Using trees for pulp is a relatively recent development. Originally the fibres came from cotton, hemp and linen rags – in the past from discarded clothes and more recently from the tiny threads around the throwaway part of cotton buds, after the textile industry has taken the best, longest fluffy fibres. True examples of a ‘circular economy’, these recycled fibres are long enough to be soaked in water and beaten; they then interweave, naturally, in random patterns. But they are expensive. The process using wood pulp was discovered in the late eighteenth-century. Wood was cheaper and could meet the huge demand for all the paper needed for books and newspapers following the industrial revolution, when schooling became widespread in the West.

Performance, virtue and beauty: pick two

The demand for paper from well managed certified forests – a fully renewable resource –came first from publishing companies, who had experienced pressure from lobbying groups such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, and from their own customers. Then came the packaging sector. Since the paper industry is among the most sustainable of businesses, Medioli warns against what she calls a ‘blind environmental enthusiasm’, focused solely on the use of recycled raw materials. This can lead to challenges in terms of quality, utility, performance and aesthetics. Fedrigoni’s technical labs have conducted numerous tests on folding and creasing, establishing beyond doubt that paper made with fresh fibres from well managed forests is three times more resistant to repeat folding. ‘The problem with recycled fibres is that you have to renew them,’ says Medioli. ‘You could choose to de-ink them, but whatever you choose to do you have to put them in the pulper again. You crush them once more and in doing so the fibres become shorter. You can only do that five times, after which the fibres are so short they cannot blend. Since recycled paper doesn’t have a sticker on it saying this has already been recycled three times and only has two uses left, recycled paper has to be a mixture of new and old fibres to work. The higher the proportion of recycled papers, the lower the performance of the paper.’ Medioli is keen that paper users understand that recycled stock that uses post-consumer waste is ideally left grey or brown, which is fine for shipping boxes, or for shoebox board – a much bigger market than the specialty paper sector. ‘If you use aggressive bleaching to make the paper white, you end up with lower performance and higher environmental impact because the paper has travelled more, and there is higher water consumption and more pollution because of the chlorine used to remove the ink from the paper.’ One form of recycled paper that avoids this conundrum uses ‘pre-consumer waste’. Medioli explains that this paper ‘comes from processes immediately post-paper mill, from unprinted excess paper or leftovers from die-cutting envelopes, and is a better alternative altogether.’

Designers and brands have to think hard about their priorities when choosing materials. Medioli says: ‘Only in a fairytale world can you get fabulous results from 100 per cent recycled paper without giving up the beautiful, consistent colour quality synonymous with the brand.’

Paper Box

We had to make it to know it would work. You can only design for paper on screen for so long. London studio Graphic Thought Facility devised and designed the minimalist-maximalist Paper Box for Fedrigoni.

By John L. Walters
Photographs by Angela Moore

There is an aphorism attributed to Albert Einstein that ‘everything should be made as simple as possible – but no simpler!’ It’s a sentiment that applies to Fedrigoni’s new Paper Box, a box of three books of paper samples.

Designed by the London practice Graphic Thought Facility (GTF), Paper Box is a Fedrigoni paper sample book with no precedent – a restrained yet quietly spectacular feat of design, print and production.

From one point of view, it is a simple tool that every designer, printer and specifier will want to have on their shelves. From another angle, it is an exquisite design object, a satisfyingly heavy black obelisk that could become a minimalist design icon for stylish photo shoots. And yet it is also maximalist and ‘completist’.

The three sample books that slot into the matt black outer case (or box) demonstrate every uncoated white paper, every uncoated colour paper and every coated paper (coloured or white) in the vast range of papers manufactured by Fedrigoni in Italy.

Paper Box is as simple as possible, but no simpler!

To those who have observed GTF’s work since the early 1990s, the studio seems perfect for the job. Led by principals Paul Neale, Andy Stevens and Huw Morgan, GTF’s designers have always had a keen no-nonsense relish for materials, working in sectors such as fine art, museums, retail, wayfinding and fine art publishing. (See pp.30-35.) However this is GTF’s first commission for a paper company, and the studio has addressed the task with its customary diligence and zeal. Paper Box is the first of several new products they are designing for Fedrigoni, including swatchbooks, posters and an image library.

The commission to make Paper Box stemmed from Fedrigoni’s need to make a single item that could sit within reach of every person likely to make decisions about paper, wherever they were in the world.

Previous sample books have dealt with separate paper ranges, often speaking to customers in different graphic languages, or featuring content directed at particular sectors or cultures. GTF’s approach eschews any creative ‘nudges’ or influence in favour of utility and practicality. The task of showing how different ranges and weights of paper perform when printed with text and images has been left to a big set of posters and the image library, of which more later.

Book in a box

From the beginning, GTF sought to make Paper Box like a book –something you would treasure and keep – rather than an item of marketing ephemera. The designers requested a sheet of every single paper so that they could start working with the materials. ‘The first mock-up was made from an old book that had been sitting on our bookshelves,’ says Paul Neale. ‘We took it to a local printer and got someone to guillotine it into three parts. We then did some glueing and binding tests.’ Neale explains that the most useful design tool for making Paper Box was the spreadsheet program Excel, which he and designer Alex Ecob used to organise every Fedrigoni paper into three books with 62.5mm wide spines that will fit snugly in the box.

‘There’s quite a bit of maths involved, ‘says Neale. ‘Alex was king of the spreadsheet in this.’ While half their time was spent working out the selection of papers this way, the other half was taken up making models of the sample books. ‘We had to make it to know it would work,’ says Neale. ‘You can only design for paper on screen for so long.’ Restrained and robust The GTF team was conscious that a sample book exists to sell raw materials, and that the design had to be restrained and simple. They chose the typeface Forma (a 1968 sans serif designed by a team of prominent designers for the Italian foundry Nebiolo) for its ‘strong shapes and weighty forms’. The box (case) for Paper Box is made from black-core board, lined externally with Imitlin Fiandra Nero 125 g/m².

Neale and Stevens have been enthusiastic users of Imitlin for a long time. ‘It’s a trusted “go-to” coverlining material,’ says Neale. ‘Not only is it robust, it also feels robust.’ The designers appreciate the fact that this stock has been in Fedrigoni’s collection for at least five decades. To help promote Paper Box, GTF, in collaboration with Studio AKA’s Kristian Andrews, has made a short animation that demonstrates the book’s beauty and utility. The 25-second video clip is underscored by a percussive soundtrack that composer Dave Pape created from the sound of paper pages being flipped– a stroke of digital marketing genius for such a tactile, analogue product.

Dreamscape of images

To complement Paper Box, which puts the emphasis on the materiality of Fedrigoni’s entire paper range, GTF was also tasked with creating an image library. This exists to demonstrate the ways in which different images, textures and designs can be printed on different papers. ‘If I have a white uncoated paper, what do I need to demonstrate?’ asks Neale rhetorically. By showing a consistent family of images, the image library shows paper specifiers how the images reproduce on myriad papers, using different processes such as regular litho, UV and Indigo digital printing.

Neale explains: ‘We use the idea of the ladder and mash it up with printers’ colour control strips to make a family of ladders we can use for photography, and extend into illustration and other graphic representations.’ GTF eschewed computer-aided design in favour of creating a full-size ladder with coloured stripes that could function as a control card while calibrating reproduction, and placed it within a three-dimensional set with walls and a window. They also made a maquette of the set, which made it possible to create many variants: landscapes viewed through the window, geometrical objects, hands, playing cards, a cat and 3D paint blobs flying through the space, along with many variations on ladders of different colours and sizes.

The result is an engaging series of images based around the shape and outline of a ladder. The ladder symbol is seen on every Fedrigoni product, embedded in the company’s crest, and it is a symbol of Verona that dates back to the thirteenth century (see ‘Verona’s ladder’, page 14). These images evoke both Surrealism and Italian style, a dreamlike fusion of Giorgio de Chirico and the Memphis Group with a nod to the Renaissance.

The test images can be used to demonstrate the way images change when printed on coloured or uncoated papers and the effects of overprinting, using photography, illustration, linework, texture and pattern. The GTF team had no wish to impose its tastes on paper customers– who may come from many different cultures and stylistic traditions.

A range of silkscreen Sirio posters gives clients a chance to see a mix of image, ink and coloured papers in different combinations, while the new Sirio swatchbook puts the images through their litho-printed paces.

The Fedrigoni brief has confirmed GTF’s enthusiasm for the papers their Paper Box design promotes. What excites GTF about working with the company is the vertical nature of its business: both manufacturing paper and selling it. Neale says: ‘We’ve had issues with paper merchants who have suddenly changed mills, or they’ve changed the paper recipe and don’t tell you. Fedrigoni has been making paper themselves, in their mills, for years. That continuity is why we, as users, go to them all the time.’