Old Mohawk Paper company lore has it that in 1946, a salesman named George Morrison handed his client in Boston a trial grade of paper so lush and even, so uniform and pure, that the client could only reply, “George, this is one super fine sheet of paper.”
Mohawk Superfine was born.
The premium paper has been a darling of the printing and design world ever since. Famed graphic designer Alvin Eisenman counted Superfine among his favorites. When Yale University Press wanted to publish Benjamin Franklin’s papers, it went to Mohawk for an archival version of Superfine. “Superfine is to paper what Tiffany’s is to diamonds,” Jessica Helfand, co-founder of Design Observer magazine once said. “If that sounds elitist, then so be it. It is perfect in every way.”
Mohawk tells the Superfine origin story every chance it gets: on their website, in press releases, in promotional videos and in their own lush magazine, Mohawk Maker Quarterly. The stock’s seventieth anniversary, celebrated in 2016, was accompanied by a campaign hashtagged #DearSuperfine in which superfans wrote, tweeted and otherwise toasted the company’s flagship grade. “1946 was a momentous year,” Mohawk wrote in announcing the campaign: it saw the debut of Jackie Robinson, the Eames chair and the bikini. “And in 1946, a team of innovative papermakers redefined quality for an industry with the creation of Mohawk Superfine.”
Now Ted O’Connor, Mohawk’s senior vice president and general manager of envelope and converting, tells the Superfine origin story again. He sits on an ottoman in a hotel suite on the 24th floor of what a plaque outside declares is “The Tallest Building in the World with an All-Concrete Structure.” It’s day one, hour zero of Paper2017, the annual three-day event where the industry, its suppliers and its clients come together to network and engage in “timely sessions on emerging issues.” Attendees are rolling in and registering, and the Mohawk team is killing time before wall-to-wall meetings.
The Superfine narrative is personal for Ted. George Morrison was his great uncle. His grandfather, George O’Connor, started the company when he acquired the old paper mill at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers in upstate New York. Ted’s father, Tom Sr., took over in 1972. Now, his brother, Tom Jr., runs the fourth-going-on-fifth-generation paper company.
Once Ted finishes the story, we talk about the paper industry—where it’s been and where it’s going. “Years ago, when I used to go to these types of meetings with my father, there was a text-and-cover committee, which would be our competitors. We would all sit in a room, and there were probably sixteen mills—Strathmore, Hopper, Rising, Simpson, Mohawk, Beckett… We’d talk about trends in the industry and talk about distributors and things like that, and, um—” he stops to reflect. “They’re all gone.”
He lets that sink in for himself.
“Because they sat there and made just what they made for thirty years, and it kind of gets obsolete.”
“Paper is good.” So reads the packaging on a ream of 8.5 by 11 in., 20 lb., White (92 on TAPPI’s T-452 brightness scale), acid-free, curl-controlled, ColorLok-Technology®, Elemental-Chlorine-Free, Rainforest-Alliance-Certified™, Forest-Stewardship-Council®-Certified, Sustainable-Forestry-Initiative®-Certified, Made-in-USA Domtar EarthChoice® Office Paper. “Great ideas are started on paper,” the packaging reads. “The world is educated on paper. Businesses are founded on paper. Love is professed on paper. Important news is spread on paper.”
Domtar is right: paper has played “an essential role in the development of mankind.” And yet for decades now civilization has been trying to develop beyond paper, promoting a paper-free world that will run seamlessly, immaterially on pixels and screens alone. How did paper get here? Where does it go next? For that matter, why is paper—which does its job perfectly well—compelled to keep innovating?
On March 26, 2017, I stepped into The Tallest Building in the World with an All-Concrete Structure, ready to find out. Billed as “THE annual networking event for the paper industry,” Paper2017 consists of only three panels and presentations across its three-day agenda. The rest of the time is dedicated to what are called “suites,” well-appointed hotel rooms that serve as base camp, conference room and informal networking space all in one. Alas, because I represent a small literary magazine with zero interest in selling or being sold anything, I score only a few suite dates in my time at Paper2017. Instead I spend a good amount of my time in a communal catch basin of sorts called the “Connections Lounge” (CL).
The CL was a great place to sip $5 cups of coffee and thumb through the latest issue of the Paper2017 Convention Daily, published in three separate editions for each day of the conference and printed on obscenely large 16 by 11.75 in. glossy tabloid that serves as an oversized “fuck you” to palm-sized devices. It is printed by O’Brien Publications, which also publishes PaperAge magazine, the newspaper of record since 1884 for all things pulp and paper. Michael O’Brien is the publisher. The editor-in-chief is Jack O’Brien. And John O’Brien, Jr. is the managing editor.
I stroll through the CL, drawn to an unmanned National Paper Trade Association table piled up with juicy-looking literature on paper’s many virtues. I take one of each and sit down at a cocktail table to thumb through my haul—multiple two-pagers, infographics and brochures announcing paper “myths” and paper “facts.” Above, the glass beads of a chandelier sway almost imperceptibly in the HVAC’s flow.
A tall, thin man out to meet and greet introduces himself to me as Neil. “So what brings you to Paper2017?” I give my thumbnail sketch—small literary magazine, piece about paper, etc.—and now his turn: something something something cloud-based software something something business intelligence analyticssomething something manufacturing profitability improvements. Later I would see Neil approach at least three other tables, on the prowl for potential clients. Outside these walls, at least in the kinds of places I hang out, paper is shorthand for the boundless possibility of creative output. But in here paper means business.
Neil tells me he actually grew up in paper’s Silicon Valley: Wisconsin. His dad worked in the mill and he grew up in company homes. One day a Finnish corporation bought the mill and moved the whole process to Finland, leaving a shuttered plant behind. Neil tells me about his son, who is double majoring in public policy and English but who “didn’t tell his dad about the English part.” Dad seems displeased by this: “He made it tougher on himself.” I may have cocked my head in curiosity at this remark, and Neil, perhaps remembering that he was speaking with a man of letters, quickly added, “But, no, I have a lot of affinity for writers, people who write.”
Ts’ai lun, a Chinese eunuch and privy councillor to Emperor Ho Ti, gets the credit for inventing what today we recognize as paper in 105 CE. The basic formula remains unchanged. Some fibrous material—rags or wood—is mashed up, mixed with water into pulp, then strained through a screen. Matted, intertwined fiber remains, held together by the same hydrogen bonds that twist DNA into a helix. This gets dried and cut into paper.
The technology spread from Asia through the Arab world, eventually landing in Europe circa 950 CE. All the glory goes to Gutenberg for his printing press in 1440, but his metal movable type would’ve been nothing more than an oversized doorstop if there had been no paper for it to press upon. Paper biographer Dard Hunter states the case clearly: “If man may now be considered as having reached a high state of civilization his gradual development is more directly due to the inventions of paper and printing than to all other factors.”
All the more shocking, then, how many times paper’s death knell has tolled through the halls of universities, corporations, governments, newsrooms and our very own homes. Like fusion power, the paperless world has been just a decade away for the past half-century, approaching and never arriving.
In the mid-Seventies, Business Week published an article by the head of Xerox’s research lab that is credited for first putting down (on paper) a vision of a paperless “office of the future.” It painted a not-incorrect picture of future workers going about their business accessing and analyzing information on screens. And yet paper continued its ascent: global consumption grew by 50 percent between 1980 and 2011.
Why? Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper, respectively a principal researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge and co-director of Lancaster University’s Institute for Social Futures, have a few solid theories. First, they note that computers and the World Wide Web meant unprecedented access to information—information that, while accessed digitally, was still best consumed on dead trees. Second, printing technology became so small, cheap and reliable that just about everybody with a computer could also afford their very own on-demand press.
“We have heard stories of paperless offices, but we have never seen one,” Sellen and Harper wrote in The Myth of the Paperless Office. “More commonly, the introduction of new technology does not get rid of paper; it either increases it or shifts the ways in which it is used.”
The catch here is that The Myth of the Paperless Office was published in 2002, just before luminous, mobile screens put down roots in the same paleomammalian cortex that lured early Homo sapiens to fire’s glow.
Since then, resolutions, load times and user interfaces have improved dramatically, striving toward a functional ideal that, ironically, looks and feels a lot like paper. At the time of this writing, a startup called reMarkable was launching a “paper tablet,” billed in a stylish launch video as a “breakthrough solution for paper people.” In nearly the same breath, the British-accented narrator touts reMarkable’s “comfortable, paper-like surface” and its ability to let you “read, write and sketch, with an extraordinary paper-like feel.” It offers “the most paper-like digital writing experience ever.” (Technology is a snake that eats itself.)
And yet! Still no paperless world.
By 9:54 a.m. on Paper2017 Day 2, the CL has reached peak capacity and peak caffeination. Old friends are reconnecting, new deals are being done. I’m sitting alone at the cocktail table, waiting for my next suite rendezvous. I see the strictly enforced lanyard-wearers-only policy being strictly enforced on a trio of unsuspecting lanyard-less suits. My official lanyard notwithstanding, I feel guilty taking up increasingly rare deal-making space. Time to stretch the legs. Out on the sidewalk, I turn around to peer up the length of Paper2017’s home base, The Tallest Building in the World With an All-Concrete Structure. When the building was completed in 2009, Chicago Tribunearchitecture critic Blair Kamin called it “not vulgar, respectable enough, but still short of Chicago’s soaring architectural standards.” Kamin was less kind when the building later unveiled a finishing touch: five all-caps serifed letters, spanning nearly the length of half a football field, which spelled out the developer’s name: T-R-U-M-P.
So bad was this sign—slung low where no other Chicago building dared to brand before—that the building’s architect reportedly emailed Kamin to say, “Just for the record, I had nothing to do with this sign!” Kamin called it “as subtle as Godzilla,” and a “poke in the eye,” and pretty much everybody in Chicago agreed.
It really is a terrible sign.
Curiously, despite his name hanging hugely on the outside of the building—not to mention printed on every napkin, coffee cup, water bottle, pen and pad of paper inside the conference—the 45th president of the United States of America was mentioned to me only twice during Paper2017.
Once was in terms that reminded me of the weeks of pained post-election analysis about how urban elites had failed to heed the struggles of the working class: “When you get out in the rural part of our country, and you see what’s happened … regardless of what your political affiliation is, I can tell you, Donald Trump tapped into something,” Mike Grimm, CEO of American Eagle Paper Mills, based in Tyrone, Pennsylvania (pop. 5,301), told me.
Grimm spoke about the role that the Tyrone paper mill played in the town’s history and livelihood. His own great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant, worked in the mill’s machine room. Growing up, Grimm remembers the paper mill’s whistle directing not just the shifts of the mill workers but also the lives of the town’s residents.
And yet, in 2001, the mill was shut down as its large corporate owner consolidated. It was a blow to the region, but two years later a group of former mill managers pooled their resources and reopened it as American Eagle. “Especially today, when you lose that type of income out of a small town, it just can’t be replaced,” Grimm told me.
It’s not just Tyrone. The loss of local industry is a pervasive small-town tragedy that Big Paper wants you to notice: witness a YouTube video, produced by the high-powered PR firm Ogilvy, entitled “A Portrait on Paper: Paper Made Here.”
We open in 1080p HD on slightly-slowed shots in and around Domtar’s Marlboro Mill in Bennettsville, South Carolina. Tremolo strings and cooing synths set the tone. Technician Russell Page describes in V.O. the birth of his son, who has Down Syndrome. “Your child will need stability,” a nurse tells him. “He will need a routine, and he will need support from family.” Shots of pictures on the fridge, the morning drive to work, basketball with his son, and Russell explains how the local textile industry has gone overseas, people are losing their jobs, their homes (slow pan across shuttered factory, abandoned gas station). Then Domtar comes in. “That was like the whole community hit the lottery.” Cue pianissimo major chords. An older boss takes him under his wing, teaches him everything he knows. Sierra SLE pulls into the plant; lens-flared shot of Russell at dawn in safety goggles and Domtar helmet. Obligatory nod to environmental stewardship. “We have one planet,” says Russell over a shot of him wading into picturesque river and standing with arms crossed in front of forest. The strings are soaring now over frantic bass notes. “You can’t measure what Domtar means to this area.” Shot of Russell and his wife cheering on their older son in local high school basketball game. “It is also the answer for my child’s life. He lives the best life that anyone could live and it is supported by Domtar.” Slow zoom out on three generations of the Page family eating dinner together. Blackout.
It’s an ad for a paper company, but every time I watch it, it brings me close to tears. Part of it is because it’s Ogilvy and those people are hired to isolate and pull on heartstrings. But I hope it’s mostly because the story acknowledges a fundamental truth about how we make sense of ourselves through our work. The Domtar plant doesn’t just give Russell a job, it gives him “the answer” for his child’s life. “He lives the best life that anyone could live,” Russell concludes. “And it’s supported by Domtar.” As if the real threat posed by automation and offshoring isn’t unemployment but nihilism.
A non-professional can only take so much discussion of sustainable wood procurement, the neuroscience of touch, “connected packaging solutions,” and the potential for using paper sludge and fly ash to offset oil-based polypropylene in plastic composites. Halfway through the conference, I ached for news beyond Paper2017, so I unholstered my mobile device to thumb through the headlines on CNN, Fox News and the New York Times. Regret sunk in immediately. I retreated back to the appropriately mobile-unfriendly PaperAge.com and bathed in the insular warmth of headlines like “Pratt Industries Officially Opens New Corrugated Box Factory in Beloit, Wisconsin,” and “Sonoco-Alcore to Increase Prices for Tubes and Cores in Europe,” and “Mohawk’s Tom O’Connor Jr. and Ted O’Connor Earn AIPMM’S 2017 Peyton Shaner Award.” That last article, really just a reprint of a Mohawk press release, contained this lovely remark from a paper industry colleague: “[Tom and Ted] are lions in our industry that represent the first family in paper with old-fashioned values and exciting new products and services that make this crazy business fresh and fun. When the O’Connor family succeeds, we all succeed.”
On the third and final day of Paper2017, the industry’s sobering choices were laid bare before us in two divergent sessions featuring analysts from RISI, a market-research firm that considers itself “the best-positioned and most authoritative global source of forest products information and data.”
In the first session, we learned that the global demand for printing and writing (P&W) paper has been in steady decline more or less since 2008. These are the papers most of us think of when we think of paper—the uncoated mechanicals, the uncoated freesheets and woodfree, the coated mechanicals and coated woodfree, coated freesheets, i.e. what composes directories, paperback books, newspaper inserts, low-end magazines/catalogs, direct (junk) mail, envelopes, brochures, photo printing, menus, posters, stationery, legal forms, and the iconic 8.5 by 11 in. office copy paper. They are suffering the combined assault of social media, email, tablets, paperless e-billing, e-readers, laptops, smartphones, online forms, banner ads, etc. Worldwide demand for P&W paper fell 2.6 percent in 2015, according to RISI. Preliminary data suggests it fell 2.2 percent in 2016, and RISI forecasts it will continue to fall another 1.1 percent in 2017 and 2018.
But there’s more to paper than printing and writing. Market trends session no. 2 focused on global paper-based packaging and recovered fiber, where the outlook is much brighter. There was talk of an “Amazon effect” paired with a slide showing several boxes within boxes and paper padding used to ship one tiny bottle of vitamins. Big Paper is learning to sustain itself by encasing e-commerce gold. The internet taketh away, and the internet giveth.
You’re seeing more paper in food and drink packaging too. RISI chalks this up to increasingly negative public attitudes toward plastic packaging. There’s a paper-based portable water company called “Boxed Water Is Better” built on this exact premise. Plastic-bag bans and taxes are popping up all over the place, including Chicago. RISI illustrated the trend with a photo of a sea turtle ensnared underwater in plastic wrap.
And then there’s tissue. It may not be the first thing we think of when we think of paper, but Big Paper is indeed very much in the business of selling toilet paper, facial tissue, paper towels and “feminine products,” and the business is good. You can’t blow your nose into an email. We are material in the end. We have inputs and outputs. We require physical receptacles. More of us are on the way. RISI sees a 3 percent annual rise in global tissue demand through 2018, and a 1.4 percent rise in global paper demand overall.
Even Mohawk, which is firmly planted in the printing and writing segment, is optimistic. “We tend not to listen to all this,” Ted, back in the Mohawk suite, told me, holding up a copy of the Paper2017 program. “Trends and this and that.” He shook his head dismissively. According to Ted and his chief-executive brother Tom, Mohawk has been successful, growing along the lines of 3 or 4 percent a year.
It seemed like Mohawk might understand something others in the industry did not. While many larger paper companies were reacting to the prods of market wonks and consultants by reinventing themselves as manufacturers of toilet tubes or Amazon packaging, Mohawk had doubled down on its original value proposition: they made really great paper. Amid the chaos of beeping, buzzing and blinking, Mohawk now stands out as a quiet, focused manufacturer of the world’s simplest publishing platform–one that actually gives its users pleasant haptic associations.
It’s not that Mohawk ignores the digital revolution; rather, they have made a choice to sell the ethos of paper to the digitally fatigued. Melissa Stevens, Mohawk’s senior VP of sales, handed me Mohawk’s Declaration of Craft, an absolutely gorgeous piece of printed material chock-full of New Agey thingness. Its thesis:
In an era of impermanence, an extraordinary movement has emerged. A movement of makers where craftsmanship and permanence matter now more than ever.
Mohawk’s communication strategy is built around this “maker” movement, which is illustrated with hipsters throwing clay in their basements, forging wrought iron and side-hustling in saxophone design. It’s impossible to tell whether this is brilliant marketing or sheer impudence or both. It’s true that the effects of papermaking craft can be overwhelming. At the conference I picked up a beautiful, textured, royal-blue envelope that Mohawk made for a Land Rover direct-mail campaign and I still think about that toothy blue envelope—way more than I’ve thought about any of the hundred-odd emails and news alerts I read that day.
“Don’t believe all the gloom and doom about print and paper,” said one of the Mohawk executives. Stevens quickly added, “Amen.”
In my mind I kept returning to The Office, Season 3, Episode 17. Pam Beasly is having a bad day. What few of her friends and co-workers show up for her art show largely yawn at her still lifes and exurban landscapes. Oscar’s boyfriend dismisses it as “motel art.” But just as she is about to leave, her boss, Michael Scott, shows up. He has had a rough day, too—been made a fool by his own subordinates and by business-school students smugly assured of paper’s doom.
Pam’s art mesmerizes Michael. “My God, these could be tracings,” he says, pure of heart. He insists on buying her painting of the office. Pam’s eyes grow wet. So do Michael’s. “That is our building,” he says, “and we sell paper.”
This is the best scene in the series. I watch it, and I feel the victory of earnestness over a world of naysayers. We cut to Michael back at Dunder Mifflin, hanging the painting of the office in the office on The Office. “It is a message,” he says. “It’s an inspiration. It’s a source of beauty. And without paper, it could not have happened…”
He pauses to consider this.
“Unless you had a camera.”
Then, sometime in the middle of the twentieth century, scientists at MIT and Stanford and the U.S. Department of Defense, began to search for a better way to store and share their ideas. They experimented with mashing up old rags and wood to mix with water, draining the mixture through a screen and drying the matted fibers into sheets. The breakthrough made its way into civilian life, and by the turn of the millennium most everybody in the developed world carries a pad of paper in their pocket.
Perhaps, in this version of events, we would regard paper as the superior technology, and not just because of novelty. After all, paper loads instantly. It requires no software, no battery, no power source. It is remarkably lightweight, thin and made from recyclable, Earth-abundant materials. Its design is minimalist, understated, calm.
All throughout Paper2017, people tried to convince me (and perhaps themselves) that the Office-inspired stereotype of paper as aloof and backwards was wrong. Paper isn’t boring, they told me; in fact, it’s an “exciting time for the industry.” They coopted the technophile’s word cloud—“innovative,” “disruptive,” “smart.” For goodness’ sake, the industry bought a booth at SXSW this year, #PoweredByPaper.
Yet at the very same time that it tries to showcase its innovative credentials, paper is also promoting a nostalgic counter-narrative—filled with references to family, American values and small-town workers. Not unlike coal mines or auto plants, this story imagines paper mills as monuments to the fading promise of American industry.
Paper will survive in some form (as packaging, as TP, etc.), and so, I’d wager, will both of these narratives. Meanwhile, as writers like me fret about digital vs. paper, the industry is shifting, like so many others, from a steady stable of family-run mills to a business model that breeds perpetual uncertainty, interpreted by consultants and navigated by anomalous corporate marketing entities. Behind all the optimistic talk of restructuring opportunities and rebranding initiatives, traditional careers in American paper are vanishing: according to the New York Times, Wisconsin alone has lost twenty thousand paper factory jobs since 2000.
There weren’t many representatives at the conference of workers like Neil’s dad, who had actually manned those mills for generations; there were, however, plenty of consultants like Neil, who spoke the language of metrics and markets effortlessly. I used to believe, probably like most people, that paper was just a simple canvas for my ideas. By the end of Paper2017 I wanted to believe that making paper could be everything: an artisanal craft and a family-run business and a developing-world growth opportunity and a packaging revolution. Yet I couldn’t help noticing how familiar were the marketing creeds I heard over and over at the conference: a 21st-century blend of techno-speak, nostalgia and nonsense.
The other time someone at Paper2017 mentioned to me the man whose name hangs on the side of The Tallest Building in the World with an All-Concrete Structure was on the conference’s final morning. A friendly man from Belgium with a South Asian accent plopped down in the armchair across from me, just outside the CL. I had met him incidentally on the first day of the conference, and when I idly said it seemed like there was a lot of excitement in the paper industry these days, he quickly replied, “Excitement? Or fear?”
The man had some cursory relation to paper—he was in the import-export business—but it was all a bit foggy to me. When we got onto the topic of technology and disruption and automation, he painted a much bleaker picture than I heard in any of my other conversations at Paper2017. Robots will one day replace truck drivers and then chefs, and then even your primary-care physician, he said, absently spinning his smartphone between his left thumb and forefinger. In that case, I asked, what do you tell your children (he had two young ones) to do about their future career prospects?
“Be a salesperson,” he said. “If there is artificial intelligence, then they will be selling the robots,” he winked and smiled. He flipped his smartphone again. “This is how it will be.”
I must have looked uneasy about all this because he then tried to reassure me. He pointed to Europe as an example of a place where governments are getting out in front of this trend, requiring that employers pay extra into social security if they replace a human worker with a machine. He said he knew less about the situation in America, but he felt things would be okay.
“You have a nice president who is a businessman,” he told me. “He’s not a politician. There is profit or loss in business, so you either win or lose. Some people don’t like that, but I think it will be good.”