G. F. Smith Papers: 130 Years Of Excellence

As their new selecta, The Collection, is admired at design studios across the land, we take a peek behind the scenes at the G. F. Smith factory in Hull: a monument to quality, the finer details and hard graft…

Think G. F. Smith, and you think of really good, thick stock; the kind of paper used by the best artists and designers. And we’re not alone: the company have been providing exceptional paper for — and supporting the endeavours of — design industry giants and pioneers for over one hundred years. Their fans and collaborators include The Typographic CircleIt’s Nice That, the Design Museum and Barcelona’s Hey Studio.

Perhaps more importantly, the company’s representatives — including our tour guide, Northern Paper Consultant Jane Crowther – pride themselves on seeking out and supporting small start-ups. Crowther is an unstoppable force; she has seemingly endless amounts of energy and enthusiasm for ambitious, creative projects, like Manchester’s With Love Project to our very own Liverpool Culture Diary. It’s infectious.

“Unfortunately we cannot support every project that comes to our attention”, explains Crowther. “We have to look at the bigger picture, including what message our collaboration sends to the creative industry. For the North-West, all projects tend to express the creativity and sense of collaboration and community within my area, thus promoting the area’s atmosphere and our commitment to it.”

“Based on the North Humberside docks since 1885, founding father and Hullian George Frederick Smith wanted to establish an international merchant company”

Knowing that G. F. Smith’s new selecta was about to drop — a regular unveiling of new papers that design studios go crazy for — we travelled up the M62 with Crowther to have a good nose around the factory, meet some of the staff and hear more about the history and legacy of the company.

One thing we realised upon stepping through the steel doors is that G. F. Smith is inextricably linked to Hull’s economy and creative culture. Based on the North Humberside docks since 1885, founding father and Hullian George Frederick Smith wanted to establish an international merchant company that would reflect his personal admiration for artisan paper, and the expertise of the printers and publishers who used it. According to company legend, Smith travelled the world ‘with an almost obsessive energy’, seeking out the very finest paper manufacturers of the Victorian age. His efforts won business in Europe and America, and laid the foundations for a small-town business that has lasted 130 years — surviving two World Wars (some of the bomb-surviving cast-iron printers are still working hard to this day), economic depression and the rise of new technologies.

Indeed, G. F. Smith has carved a niche for itself in an electronic world: spear-heading a hand-made renaissance, where distinctive brands embrace physical materials. Their dedication to driving things forward have won them countless accolades, including a big one last month: Made Thought agency’s ’1885 onwards’ rebrand for the company won a coveted D&AD Black Pencil Award for GroundBreaking Creative Excellence.

Bright Red: 1 of 50 Colours from Colorplan from GFSmith on Vimeo.

And they still travel the world, as the Victorian George Frederick Smith did, spreading the good word of quality paper. Crowther told us of her recent trips to New York’s design studios for G. F. Smith, to meet new artists and establish further business links: “We were on many occasions reintroducing the design community in New York to our amazing Colorplan… forming strong bonds and encouraging a similar networking structure that we have in the UK.” They have just come back from Semi-Permanent design festival in Sydney — adorning the venue in bright blue stock – and won new fans closer to home at Sheffield Design WeekWith all this and Hull’s looming 2017 City of Culture Award in mind, our visit seemed timely: a nod to the past on the summit of something new and exciting.

Out of 200 employees across the UK, 140 work in the G. F. Smith factory in Hull. And boy, is it big. Split into what seems an endless amount of Willy Wonka-style spaces, our tour took in the Small Orders Room (a stationary-lover’s dream, filled with hand-crafted birthday cards, prints and paper art sprouting from walls and tables); the Samples Room (where customers can order any paper from the entire range through next day delivery — the team send out 200-300 packages per day); and the Retail Room (where specialist products are made for Paperchase, Rymans and HobbyCraft).

“We see people’s wedding pictures being bound by hand; transforming memories into tactile, heavy, lovely objects”

An almost addictive attention to detail is clear here, in the way that staff discuss their work. In the Book Room, for example, we learn that G. F. Smith used to be the biggest maker of photo albums in the UK. Now specialising in hand-crafted books for customers who want something special, we see people’s wedding pictures being bound by hand; transforming memories into tactile, heavy, lovely objects. It’s not cheap and the finished product is glorious and completely unique to the buyer.

Channelling our inner nerd, highlights include travelling to the top of the seven-storey warehouse shelves with forklift driver Adrian, that was, he assured us, equipped with abseiling equipment just in-case we got stuck (honestly). One of our favourite rooms was the Envelope Room: we met five female staff sat around a table, laughing and joking, whilst hand-glueing and folding envelopes with an unbelievable amount of accuracy and speed. Each envelope took the mini-production line under six seconds to complete. To much amusement all round, our effort was rubbish: one envelope took us about 2 minutes and was completely wonky.

“Hand-making remains valued in the factory… many jobs are just better finished off and checked by a skilled human being”

Hand-making remains valued in the factory; whilst machines are used for many tasks (including high-tech rollers, cutters, and the afore-mentioned cast-iron antiques which remain efficient at cutting envelopes to size), many jobs are just better finished off and checked by a skilled human being. As Crowther puts it: “Thus ensuring quality service and commitment to every order, no matter how big or small… which has been lovingly specified, processed and delivered.”

And this includes G. F. Smith’s new selecta, The Collection: all the company’s papers (including weight and embossing options) have been catalogued, indexed and packaged here in Hull into a glorious multi-coloured block, to be used as reference in busy design studios. It could also be used as brick to build a house, it’s that hefty (or crack a floor). The Collection is “a celebration of paper”, according to Joint Managing Director John Haslam, that is “full of stories”. And it is: flicking through is like taking a whistle-stop tour with the people, places and adventures that have been part of a 130 year-old story.

Turn to page 173, for example, and you’ll find the history of Heaven 42: ‘acknowledged as one of the only truly pure white coated papers in the world’, and made by German manufacturer Scheufelen, who have a similar company story to G. F. Smith (established on the banks of the River Lauter in 1855). This paper company, the selecta tells us, have produced stock for the Vatican and for NASA’s Apollo 12 lunar mission. Who knew paper could be so groundbreaking?

In a way, G. F. Smith’s New Collection sums up what the company is all about: quality, skill, the finer details and hard graft. And long may they reign.

Laura Robertson

Find out more about G. F. Smith here or follow on Twitter: @GFSmithpapers

Posted on 23/06/2015 by thedoublenegative