In the Gallery: French Paper & Charles S. Anderson Design

Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum is proud to showcase this collection of contemporary and historical collateral from French Paper. It is on display in the gallery at the museum until December 31, 2017. Hamilton Manufacturing was founded in 1880, just nine years after French, and both continue to serve the printing industry after nearly a century and a half.

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French Paper Company has been manufacturing paper in the same community of Niles, Michigan for almost 150 years. In an industry known for corporate acquisitions and shutdowns, French Paper has persevered, emerging as one of the strongest, smartest, and most consistent paper brands. As one of the last, small, independent mills in America, French Paper listens to their customers, not corporate consultants. The staff at French keeps their eye on the bottom line by improving product lines, and when they talk about stock, they mean papers, not shareholder value.

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Now in its sixth generation, the family-run business is considered by some to be the oldest family-owned company in Michigan. Siblings Brian and Kim French are the latest to join a family history that began in 1871. Previously, “My great-great-great-grandfather was running a paper mill for another company,” Jerry French said, which led J.W. French eventually to Three Rivers and to Michigan Pulp and Paper. “J.W. eventually took it over and purchased it”. In 1871, J.W. French started French Paper Company in Niles. In spite of significant consolidation and closing of mills, French Paper has continued to grow.

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Always an innovator in uncoated paper manufacturing, in 1949 French introduced the printing industry's first artificial parchment paper, Parchtone. A few decades later they created the first recycled paper to include actual shivs of wood, Speckletone, anticipating the importance that uncoated recycled soon would take on. One designer who noticed French's unusual selection of natural paper stocks was Minneapolis designer Charles S. “Chuck” Anderson. Working with the Duffy Design Group in the mid 1980's, Chuck was combining a modern vernacular design style with unusual printing techniques for clients, and the raw finishes of French's recycled papers were the perfect complement to this work.

Chuck's award-winning results prompted an introduction to Bruce Bigford and Jerry French, which led to a design project in 1985 for a Speckletone promotion. The collaboration gained widespread attention; particularly at a time when designers were looking up from heavily processed coated papers and reading headlines about garbage barges dumping in the Hudson River.

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Charles S. Anderson Design opened in 1989 with French Paper as their first client, in what has become one of the most long-running and fruitful designer-client relationships in American graphic design history. The two companies continue to work together on everything from their website to packaging to the creation of hues for custom-colored papers. French's story is told with consistency, humor, and approachability, allowing their brand to hold its own against large corporate paper mills at only a fraction of their budgets and reach. (French has even been poled alongside Apple and Adobe as one of the top 5 recognized brands among graphic designers.)

While much of this exhibit features the decades-long collaboration with CSA, the promotions themselves work to tell the resounding story of a small, family-owned, 6-generation, all-American mill, founded in 1871. They also reflect French Paper Company's continued belief in the power of both good products and good design as a way of life.

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Approaching it's sesquicentennial, French Paper Company looks better than ever, producing a wide variety of stock, custom papers and paper products, and boasts an impressive customer list including Tiffany & Co., Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Christian Dior, GM, Coca-Cola, and Eli Lilly – all who come to the family-run business for everything from signature envelopes in the famous Tiffany blue to packaging boxes for cologne.

Those opportunities, French said, are primarily results of good word of mouth. It’s actually fitting, a time-honored way of getting and keeping new and returning business for a traditional company.

“A lot of the time it comes out of just word of mouth,” French said. “We do a lot of really cool design stuff… We’re known as the designer mill. Designers like us and we like them and people start talking and the next thing you know we end up getting a cool job like that.”

Brian and Kim French have grown up around both the product and the design, and see how paper continues to hold it's own in the information age. Brian has worked his way up through the company to the official title of VP marketing, while Kim left a career in fashion merchandising at Aeropostale in NY to head up French's national sales team. With the help of their dad, they are uniquely positioned to take French Paper Company's message into the next 150 years and beyond!

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