Over at London Review of Books, a fascinating review by Jenny Diski of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (by Nikil Saval) caught my eye for the beautiful paragraphs about stationery. To be more precise, about stationery cupboards in offices.
I enjoyed the poetry of Diski’s description enough to reproduce a few lines here:
The perfect stationery cupboard is one in which you could be perfectly alone with floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with neat stacks of packets, piles and boxes, lined up, tidy, everything patiently waiting for you to take one from the top, or open the lid and grab a handful … Paper in quires and reams, flimsy, economy and letter quality, neatly contained in perfectly folded paper packets. Boxes of carbon paper. (Children, you interleave a crispy dark-blue onion skin between each sheet of paper, you align them bottom edge and long side, tapping the long and short sides sharply together on the surface of your desk, and if you type sharply you can get as many as six or eight copies, each slightly fainter than the one before.) Refills and spares. A cornucopia of everything you would never run out of. Paper glued into pads or notebooks. Lined and unlined. Spiral, perfect bound, reporter. Envelopes with and without windows. Ring binders. Snap binders. Box files. Sticky white circles to reinforce the holes made by paper punches. Paper punches. Green string tags to go through the holes. Labels. So many blank labels. White, coloured, all shapes and sizes. And a mechanical labeller with plastic tape to emboss. More than enough supplies so that if a thing is done wrongly, spoiled or not quite right, mistyped, misspelled, holes punched in the wrong place, pencil broken, you throw it away and get a fresh one from the stationery cupboard that never runs out because it is there always to provide more.
This takes me back to my own delicious experience of workplace stationery cupboards – indeed, a whole room of stationery surrounding the photocopier just across the corridor from my mother’s office.
Most of all I remember the in-trays full of coloured paper – stacks of different heights of every solid colour you could think of: shades of yellow melding to gold and orange; red orange then red and pinky red and pink, and on it went.
I liked to take a sheet off each stack and put them all together, but there they lost their magic and became an untidy assortment of too many colours. The sheets were better off left on their solid, perfect stacks on the shelves.
The fascination with stationery doesn’t seem to go away as I grow older – something Diski understands. Her review talks also of the desire to organise the office space – in traditional office workspaces and in the home office too:
It isn’t just a drive for cost efficiency, but some human tic that has us convinced that the way we organise ourselves in relation to our work holds a magic key to an almost effortless success.
The stationery comes into this ‘human tic’, of course – stationery needed for organising and perfect labelling and sorting and tidying and making sure that whatever you needed would always be at hand – even if you only needed it once every six months. The swivel pins that could be found in the stationery room opposite my mum’s office fell into this category: you could use them to attach a round piece of card with a pizza slice cut out to a square piece of card and have the round one rotate to reveal things like ‘gone to lunch’, ‘not in today’, ‘on holidays’, ‘concentrating’. Clearly vital – on rare and singular occasions.
Growing up, I had a little wooden desk tidy designed to hold different sized writing papers and pads and envelopes, with a place for a fountain pen and inkwells: my version of the office stationery cupboard and a remnant of organisational impulses from a century ago.
You might imagine that the impulse for stationery and for organising one’s desk in this way would have vanished with the ubiquitous computer and with the fashion for minimalism. Instead of ring binders and notepads and different coloured pens you just have the laptop and the iPad – right?
Yet the desks of those with an impulse for organisation at my last workplace were still home to stationery organisers, with staplers and sticky tape rolls and envelopes and pads of paper. The desks of those without that impulse inevitably became cluttered with bits of paper printed out by people who didn’t know how to use track changes or didn’t like reading on the screen.
The blank pages of a notebook always seem more inviting than an empty word document open on my fingerprinted laptop screen. But desks these days must always have space for a laptop (at minimum, if not a desktop computer) and the cords that come with it: the organised items of stationery have to fit in around these awkward intruders. When you’re in a hurry it’s the computer that’s in use and not anything else, so the stationery is pushed to the back.
My solution is to have a big desk, with no drawers: so you can shift your chair along to go from paper to screen. Computer and cords on one side; notebooks in easy reach on the other – that’s the theory. Perhaps I’ll reclaim the wooden desk tidy from my childhood.
Above is a photo I took when writing in a café a few years ago. I enjoyed writing from a café then and still do on occasion, but Diski’s take on it is perhaps a bit too close for home:
…there is something baffling and forlorn about the sight, as you walk past café after café window, of rows of people tapping on their MacBook Air. There for company in the communal space, but wearing isolating headphones to keep out the chatter, rather than sitting in their own time in quiet, ideally organised, or lonely, noisy, cramped home offices.
In the meantime, my big unorganised desk is neglected and instead I’m sitting at the kitchen table, away from the distractions of stationery: there is just the laptop and some flowers in a vase. It feels positively minimalist!