Utilitarian notebooks have a split connotation. On one hand, there is a visual paradigm associated with study: a recording of information that can be easily accessed. On the other hand, there is a definite relationship between notebooks and artistic fluidity: where the notebook becomes a space to experiment, doodle and freely associate.
This dichotomy between academia and creativity can be seen in the various historical uses of notebooks as mediums of self-expression. Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat famously employed Mead composition books as idea factories, recording everything from poetic verses and line drawings to notes on his artistic method. Similarly, American musician Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam endlessly scribbles his thoughts and lyrics in everyday journals, using his notebook’s lined interior as a function of his creative process. Likewise, graphic designer Aron Fay launched a redesigned edition of a classic composition book called ‘Comp,’ serving as an homage to the traditional stationary item, while American artist Roy Lichtenstein highlighted the canon of the notebook in his ‘Composition’ paintings of the 1960s. Truth be told, the multi-faceted use of composition notebooks as means of recording and inspiring creativity is rooted in their latent functionality and flexibility.
Traditional composition notebooks have existed for over 180 years, yet most individuals associate their origin with the late 1880s, when manufacturers first brought the model to the United States from France. After their arrival in the US, it wasn’t until companies such as Mead, Norton and Roaring Springs started mass-producing these everyday journals, that the cult classic was truly born. Despite minor stylistic variations between the abundance of brands that overwhelm the contemporary notebook industry, composition books have remained largely unchanged, admired for their uniform proportions, stitched binding, unvarying lined pages, and identifiable speckled covers. Coincidentally, in spite of their rich history, no copyright has ever existed for the composition notebook’s cover motif, making the classic marbled pattern one of contemporary culture’s most recognizable free agents.
Given that pseudo marbling was a much quicker and more cost-effective alternative to the ancient eastern practices, these swirling designs began appearing as decoration on affordable notebooks and book covers. Coincidentally, as the marbled cover was further popularized consumer market, it adapted even greater significance, namely as a form of branding for otherwise blank paper. The repeated use of this iconic pattern led to the eventual deep-rooted association between the abstract marbled design and modern-day notebook culture.
No single event contributed more to the rising popularity of the pattern throughout 20th century than when leading office supply company Mead first adopted the speckled motif in the 1970s. Soon after entering widespread distribution channels throughout the western world, composition books became a staple within contemporary consumer culture, particularly in the fields of academia and the ongoing routine of school supply shopping.
The familiarity of a composition notebook’s black-and-white speckled pattern is beloved today for its nostalgic undertones and uniform format, both of which provide tremendous flexibility for those looking to create personal adaptations of this standardized design. While the everyday office supply companies of the world still hold tremendous market-share of the composition notebook category, new brands are steadily entering the marketplace with novel ideas and inventive means of updating this internationally recognized, classic design.