There's nothing distinctive about a blank, black notebook. Yet over the course of the last 20 years, Moleskine has managed to transform a humble piece of stationery into a status object, synonymous with style, mobility and creative expression.
It all started with a trip to Australia. It was the mid-1980s, and English travel writer Bruce Chatwin was heading Down Under to research Aboriginal song for an upcoming book. In preparation for the journey, he placed an order for 100 of his favourite carnets moleskines (moleskine being the black oilcloth used by Parisian stationers to bind the notebooks), only to be told they were no longer being manufactured.
"To lose a passport," he wrote in his novel, The Songlines, "was the least of one's worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe."
Maria Sebregondi, a Roman-born publisher and design writer, was operating a small creative studio in Milan when she read those words in The Songlines in 1995. Chatwin's deeply felt attachment to his notebook and its tangibility resonated with her, as did its ties to memory, culture and travel. Those same notebooks, she realised, were once used by Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and Hemingway, and had been fixtures in exhibitions of their work in museums and galleries she'd visited around the world. She even recalled using a similar journal herself in Paris, with curved corners, a ribbon bookmark and an elastic seal.
Compelled to preserve the legacy for a new generation, Sebregondi pitched the revival of the notebooks to a colleague at a Milanese publishing firm. "The idea was to market the notebook not as a commodity," she says, "but as a book yet to be written, a book you write yourself."
In 1997, Modo&Modo resumed production of the sleek, black book and trademarked its name – the Moleskine was born again.
Today, the books are sold in 100-plus countries alongside more than 700 so-called "nomadic objects" the company designs with the globetrotter in mind, including luggage, laptop cases, portable LED reading lights and a range of mechanical pencils and pens that are custom-made to be clipped to a Moleskine's hard cover. There are even eponymous cafés, too, in Beijing and Milan.
Still, it's the notebooks – now made with acid-free paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council – that continue to be the company's best-sellers and form the bulk of its €145 million estimated annual revenues. In the age of ever-smarter smart phones and developments such as artificial intelligence, these figures are all the more striking.
But the company hasn't shunned technological innovation. Rather, it sees pen-to-paper as just one part of the creative process today, as essential as being able to collaborate online or create a digital portfolio. Its Smart Writing Set, for example, allows analogue devotees to sync their handwritten notes and sketches to a tablet or smart phone and share them with others in real time, ensuring no distance or time zone interferes with the creative process. Long flights without WiFi don't have to be a dry-zone for new work either; new entries in your notebook are synced next time you connect. Similar tools bridge the gap between image-editing software and the hardcopy work of artists, designers and illustrators.
Like the blank pages of its notebooks, what lies ahead for Moleskine remains unwritten. But one thing is certain: though life on the road may change, the need to put pen to paper remains.