Words by: Marta Verdes
Images: Chris Holden

“What is the best notepad to use with the AJOTO pen” is one of the most frequent questions we are asked. We have a few suggestions but the items produced by ITO BINDERY always feature high on our list.

Our introduction to ITO BINDERY was a number of years ago when we purchased one of their memo blocks as a design curiosity for our studio, drawn in by the now iconic architectural aesthetics, but ironically not for its primary function as a writing tool. Although, this quickly changed when curiosity overcame us and we put Pen to paper. At this moment we realised that there was much more to this simple block of paper than first meets the eye and they quickly became our staple testing pad for customers during visits to our studio and for showcasing our Pens at events.

During our trip to Tokyo in September, we decided to make our pilgrimage to the factory to meet the team, learn more about the production process and most importantly the story behind the unassuming writing block.

ITO BINDERY has been independently operating in the Sumida District of Tokyo for over 80 years and is currently helmed by the third generation Masaki Ito. Traditionally small family manufactures in Japan specialized in a single process and form part of a large supply network to create finished products. For ITO BINDERY their expertise has been in cutting. After Masaki's grandfather retired his father took control of operations and added more machines, sourced from across the world, to provide greater precision and accuracy while enabling the company to increase the variety of items they could process. However, for the last 20 years with the rise of the internet, the paper industry has witnessed a steady decline. Companies like Ito Bindery started to feel the increasing pressure to evolve or face the hard consequences of resisting the inevitable change.

Sitting with Masaki in his factory we wanted to understand the roots of his idea to transition from offering a service to a product and the story behind his journey so far.  “In the beginning, we were only offering determinate services. We received orders and we did what our customers asked for, but I knew we had to change our business model to attract a wider range of customers” Masaki confessed to us.

Posed with this initial question Masaki began by explaining his story. The journey began with a single idea to create an excellent paper product that would showcase his companies years of experience, knowledge and skill and keep the family tradition alive.

It was quite a surprise for us to listen to the process of how the iconic memo block came to exist. Rather than try to develop in isolation Masaki decided to hire a small team of designers to help him approach and solve the riddle that was playing on his mind. “We met up and began by trying to answer the big questions: What is ITO BINDERY? What is our ethos? What do we want to represent?” he continued “We found the answer when I told them the story of my grandfather who used to run the factory. He would collect the paper leftover to make complementary notebooks for his customers and friends. He always remembered how such a small gesture made his customers so happy. When I finished telling the story the designers pointed out that this is the product that represents the company” Masaki said with a large smile. The challenge didn’t finish there. The first item that the designers developed was the memo block, with an 8mm base and 350 pages. “The machines have a limit of how much paper can cut” he explained.

Their initial tests proved inconclusive as cutting the hard card base and the soft paper together while achieving the desired clean precision cuts was stressing the machines. Creating the perfect combination of events for excessively wearing the components and causing irreversible damage.

In the beginning, Masaki resolved that it wouldn’t be possible, however changing the dimensions and details were off the table. All of the other optioned lacked the finesse and balance of the agreed design and didn’t represent the excellence he was looking to achieve.

Rather than compromise the design he innovated with his team of workers and rose to the challenge to refine the processes and define a series of unique steps that enabled them to achieve perfection. For us, it was only through seeing the process first hand that we could truly appreciate the real skill in making something so beautifully simple. As Masaki proudly pointed out to us “When they cut it they ensure everything is kept exactly straight, even on the angles, each element is perfected and every detail is precise”.

Today their collection of memo blocks and pads are sold across the world from Asia, North America to Europe. In itself, this is a huge achievement, but most importantly it has given a different future to the company and transformed the work environment giving everybody new skills. 

“I do trade shows throughout the year to meet our overseas clients. In the beginning, we designed our range of products having in mind creative industries like architects and designers. Travelling makes me realize how different people are on every continent, country, town and city. Although a lot of people I meet have similar backgrounds, they have different needs.” he explained, on pushing for an example he responded. “When we took part in the last Maison & Objet show in Paris last year a lot of clients asked for more environmentally conscious packaging. We took this feedback and developed a new cardboard packaging to protect the pages and removed the clear plastic wrap that we currently used.”

After our talk, Masaki gave us a tour around the factory to see the production process first hand and observe his small team finishing the next production batch. Getting to see behind the scenes of other companies that you admire is a huge honour. It makes us appreciate how many of the object and items we treasure may appear industrial and clinical in their design but have actually been made by hand with immeasurable care and dedication. There is a saying “just because it looks simple doesn’t mean it’s easy” we couldn’t agree more. ‍

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A huge thank you to Masaki Ito and Melanie Fukuhara for taking the time out of their day to meet with us. We had a fantastic afternoon! ‍

If you would like to learn more about ITO BINDERY and their range of products please follow this link here ‍

Also a special thank you to our trusted friend Chiaki for formally arranging the meeting and introducing us to so many incredible people during our visit to Tokyo!

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