This blog post is a little different than most, because it focuses on us and our story rather than historical process and technique.
Vernon is the one who had the dream of Papillon, and by that we mean he literally came up with the name after dreaming about the word. The dream of starting a stationery company had already been percolating and the name stuck.
Vernon has been a bookbinder for over 20 years. As many fine craftsmen begin, bookbinding started as a hobby for Vernon when he was in high school and college, when he bound and repaired textbooks and other books for himself and friends. After college, he and his wife, Lorilyn, left the midwest to teach in Zuni, New Mexico. While in New Mexico, Vernon took an interest in the arts and traditions of New Mexico, and was especially drawn to the furniture and printmaking traditions, including the work of Gustave Bauman and Willard Clark.
Woodcut by Willard Clark
During this period, Vernon maintained a small workshop and studio where he did bookbinding, printmaking, and furniture making. It was also during this time that Madeleine was born.
Upon returning to Michigan, and with the teaching market not working in his favor, he decided to start bookbinding as a full time endeavor. He slowly built up his one-man business, starting in the gray basement, with his kids running around right above him all day.
The basement shop, Grand Rapids, MI, 2002
As a small child, Madeleine spent a lot of time in the basement while Vernon worked. She would sit and read books, collect scraps of marbled paper and leather, and use them to make little gifts like bookmarks or collages. Eventually, she was old enough to be helpful, and she and Vernon started to work together.
Madeleine reading under the workbench, c. 2002
Madeleine and Basil in the basement shop, c. 2003
After 10 years in the basement, Vernon completely remodeled the garage. He added windows, an old wood-burning stove, insulation, and installed a wood floor reminiscent of an 18th Century book cover.
The Papillon Press Studio, 2020
At this time, Madeleine was in high-school, and Vernon told her “if you don’t get a job, you’ll have to work for me”. To her, that seemed like the perfect solution—no job hunting, no interviews, no travel, plus a higher wage. So, work for him she did. In the summers, she worked regular hours doing design work, binding help, and learning the general tools of the trade. In her senior year, she worked during the school year as well, as she had half days then. For her, work in the shop was great. She was able to handle valuable and interesting books and documents, and learn from one of the most expert bookbinders in the world. It also helped that Vernon was a great boss; gracious yet particular. For him, it was fun to have someone to work with, especially one who had just as much fun listening to quirky music as he did. It also allowed him to pass off some of the simpler, messier tasks, and focus more on areas where his expertise was needed.
The Papillon Press Studio, pre 2019.
Fast-forward to April 2017. Vernon called Madeleine up and asked if she would be interested in starting a project with him. We met at The Matchbox Diner, and Vernon pulled out a binder full of ideas, plans, and tons of scans of endpapers that he’d collected over the years. He said that he’d always felt that these amazing designs were trapped and inaccessible to people inside these books that barely left their shelves, and what if we could bring these forgotten examples of beauty back into the light? We dubbed ourselves “design archaeologists”. The next few months were full of prototyping, meetings at Madcap Coffee, and time poring over old books at the Calvin library, looking for more examples of great endpapers. Vernon experimented with marbling paper, making paper, and printmaking methods. Madeleine digitized designs, set up social media, organized files, and took thousands of photos. Lorilyn, Vernon’s wife and Madeleine’s mom, was our tester and best guide. She gave tons of advice (mostly solicited), and promoted our items to her friends and colleagues.
Though we were selling at small markets and in person, we launched our website on January 10, 2019, and Papillon Press was officially born to the public. We’d filed for our LLC status before, but this was our first big entrance into the real world. A few weeks later, we traveled to Frankfurt Germany for Paperworld, and were exposed to the giant world of stationery and print design. Read our Paperworld blog here.
For the next year and a half, we met weekly at Brewery Vivant, where we got to know all of the staff, some quite well, and drank lots of great beer. Each meeting was full of debriefing, from what had happened in our lives since the last meeting, to our current needs for the next week, to visioning and future ideas. We attended markets and art shows, and opened our first few wholesale accounts with our lovely friends at Haven & Main and YT Galleria.
Then, March 2020 happened. Our shows were getting canceled, and we weren’t able to meet weekly in person anymore. The first few weeks were rough and discouraging, and Madeleine had lost her full-time serving job, but was suddenly being paid to stay home. She took this as a chance to re-do the website, and spent hours and hours drinking coffee and “doing admin”, which ranged from coding to emails to setting up real marketing plans, and more. Vernon’s work life didn’t change as dramatically, as most of his book clients are remote anyway, and he continued to come up with new ideas and designs, and was the steady energy that kept Papillon going. We ended up getting really good at daily phone calls instead of weekly meetings, and it turned out that the fact that our only store presence was online was in fact a blessing, as we didn’t have rent to pay. During the summer, Madeleine got engaged, and she and her fiancé James made the decision to move back to his home city of St. Louis, Missouri. We were faced with a new question- how would we keep Papillon going long-distance?
The Letterpress at the Papillon Press studio in Grand Rapids, MI
In September, Madeleine packed up all her things and moved to Missouri. Vernon gave her one of the small book presses that he’d collected, and she left. We figured we both were invested enough to make Papillon work, even if it took some time to figure out.
So, here we are. People ask Madeleine frequently “Do you still work for your dad?”, to which she responds “Well, we’re equal partners in an LLC, but yes”. Vernon still spends a ton of time in the studio, to which, in the last year, we’ve added a 1920s Chandler & Price letterpress (a platen press), and a 1910 Potter Proof Press (a cylinder press). Needless to say, Vernon does most of the printing. He also does all the product photography, as well as assembly, packing and shipping, and somehow has the time to come up with new designs and carve woodcuts too! Madeleine focuses on one-off designs, greeting cards design, linocuts, and most everything involving technology. She sends all the emails, sets up appointments, inquires with retail stores, and stares at a computer screen way too much. Together, we’ve gone back to having weekly phone meetings, when Vernon sits outside at Brewery Vivant, and Madeleine sits at her computer at home. We also still usually have 4 or 5 other phone calls during the week as there are so many little things to talk about!
We've now been going for over two years, and as tough as the the last year was, it taught us two very valuable lessons- Communication is key, and persistence is essential. Our phone meetings are often 3 hours long, and during our meetings, we always come up with a list for the upcoming week, even if it doesn’t feel like what we want to do, or that we’ll have time for it. We’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to make it all work this year, and we look forward to many more years to come! We recently had a birthday, and we launched a bunch of new items, and you can check those out at the big happy button below!
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