Design Feature #48

The Unsung Hero Behind Designers

Tai Tak Fine Paper Company

Written by: 拉米
Translated by: Joel Wong
Photo: 拉米, The Paper Institute , Tai Tak Takeo Fine Paper Co., Ltd. , CoLAB

Last month, Tai Tak Takeo Fine Paper Co., Ltd., which has been operated in Hong Kong for 36 years, announced the ceasing of its business in Hong Kong by the end of November. The news saddens the design industry. Creative works are never just a designer’s job.

Often the paper suppliers play an important role in the process. For example, in designing a book, an envelope, even a piece of wrapping paper, which color, texture, weight, and material should be used, all relying on the professional advice from the paper supplier at times. On the other hand, the products of the paper supplier also enhance the value through the designers’ works in a complementary way.

Takeo's trademark "The Paper Making Apprentice" is derived from the 16th-century European printmaking artist Jost Amman's work "The Paper Maker" and is the earliest artwork about papermaking.

Takeo’s President personally established the first overseas branch

I met with the director of operations of TTF, Baku Takashima, he brought along with him a piece of "cheat sheet" that printed the interview questions I sent him in advance with well-prepared answers on it, that surely displays the earnest side of Japanese people.

He first briefly introduced the background of TTF: The parent company Takeo Co., Ltd. was founded in Japan by Eichi Takeo in 1899. It mainly provides artistic paper products from Europe, America, and Japan to all over the world. Their warehouse in Japan has more than 9,000 different types of fine paper products. In 1984, Takeo Co., Ltd. established its first overseas branch in Hong Kong in a joint venture with the local company Tai Tak to form TTF. It has been 36 years since. But, why Hong Kong?

"There are many outstanding designers and printing companies in Hong Kong. For example, Mr. Alan Chan was already doing projects with a large-scale Japanese department store at the time. Before we opened a Hong Kong branch, we had been providing fine paper supplies to Hong Kong through a local company. As our desire to obtain a closer communication with the Hong Kong designers grown tremendously, we decided to set up a branch in Hong Kong.”

Not to mention, Takeo was also attracted by Hong Kong’s internationalization and diversity, “Hong Kong designers absorb ideas from many foreign cultures while still paying a great deal of respect to local history and culture. This is very similar to Japan in a sense." Back then, Takeo's president even came to Hong Kong in person to set up the branch, and he had a special affection for this branch.

Baku Takashima, Director of Operations of Tai Tak Takeo Fine Paper Co., Ltd.

Takeo's warehouse in Japan has more than 9,000 types of fine papers in stock. If a customer wants to order inventory from Japan, they can ship them from Japan to Hong Kong.

Infinite creative possibilities with paper

More than just a fine paper supplier, TTF treated design as its DNA right from the beginning. "Our president Mr. Takeo said paper itself is a finite carrier, but through collaboration with different creators, it can bring out infinite possibilities,” Takashima says. Takeo has collaborated with many design masters in Japan. For example, Kenya Hara designed all the company’s cardboard. He also designed special sample booklets for Takeo’s Vent Nouveau series.

The booklets demonstrated printing photos of soaps in various colors on different kinds of papers. The booklet then instantly became a collectors’ item. Ten years after, Takeo decided to republish the sample booklets, and the printing company Asia One in Hong Kong was responsible for the project. Kenya Hara’s team was also dedicated to supervising the whole process.

TTF has always shown staunch support to Hong Kong designers. From renowned creators like Alan Chan, Tommy Li, Javin Mo, Sandy Choi, and photographer Dick Chan, to emerging designers, and even students are all Takeo's clients or partners. "We always standby the creators and support them." Takashima said. Sometimes when the company launches new products, they would knock on the designers’ doors and sell them, but more often, the designer asks TTF for advice for which paper for ideal usage.

For example, in Tommy Li's 2018 exhibition “Project.Objects.Play,” he originally wanted to use newsprint, but due to the reduction in demand for newsprint as digitalization arose, Takeo suggested a new type of newsprint called “tablo,” which has the same newsprint grayish color and rough texture, but heavier than traditional newspapers, which works well in printing black-and-white images. Since then, Tommy chooses this type of paper from time to time.

Kenya Hara has been Takeo's long-term partner. He designed the company's cardboard and some sample booklets.

Designer Tommy Li chose "tablo" newsprint for the pamphlet of his "Project.Objects.Play" exhibition. Using "tablo" to print black and white images will make them pop.

Promote designs from Hong Kong to Japan

After years in the fine paper business, Takashima also sensed the changes in the industry. One of the major trends is that customers and designers pay more attention to environmental protection, and paper suppliers now need to import more eco-friendly products. Moreover, the mobility of commodities and technologies under globalization has greatly increased.

The papermaking technology in China and neighboring countries has also improved drastically with an even more competitive price, which puts TTF’s business in dire straits. Also, digitization seriously dimmed the market's demand for printed books, coupled with the pandemic situation's impact, TTF reluctantly has to announce its seized of business.

But at the same time, Takeo is also taking advantage of “borderless” under globalization to introduce Hong Kong designs to Japan rapidly. Each month, TTF will select outstanding works and send them to Japan for archives. Hong Kong designers are also invited to design Takeo New Year cards this year. Also, I need to mention the Takeo Paper Show, a large-scale exhibition held every few years by Takeo and jointly organized with different creators to explore paper possibilities.

I remember visiting the Subtle exhibition, which was curated by Kenya Hara in Milan back in 2015. Architect Ryuji Nakamura used countless thin paper circles to build a fascinating spring-like paper sculpture. To TTF, paper is a carrier of design and art with infinite possibilities.

A modern tea ceremony invitation designed by Himson Li for tea specialist Katherine Yu. Printing on the matt art paper by heat pressing has a three-dimensional effect to it. Hung Lam is the creative director.

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