mishmash: inspired by paper

Beatriz Barros is a Porto, Portugal native who started the stationery brand mishmash while still at university. She spoke to us from the small glass-walled space in Porto that serves as mishmash headquarters, warehouse, and shop, and where the team’s most creative ideas are dreamt up – on paper.

What inspired you to create a stationery brand?
My grandfather had a local stationery shop. It was small, but not too small – back then there weren’t many shopping centres in Porto. I spent a lot of time after school at his shop and helped with gift wrapping during Christmas time.

So, you wanted to follow in the family footsteps?
No, actually. Honestly, the experience was so natural to me that for a long time I didn’t even think of it as an influence, even when I was developing the brand mishmash. I’ve always been very artsy and as a kid, I always used to put on these silly plays. Looking back, I guess I was just blessed with a lot of childhood daydreaming.

I started mishmash while I was doing my master’s in design. But I got so excited about the project that at some point I completely forgot the master’s. Five years later, when I went back to finish my degree, it was no longer about the theoretical creation of a brand, but more like introspection into the brand we actually created. My design thesis was probably unique because there are no images. It’s all text. The brand was already out there, so I didn’t need to show it. Instead, I focused on everything that went on behind the scenes.

And how do you explain mishmash? What’s the company’s ethos?
It all started with an experiment, and that’s still pretty much what we keep on doing. Nothing is set in stone. We’re trying to stretch the notion of what office supplies and stationery can be. The majority of our customers have been very open to unique, quirky new products and ideas. But the reality is that to be successful you need to create products that are commercially viable.

We recognize that the standard products exist in certain forms, but we want to show people that they don’t necessarily have to be that way. The form these everyday products take has a big impact on our creativity.

Think about our digital tools, like Adobe Photoshop, or an iPad for sketching. These tools are valuable because of what they let us do creatively, and we’re often willing to pay a lot more for, say, an Apple than another computer.

Where does the name mishmash come from?
I knew I wanted to do not just paper products but everything from very small office-related items such as sticky notes to big A3 Calendars and maybe one-day perhaps, office furniture. The word mishmash means a miscellaneous variety of stuff – though in our case it’s specifically office stuff. As long as I stay focused on that, the name gives me the freedom to work on many different items.

Which is your favourite?
That’s hard to answer, but I’d have to say the Naked collection. It’s very minimalist and looks like it requires the least effort. But to achieve the “opens flat” and many of the details in these products, we have to develop lots of processes and talk to lots of suppliers. Minimal products often have a big backstory.

Ok, so the paper is important, but what about the pen you write on it with?
We’re very attentive to matching the right pen with paper, and we were delighted to find out our customers are too. We even created a page on our website in response to customer requests. We run a lot of tests on the transparency of the paper, ink bleed, and feathering – when the paper is too rough for the ink and you see little feathers start to appear. We always try to provide the best experience for our customers.

But now you have your own pens, right?
Yes! It all started with Canvas Pens, which we created because everybody was asking us for a minimalist pen. It’s a clear winner, and we’re selling loads of them. That’s why we’ve developed a new one.

Eclipse Pens.
Exactly. We developed Eclipse Pens in partnership with Prodir. We’ve tested out lots of colours and styles but for now we’re starting with two: Seashell and Black.

Has Portugal been a big influence on mishmash?
All our supplier network is Portuguese, and we have our roots here, so the country surely influences us in many ways. But I’d say we have a bit more affinity with Northern Europe than most of our Portuguese friends – not just in style but in our processes. At the same time, our production is 100% local, and we’re very close to our suppliers, whether they’re in Porto or just outside the city in Matosinhos.

Is paper sustainable?
Paper is a 100% recyclable product, and it’s probably one of the easiest things to recycle, which means that compared to other industries, we’re lucky to be starting from a fairly good position.

While it’s true that everything is about sustainability these days, what some people don’t know is that 100% recycled paper can be quite a bit more expensive, greyish in colour, and very rough, which means it doesn’t work well with fountain pens or heavy inks. Our suppliers are almost exclusively local. In the past, we have gone to Asia for a few products we couldn’t  source from Europe, but since then we’ve changed our product development approach to think about only projects that we can do in Portugal. As we say on our rules on our website, we’re always trying to do better.

You work directly with businesses too, right?
We do a lot of work for businesses, helping them develop the products they’ve always wanted to make. If you look at our website, you’ll see there’s no configurator. We develop totally unique products for each client, working from their brief. Lately we’ve been working with a lot of art museums, literally all across America, from New York City to Honolulu. I think our clients like that it’s just me and a couple of people, not a big company.

Lastly, what’s the enduring value of paper in a digital age?
We’d be the first to say that digital tools help us a lot – at mishmash we couldn’t do what we do without them. But when you’re a creative – and I mean an architect, a designer, a writer, or anybody that needs to create – there’s something special about putting ideas on paper. It’s one of the few things that really lets my mind run wild.

When we’re thinking about products, we always design them on paper first. We all have different processes, but I think most creatives start on paper. It doesn’t even have to be a beautiful mishmash product – a piece of scratch paper will do! There’s something powerful about it. Even when we create specifically for digital, like web pages or photo shoots, we start on paper. It helps you keep a very clear mind and makes you more effective when you go digital.

Thank you Beatriz, for our talk.