If you’ve been to college to study art or design anywhere in the UK since the late seventies, then the chances are that at some point you’ve worked in a Seawhite sketchbook.
Seawhite of Brighton, the sketchbook and art materials supplier, is one of my longest-standing clients. I’ve known the MD, Shaun Tobin, for over 12 years and I’ve been a customer for even longer than that.
I went to see Shaun this morning to have a look at some new graph paper pads that have been added to the range – my latest designs for Seawhite. I’ve been meaning to ask Shaun about the history of the company for while now, so I decided to interview him for my Blog.
Shadric Toop: So tell me how it all started then…
Shaun Tobin (MD of Seawhite): Well Seawhite is a family company. We started in Brighton in 1973 as an adhesive supplier. My father was supplying PVA glue to a book bindery in Waterloo Street in Hove. They used to produce car manuals – do you remember when people used to do DIY on their own cars?
Yeah, in the 70s, those hard-backed manuals, I remember.
So our connection was we supplied adhesive to them. One day my father said to them ‘could you make us a book with blank paper in it as a sketchbook’ – which they did – and he went to London and sold it to people like Central St. Martins. I think the first customer we had actually was the Sir John Cass School of Art, which is now part of London Met.
[Shaun then brought out one of the original Seawhite sketchbooks and an old car manual – both identical apart from the paper inside, with plastic encapsulated covers. It brought me straight back to my school days in the 80s when I used to use these exact sketchbooks myself – there was no logo in the books so I had no idea they were from Seawhite.]
And then the book bindery got into trouble, and we were selling a few more of these sketchbooks by then, so we bought the company.
So why did you move from adhesives to sketchbooks? Were any of you artists?
No, not at all. I’m probably the least artistic person in the company. We were already supplying PVA glue and plastic for vacuum forming to several educational establishments – and we did also supply paper to a few of them, so it was a natural progression to start offering bound sketchbooks.
Who was involved with the company then?
Well, there was Julian, who still works in our Sales department today, myself and my father and my brother Nick. There was only about three of four of us. This is back in the mid to late seventies.
And how long did you work from Waterloo Street?
It lasted into the early 1980s – the site had to be developed, so we went to Worcestershire to carry on making them. We spent about 10 years there, and then decided to come back to Sussex again – to Partridge Green, and that’s when the business really took off.
And how much has the business grown since then?
Well it’s grown out of all proportion! We went from about 6 people to about 60 people today.
You sell a huge range of arts supplies today – What’s your biggest selling product?
It would still be sketchbooks.
I know you’re still selling the classic Seawhite black cloth-covered hardback books – but remember about 14 years ago you used to sell pads with a plain paper cover – before I was involved – what were they like?
For years we just used to make a pad with a blank cover on the front with our name on a label shrink wrapped inside.
What happened to the sales since we designed the covers?
Well, we’re selling well over 100,000 pads a year now.
What were sales like before, when you had the blank covers?
You’d be talking hundreds, not thousands.
And the range we’ve just done, what’s that for?
We were asked by one of our top customers if we would consider supplying graph paper pads with different metrics on them to be sold through their college shops. This inspired the new additions to our pad range.
What art colleges do you supply in the UK?
All over – from Brighton and Plymouth in the South to the famous UAL to Cardiff Met, Glyndwr University Wrexham, and further north – Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow School of Art , Edinburgh College of Art…
Edinburgh? I went to Edinburgh College of Art myself – so if I was there today, I’d probably be buying your pads from the college shop. Where else do you sell your pads – I heard you sell them in Paris?
Yes France, Holland, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden…One of our outlets in Paris is called La Palette du Fauborg – I think a lot of the designers from the Philippe Starck design studio go in there to buy our layout pads and marker pads… and also they’ve apparently sold Seawhite sketchbooks and pads like our Bristol pad to the Charlie Hebdo people who were just round the corner as well.
Really? The Charlie Hebdo artists use your pads?
According to the retailer in Paris.
One more thing – where do you get your paper from used in the pads?
Most of our paper is made in Britain – by James Cropper in Cumbria.
Am I right in saying that’s the last remaining paper mill in the UK that produces cartridge paper?
It’s one of the last few – another one went bust last week actually – one of their competitors.
So your pads are a completely British product?
Yes, British paper, and British-made – and hand-made to a large extent as well. They’re all made here, in Partridge Green
The Seawhite sketchbook pad range was designed by Toop Studio in Brighton.