FEATURES : DESIGN

Mike Abelson of Postalco

By Tom Ran

Published September 3, 2013

Mike Abelson in the Postalco studio

Photo: Barry Whittaker

Mike Abelson in the Postalco studio

Postalco's studio in Tokyo

Photo: Barry Whittaker

Postalco's studio in Tokyo

Research materials – photos, samples, and sketches pinned to the wall.

Photo: Barry Whittaker

Research materials – photos, samples, and sketches pinned to the wall.

Mike Abelson was able to reconstruct the mechanics of a fish's jaw with this enlarged sculpture.

Photo: Barry Whittaker

Mike Abelson was able to reconstruct the mechanics of a fish's jaw with this enlarged sculpture.

As a result, a scaled down and consumer friendly model of the fish's jaw was produced. The Rosy Dory Paper Fish Model.

Photo: Barry Whittaker

As a result, a scaled down and consumer friendly model of the fish's jaw was produced. The Rosy Dory Paper Fish Model.

Left: Mike Abelson adjusts the ink cartridge to the Wheel Printer; Right: A prototype of the Wheel Printer

Photo: Barry Whittaker

Left: Mike Abelson adjusts the ink cartridge to the Wheel Printer; Right: A prototype of the Wheel Printer

The Wheel Printer is inspired by the random patterns made from the tires of cars and bikes.

Photo: Barry Whittaker

The Wheel Printer is inspired by the random patterns made from the tires of cars and bikes.

A series of notebooks printed on Postalco's Wheel Printer and its predecessor the Chance Printer.

Photo: Barry Whittaker

A series of notebooks printed on Postalco's Wheel Printer and its predecessor the Chance Printer.

Random and unexpected patterns emerge from both of Postalco's printers. Here are the results from the Chance Printer series of notebooks.

Photo: Barry Whittaker

Random and unexpected patterns emerge from both of Postalco's printers. Here are the results from the Chance Printer series of notebooks.

Postalco stocks a collection of products that complement their line including a variety of well-crafted scissors from Japan and Germany.

Photo: Barry Whittaker

Postalco stocks a collection of products that complement their line including a variety of well-crafted scissors from Japan and Germany.

Postalco

Photo: Barry Whittaker

Postalco

A view from below, looking up to their old shop. The new location is 1-6-3 3rd Fl Dogenzaka, Shibuya, Tokyo.

Photo: Barry Whittaker

A view from below, looking up to their old shop. The new location is 1-6-3 3rd Fl Dogenzaka, Shibuya, Tokyo.

New products from their Fall 2013 collection. From left to right: Small Tote Bag in emerald green, Free Arm Rain Jacket, and Totem Key Holders

Photo: Barry Whittaker

New products from their Fall 2013 collection. From left to right: Small Tote Bag in emerald green, Free Arm Rain Jacket, and Totem Key Holders

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Mike Abelson was among the initial group behind Jack Spade’s irreverent identity when it launched in 1997. Along with a small team, he and Andy Spade were successful in bridging functionality and style with a sense of humor in a time when messenger bags were the go-to accessories for guys. After years of building the brand, Abelson set out on his own to launch Postalco with his wife Yuri. She the graphic designer and he the product designer. Together they created a sophisticated line of leather products and office stationery bringing an attention to the often overlooked activity of handwriting.

Postalco’s humble beginnings started in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and grew from the desire to produce things that they wanted but couldn’t find. The introduction of the line consisted of only two products, a travel wallet and the legal envelope. It gradually grew to include other smart and well designed items like notebooks, leather products, bags, and even outerwear. It didn’t take long before they relocated to Tokyo. In the dense modernity of the city, the Abelsons were able to source and hire local craftsmen to manufacture their line. Tokyo, unlike other U.S. metropolitan cities, still has an abundant amount of artisans that operate on a small scale. Even now there’s an appreciation and understanding that quality takes time, and mass production, amongst these individuals, is not an option.

Research is a large part of Postalco’s identity. To date, they’ve produced two experimental printers, the Chance Printer and the Wheel Printer. Both of which have been applied to their line of notebooks and wallets. An observation into the mechanics of a fish’s jaw lead them to understand how four or five bar hinged structures functioned. This in turn lead to the creation of a paper model that mimics a fish’s jaw movement.

As Postalco’s collection grew so too did their customer base. The appreciation for their simple beauty, elegant designs and premium materials were embraced throughout Asia, Australia, Europe and North America. Today the couple operates Postalco from their studio in Tokyo with a shop in Shibuya. There they design, research and tinker away at whatever ideas spark their curiosities.

The Scout: How did Postalco begin?
Mike Abelson: We began Postalco after I officially left Jack Spade. For about a year after leaving I still consulted on designs for bags, wallets and original hardware for Jack though.

At first we were of course working out of our apartment in Greenpoint. In a way, not working in a fully stocked office made us rethink what are the necessary tools that are needed for work that we couldn’t find.

The Scout: What did Postalco set out to be when the line was introduced?
Mike Abelson: We had 3 main activities: Publications (Postalco Library), design research, and leather & stationery products. All of these 3 we still continue.

In the beginning we were especially inspired by the beautiful utility of classic office equipment. We wanted to make things that had that level of finish and nonchalant confidence. We wanted to make things that were the result of really thinking through the design, working out the details to a level where using the product ideally becomes a seamless part of daily activity. Simple tools like buckets and hole punchers bowl me over.

The Scout: Paper products will never cease to exist, but there’s no denying that the digital age has disrupted traditional means of communication. Emails and portable devices have practically replaced the need to hand write letters or notes. Did you encounter many doubters during the early stages of Postalco?
Mike Abelson: There are always doubters. We happened to be naive enough not to take it too seriously. If I had only known what i was signing up for! I knew that notebooks and other classic items would not disappear. I mean, books were not replaced by radio. Radio was not replaced by TV. They all continue to exist in their own territory.

The Scout: How often do you write a letter?
Mike Abelson: I write less letters but I send a good amount of postcards. If the message ends up not to fit on one card, i keep adding postcards. Then i put them all in an envelope. I guess that is a letter?

The Scout: When the company was in Brooklyn, were the products made in the U.S. or was it always made in Japan? What made you decide to move Postalco to Tokyo?
Mike Abelson: We made all of our first Postalco samples in New York and got orders. We couldn’t find any place in the US that could do the quality we had in mind. On a trip to Japan a friend suggested a small factory that made bags. Their quality blew me away. On a whim we moved to Japan to make the Postalco things- we are still here.

The Scout: What in particular do you like about Japanese manufacturing?
Mike Abelson: Attention to detail is what makes things like sushi and Japanese woodworking possible. It is the same for contemporary Japanese carbon fiber or high speed railways. This eye for detail makes it possible to achieve the quality Japan is known for. Also there is a vibrant network of craftsmen producing things one by one that makes it possible to make some special items that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

The Scout: Your product offering has expanded beyond stationery, was this your intention from the beginning or did it evolve over time?
Mike Abelson: We always made what we wanted ourselves so naturally we ended up making a wide range of things.

The Scout: What dictates your decision to create a new product?
Mike Abelson: I think of the group of products that we make like a group of plants in garden. If we are making more things it is because it matches something we have or is missing from the garden.

The Scout: Is there something that you want to make but haven’t had an opportunity to?
Mike Abelson: So many things!

The Scout: Can you name a few?
Mike Abelson:I would love to make some different kinds of furniture- especially work related. Lighting for work is also very interesting.

The Scout: Research is an important part of Postalco. It’s listed along with envelopes and office stationery below the logo. Can you speak more about this?
Mike Abelson: For me research is really about asking questions and then trying to answer them. Why does this shape feel better than another? What is the reason we are making this item? That kind of thing.. I want to make sure that we keep questioning as a central part of making new things.

There’s still an appreciation of print and paper in Japan, whether it’s in the publishing industry or care in gift wrapping the simplest products. Do you find that this is true and can you speak more about this?
Packaging is part the attention to detail that there is great packaging in Japan. There might be another factor though too- I think that since Japan is an island nation (Japan is apparently the size of California) there is a greater appreciation of the limited supply of materials. To wrap something is to demonstrate its value. Maybe that is one of the reasons that packaging receives so much attention and is so developed here?? I could be wrong on this though… It is something that I am interested in.

The Scout: Can you tell us more about the Wheel Printer?
Mike Abelson: I took 6 months to prototype and build the Wheel Printer so we could have a way of printing irregular stripes. Before that I did some research about fish mouths and the way that they pop open and closed. I think that building models of fishes’ mouth mechanisms is what allowed me to come up with the Wheel Printer. A lot of the projects that we make work like that. You never know what will lead to what..

The Scout: What do we have to look forward to from Postalco?
Mike Abelson: We made some belts that we are excited about. Also we are working with Japanese deerskin to make pouches and wallets. The deerskin is has a very particular feel. Those will be out this fall.

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