Tucked inside every Moleskine notebook is a slip of paper that tells the brand's history. Picasso, Hemingway, and Matisse famously sketched, wrote, and mused in generic black notebooks made by a small family-owned bindery in France who supplied all the stationery shops in Paris until it went out of business in 1986. The notebooks started to become scarce after that and Moleskine, founded in 1997, decided to resurrect and commercialize the style. So while you may never reach the same artistic breakthroughs of the 20th century's creative elite, you can at least have the same tools. And now, thanks to a new branded cafe in the heart of Milan, you can hone your ideas in a modernized version of the spaces that the artists frequented.
The cafe—which was developed with the help of the brand consultancy Interbrand—is divided into a dining-working area complete with a communal table (and ample outlets), retail area (selling Moleskine merchandise, naturally), and gallery exhibiting work from select artists and designers (Kengo Kuma, John Alcorn, Salvatore Ferragamo) as well as crowdsourced from fans of the brand through a digital interface. The tasteful, albeit nondescript, two-story space is furnished with simple tables, blond-wood chairs, bar-height seats, and white pendant lights. Punches of color are reserved for the upholstery, and the food-service area is painted black. It's as if the designers intentionally held back on the flourishes to give you a distraction-free environment and room for your own brilliant ideas to breathe.
Get coffee and a pastry, and buy a new notebook while you're at it.
"The founders' vision from the beginning was to leverage the incredible story behind Moleskine," Arrigo Berni, the company's CEO, says. "Being associated with great artists and thinkers identifies the brand with a certain lifestyle and values: culture, memory, and exploration. These are the values we have been emphasizing more and more in our activities."
For the past few years, the company has been steadily diversifying into a lifestyle brand, creating everything from digital products to bags that speak to a lifestyle. Moleskine licensed a cafe in the Geneva airport last year, but the Milan location is the first in an urban area, and is owned and operated by the brand.
"The cafe is a way for us to provide a physical experience of the intangible dimension of the lifestyle brand we've been defining," Berni says. "The main challenge in building Moleskine is keeping the right balance between protecting the brand values and growing. You want to develop the business and the company, but at the same time you have to be careful. There's a risk of diluting the brand if you don’t respect authenticity."
Since cafe culture has long been associated with creative exploits, it's a natural, not contrived, expansion for Moleskine. The company wants to open more in major metropolitan areas in Europe, Asia, and North America—where the brand is already recognized—though it's not sure where or when.
"We're focused on making this work [before expanding]," Berni says. "I don't want to jinx it."
[All Photos: Michele Morosi/courtesy Moleskine]