Forging the Past: The History of Kelly Paper and Mohawk Superfine

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Kelly Paper and Mohawk have rich histories on opposite coasts. Our stories both began in the 1930s, and while Art Kelly opened the doors to Kelly Paper Co. in Los Angeles, Mohawk was putting roots down across the country in upstate New York. Read on to learn how Mohawk Superfine, one of Mohawk’s first papers, became a leader in the design and print world today.

Kelly Paper building from 1936
The first Kelly Paper building established in Los Angeles in 1936.

Superfine goes back to the earliest days of Mohawk. The paper was originally made for greeting cards in the late 1940s, created with a rare pulp due to fiber shortages during WWII. Meanwhile, Kelly Paper expanded its’ operations into Los Angeles and Long Beach, California during WWII.

Kelly Paper vintage delivery truck from 1938
Kelly Paper vintage delivery truck from 1938.

After New England salesmen had successfully sold Mohawk Superfine to many accounts, came the biggest breakthrough yet: Alvin Eisenman, one of the 20th century’s leading graphic design educators and founder of Yale University’s graduate program in graphic design, approached Mohawk to develop a custom paper for the production of a book for Yale University Press. With Eisenman developing an enduring relationship with Mohawk, Superfine became a staple in the tool kit of the aspiring graphic designers whose careers Eisenman nurtured. As such, Superfine has been used on projects as diverse as annual reports, collectable posters by Paul Rand and Seymour Chwast, writings by Benjamin Franklin and Dwight Eisenhower, as well as fine art books.

Mohawk Machine Room
Mohawk Machine Room, courtesy of the Mohawk Archive.

“The qualities and results that made Superfine respected and exceptional 40-50 years ago are the same traits that make it a leader in the design and print world today,” says Mohawk’s SVP, Marketing & Creative, Chris Harrold. “Superfine has impeccable formation, beautiful textures, and perfect shades of white; which is why designers and printers continue to choose Mohawk Superfine.” Alternatively, Kelly Paper rebranded and shifted priorities to customer care and growth 40 years ago and continues to be finely attuned to the specific needs of each customer, with an added dash of old-school courtesy.

Kelly Paper logo from 1985
The rebranded Kelly Paper logo from 1985.

From 1985 on, Kelly Paper flourished into 27 stores ranging from Southern California up to the Pacific Northwest. The Kelly Paper customer-focused model continued to help transform print concepts to realities for clients across the West, and will celebrate 85 years in business in 2021.

Kelly Paper building facade from 2006
Kelly Paper Portland building in 2006.

The industry’s move to digital printing—a shift so paramount that Mohawk has called it the “most significant watershed shift since offset lithography replaced letterpress”—proved that Mohawk was still an innovator in its field and a leader in its craft: in the early 2000s, Mohawk turned Superfine into the ultimate digital sheet. Kelly Paper expanded to fit the needs of digital clients with over 1,700 digital products added for use in the growing digital print industry.

A Mohawk Paper Warehouse, courtesy of the Mohawk Archive.
Kelly digital paper promotional sign
Kelly Paper Digital Sign

“Everything we do with Superfine Digital also has a reflection on the reputation of our heritage Superfine products and we simply can’t afford to lower the bar,” says Gavin Gaynor, Vice President Research & Development at Mohawk. “From the very beginning of product development we insisted that Superfine Digital would ‘simply be the best.’” And the best it is. Superfine Digital, with unique testing of coatings, has allowed designers and printers the highest quality against any other digital sheet. “Our manufacturing team takes tremendous pride in producing Superfine and relishes the opportunity to see a beautiful printed piece,” Gaynor continues. “Many of our employees are second, and even third, generation Mohawk employees and they all understand that it is one of the pillars on which Mohawk has been built. We have a number of great products that we are very proud of, but Superfine is the one product family that elicits a nearly unanimous emotional attachment. Our employees on the floor will simply not compromise when it comes to product going out the door wearing a Superfine label.”

The Mohawk Mill, courtesy of the Mohawk Archive.

Using Superfine for digital print can be the best way for designers or printers to realize their best projects,” Harrold explains. “Because the default paper most printers use is coated gloss, Superfine helps any project become a more beautifully executed physical, tactile presentation. The results and quality will be resoundingly better.”

The modern day Mohawk Superfine swatchbook.

With 85 years of serving the West, Kelly Paper continues to build on the solid relationship with Mohawk Paper, and give customers in California, the Pacific Northwest, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona full access to Mohawk’s legendary fine paper products. Kelly Paper forges ahead with fresh partnerships in the wide format, Jan San, and packaging space, with an eye toward the future of print.

Kelly Paper and Mohawk Paper continue to build a longstanding relationship in 2021 and beyond.
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