When imitation issues a challenge

Midori’s Traveler Notebook is an iconic piece of kit. Pen geeks, paper fiends, leatherheads, journaling fans and stationery junkies all seem to have at least one of these elegantly simple notebook covers. I’ve owned a few of them myself but despite their overwhelming popularity, I think they have some serious shortcomings.

That tiny little knot can be a huge pain

The back cover has a hole where the knotted elastic keeper slips through. This isn’t a distraction if one has two or three notebooks installed but if you’re the type to use just one book, you may quickly feel that knot jarring your writing rhythm. Like the Princess and the Pea, some might be more sensitive to this than others. I am, and it has bugged me with every Midori TN I’ve owned.

Yes, there are times when we need to reinvent the wheel.

Then we have the lead crimp that affixes the elastics to the inner spine of the cover. Circular in shape, it feels like a speed bump along a road that I had expected to be smooth and cosseting. It sounds like splitting hairs but because I use the notebook on improvised writing surfaces, the crimp unsettles me a fair bit.

The Midori leather seems a little synthetic. Look at how the rough side seems to have a weave to it. The grain on the finish side seems to have been machine made.

Lastly, there’s the skin itself. Every Midori Traveler I’ve seen strikes a dashing pose.  But the feel of the hide is a bit of a disconnect. The cover is made in Thailand for Midori so I don’t quite know what exact leather they use, or how it’s tanned. What I do know is that the surface feels a bit tacky. Using saddle soap to smoothen the hide strips whatever topcoat exists. Once that layer is washed away, the leather looks and feels rougher to the touch. Not even mink or neatsfoot oil helps much and it doesn’t take a lot of conditioner to render the leather floppy. That the Midori costs a fair bit of coin aggravates the tragedy.

I am not alone in making these observations. There is a burgeoning community of craftsmen worldwide offering their take on a better mousetrap, commonly called fauxdoris. Superior hides, repositioned holes and additional elastics all aim to fix the perceived shortcomings of the beloved Japanese notebook. In truth, I’ve settled on a fauxdori cut from Hermann Oak veg tan leather by a Hongkong artisan. It’s better built than the original TN in so many ways, and costs less to boot.

Natural Hermann Oak veg tan leather. It smells and feels a lot better than what Midori uses.

The popularity of fauxdoris isn’t flattery at all but a challenge to Midori to listen to the market and step up their game. Japan’s reputation for craft is legend and I’m certain Midori can draw from this heritage to offer an unchallenged product.

New Midori Camel on the left. Year-old Hermann Oak veg tan on the right, by Eternal Leather Goods Hong Kong. Better hide makes for better wear over time.
Ditching the crimp for a slim tube, and moving the keeper knot to the spine make a world of difference.

Japanese tanneries are some of the best in the world. Their unique methods create skins that are distinctive in the way they feel and mature. Offering something cut from nume or even shell cordovan is well within their skill set. Hardware can be improved to insure the ensemble lays flat when opened. The current keeper hole doesn’t bother an Oriental language user who will open the book from back to front, but simply moving the hole to the spine will give equal opportunity to fans from the West.

Will all these cost more? Without a doubt. But Midori need not discontinue or modify their existing line at all. Instead, they can introduce an upscale line to tap  a market that is less hesitant to spend extra coin for a better expression of an already elegant idea. I’m sure more than a few of this blog’s readers would go for it.

(Thanks to @leighpod for lending me the Midori Traveler in camel so I could take comparison pics.)

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9 thoughts on “When imitation issues a challenge

  1. Julie Paradise

    Thanks for your article!

    Your’re so right: With the limitation come the hacks. I have moved to hole for the closing band to the outer side in every MTN I own, customized them with a Leuchtturm Pen-Loop added extra bands to the spine so the leather covers hold 3 or 5 books securely each instead of using the ridiculous rubber bands they suggest.

  2. chrispian

    As a leather maker, we also offer these covers. The reason I got into making leather was because of the TN covers in the first place! The seem to have changed leathers since I got my first one. It was perfect, the leather was amazing and I still can’t find one exactly like it. They did an amazing job on it. But it seems the newer ones use a lesser leather. It’s still great for the product but just not as good as the early ones. I don’t know if they changed the process or if was just an off batch of covers but that’s why I got into leather. We make so many other things but we get requests for some variation of the TN on a weekly basis. It’s a great design and destined to be a classic!

    • Karlo Tatad

      I haven’t seen any of the early TNs but I’d love to examine one. I honestly believe that the leather quality of the current Midoris accounts for half of the reasons why people look to custom makers to get their TN. When you consider how many good leathers are readily available in the US, it’s no wonder that the fauxdori market is booming. 😀

  3. des

    You nailed on what Traveler’s Company needs to improve on (they are no longer under Midori but their own brand under DesignPhil). The knot at the back is annoying. But they probably make more money selling the accessories.

    I used to live in Chiang Mai, where the Midori’s are assembled. There was a store that used to sell “rejects” or copies (it had a TN seal) back in 2012, it wasn’t as popular then. I came back to CM a few months ago and visited the same shop, I asked for some scraps and the woman lead me to a room full of brown and black scraps of leather, I just realized when I got home, that these are scraps from Midori because the die cut holes are the exact same dimensions of standard and passport.

    They do not use the whole hide, only the parts that are perfect, was able to make my 1 standard TN and 4 A6 TN’s in 1 kilo scrap. Was able to track the tannery, and it’s the same tannery that supplies leather to popular brands of shoes and fashion labels like Nike, Timberland etc. Probably one of the biggest tannery in SEAsia.

    • Karlo Tatad

      That’s interesting. It’s typical to use portions of the hide that are least blemished but I’m wondering if they are using cowhide, goat or something else. The way they treat the leather conceals a lot of the grain on both top and flesh side.

      • des

        I think they use cowhide, and the tannery produces 3 million square feet a month of leather so I assume everything is finished by machine. The camel version tho’ looks more processed vs the brown and black. But I agree it will be interesting to see the comparison side by side of the early TN’s

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