I finally crossed an item off my bucket list: visiting the Midwest HQ of Field Notes!
Mr. Three Staples and I have been thinking about visiting for a while, and during our recent trip to Chicago, we finally made it happen, on a beautiful, sunny day. I didn’t know what to expect, since it's not like we arranged a time with Field Notes (my schedule was up in the air until the last minute). We just showed up, hoping that we’d be able to get a tour of the studio without being too disruptive. I was a nervous wreck and totally unprepared, but Field Notes welcomed us with open arms, and really lucky for us, Jim Coudal and Bryan Bedell were both there.
So here is my visit to Field Notes Midwest HQ! I know this is right on the heels of Priya's report on her visit to Field Notes, so I’m not sure I’m adding much. But pics or it didn’t happen, right?
I do urge you to check out Priya’s post first at The London Parchment. How she got visit to Field Notes is a wonderful story, and she includes a lot of detailed information on individual editions and a more comprehensive set of photos of the HQ. I was a bit too nervous and preoccupied trying to soak everything up, so I didn't take as many pictures as I could have, but here they are. I'll add some things I learned as I present them and try not to repeat anything Priya already mentioned (but I probably will).
Bryan and Jim were very friendly and welcoming! I was a bit starstruck, so I don’t know what kind of impression I left, but they were just as I've come to know them from various podcasts and videos I’ve watched them in. They walked me around various parts of the HQ, even upstairs where the rest of the FN crew were busy at their desks (hello! *waves*). I loved how much light was coming through all the windows. You could see the green of the trees outside through the windows and hear the train going by... I'm sure I'm romanticizing it but what a beautiful space to work in. And I must say, I was really surprised by how neat and tidy everything was. Maybe the open layout helps; I really expected a bit more chaos but that was not the case at all.
We were also lead through the back areas where a lot of the action happens, like their stock room, packing and shipping room, screen printing room (where they print their own subscription boxes, shopping bags, posters, etc), photography room, even the bike storage room (see Priya's post for pictures). But even those areas looked well organized.
This is the lounge area on the main floor. Can you believe this former photography studio used to be all black? Now it's all white and airy with plenty of light. Another thing I learned: Field Notes’ old office used to be on a 3rd floor, and the logistics of shipping got to be a little too much over the years – one of the reasons they moved.
The black-and-white mural you see on the right is based on an old photograph of a grocery store under the L-track, and it was specially commissioned by Field Notes. Of course, they made a fancy video showing how it was created – a must watch!
Jim Coudal was particularly excited to show us the square, black clock at the top of the shelves, and how it worked. It’s hard to see because of the reflection of the windows on it, but it reads “It is twelve o'clock.” Watching it turn from 11:55 am to 12 was captivating, with small dots at the four corners counting down the remaining 5 minutes. Very neat.
One of the coolest things about getting to talk to Bryan and Jim in person was that you could really feel their excitement and passion for what they do while they nerd out on details they achieved on their projects. Like the blue ruled lines inside the Field Notes Blue Books, aka Final Exam. Apparently, they are printed the old-fashioned way, by a printer that makes exam books, using strings to ink the lines! Jim Coudal said they really wanted to make exam books for themselves when they learned that’s how the lines were produced. They also wanted the cover to look lower in quality but it still ended up looking neater than they intended.
Speaking of the Final Exam, you can sort of see it on the photo above, on the far left, but there was a table where they were keeping track of all the submissions. I don’t remember the exact words on the labels used, but basically they were sorted into three groups: really good, good, and everything else. I was surprised (and so were the crew!) that some submissions were sent by express overnight mail! Wow, best of luck to those procrastinators. And no, I did not pick out my own Final Exam and re-sort it. :)
And then there was the Shop. I mean, look at that “Great Wall of Field Notes.”
We sure spent quite some time here soaking in all the details and flipping through all the uncut press sheets (apologies for all the drool I left there). Jim and Bryan commented on several of them, especially the America the Beautiful one, and they delivered on “nerdy printing and design conversations” as advertised. Apparently, not all press sheets are out at the same time; more reasons to come back for sure! And boy, did I want all the ones I could see, especially the Night Sky press sheet, with holographic foil and everything. When asked about the Left-Handed edition, Bryan said it was a fun idea they wanted to try, and it had been requested by some fans; they were about to do another printing of “regular” Original kraft books anyway. He also told us some fun stories behind Kevin Guilfoile’s A Drive into the Gap, and we “bonded” over the struggles we face photographing paper things, particularly interior pages of memo books.
This was undoubtedly the highlight of my trip to Chicago. For a Field Notes fan like me, it was like a pilgrimage. I mean, I've heard and seen a lot from their videos and whatnot, but to be able to see with my own set of eyes was a real treat. I really hope to visit again, maybe better prepared with more questions.
If you’ll be going to Chicago or you’re in Chicago already, I highly recommend you pay them a visit! They have a parking lot! And they give you a Chicago Field Notes memo book as a “guest pass”, and I'm not sure how many they have left, but if you spend more than $25, you get a set of Commemorative Reprints. They're really being humble, too, when they say their studio tours are “not-too-exciting.” Just don't do what I did, which is to ring the doorbell, only to run back to the car to get my wallet because I forgot to get something else at the shop; they’ll think you’re just pulling a prank.
A giant “Thank You!” to Field Notes, especially Jim and Bryan, for such a warm welcome and for taking the time to show us around and chatting with us on such a short notice! We’ll be back! 📚❤️📚