As timeless and refined as a river stone, Delfonics' Rollbahn is the very definition of a cult favourite. With the iconic notebook marking its 20th anniversary in 2021, it's the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at a modern stationery classic and see what makes it such an enduring favourite.

A Delfonics Rollbahn A5 Spiral-Bound Notebook with Navy Blue cover  

Page by page

At their most basic level, notebooks are just bundles of paper stuck together, but, as any stationery fan will tell you, they're also much more than that. More than a simple object, a notebook is an experience, and all the elements that go into each notebook determine how it feels to use. With so much of a notebook's feel coming from its pages, the style and layout of each sheet is a defining detail, and that's one of the Rollbahn's many strengths.

 

A close-up shot of a Rollbahn notebook's grid pages, which are a creamy colour with pale 5mm square grid layout bound with a black spiral binding

 

Before your pen hits the page, the soft, creamy tone of Rollbahn paper sets the mood. Smooth and calming, the tender colour is easy on your eyes, making it an inviting space to explore. That soft feel matches the Japanese brand's iconic 5mm grid, laid out in tightly-spaced dots rather than solid lines to keep things nice and relaxed while offering helpful guidelines for you to write, draw, design and more. Like plenty of other Japanese brands, Delfonics draws inspiration from traditional genkō yōshi, with the grid layout working for both Western horizontal writing and the vertical form used for writing Japanese characters,  but how you use each page is totally up to you.

That same warmth can be found in the texture of the Rollbahn's pages. At 70gsm, it's not the thickest paper you'll ever encounter, but the fine balance of smooth grace and natural grain makes each page a humble, relaxed space to capture your ideas. Most of us have got some notebooks in our collection that are simply too nice to use, where the Rollbahn is the exact opposite – its unfussy style means there's no barrier to entry; no 'right' or 'wrong' way to use your notebook, and that's just how we like it.

 

A close-up of four spiral-bound Rollbahn notebooks from the top-left corner, stacked vertically on top of each other in a loose pile

 

The overall effect is at once soothing and supportive, creating a calm space for all sorts of creative pursuits. From complex calculations and industrial design to shopping lists and stories, Rollbahn is ready for anything, with a versatility that ensures it'll still be a cult favourite for decades to come.

 

A welcome sight

We're not shallow people, but it's impossible to separate the aesthetic pleasure of the Rollbahn from its design. The quiet certainty of the cover, which offsets a single solid colour with a complementary tone for the logo and text, is immediately recognisable no matter the palette. Like the pages inside, the covers have a warm feel that invites you in, welcoming you to the notebook that you'll make your own.

 

Spiral Rollbahn notebooks with green, black, yellow, blue and baby pink covers laid overlapping on each other

 

That simple, minimal cover style is part of a long-standing Japanese approach to art and design known as ma. Packing a lot of meaning into a single syllable, ma is best summarised as 'leaving room to grow', or pausing a moment for reflection before speaking. The nearest equivalent in English is the concept of negative space, but in Japanese culture, ma manifests in everything from theatre to conversation to architecture and more – right down to the cover of a notebook.

Like the precise arrangements of ikebana, the classic Rollbahn cover invites us to consider the whole form and how its parts work together, reminding us to leave space in a world that pressures us to cram the most into every moment.

 

'Tsuboniwa', an ikebana arrangement made with tulip, cordyline leaf and cast iron pot. A slim black ring stands upright on top of the trapezoidal cast iron pot, with a small branch reaching from right to left. Four flowers mark the lower left edge of the circle, stark red against the black metal

An example of ma in ikebana – Tsuboniwa by Donna Canning

 

The work you don't see

Everything about a Rollbahn notebook feels so effortless that it's easy to imagine  it emerging into the world fully-formed, but making something so perfectly, impossibly simple tends to disguise a lot of hard work. Delfonics didn't go from 0 to 100 with the Rollbahn – the brand started making diaries way back in 1987, and the classic notebook we know and love wouldn't emerge for well over a decade. 

Details of 20 year old Rollbahns are hard to find – notebooks just aren't meant to last two decades – but looking at the details, you can get a sense of how the Rollbahn slowly evolved to become the stationery icon we know and love. Whether it's the journey they went on to find the just-right shade for the paper, or the smooth action of the spiral-binding, or the little tear-off corners of Rollbahn diary pages so you can quickly flip to the current day, you can practically feel the iteration and development that went into perfecting each aspect, and making sure each came together to create a unified whole. It matters that the paper and the colour of the cover and the typeface and the texture of the back cover all tell the same story; that warmth and welcoming radiates from every part of every Rollbahn.

To borrow a line from an excellent podcast, good design is 99% invisible, and the Rollbahn is the perfect illustration of that. You don't have to pause to take in the cover's elegant minimalism or admire the easy-on-the-eyes colour of the pages every time you open your Rollbahn – you just feel it, and the pleasure that comes with a notebook that does everything exactly as it should becomes part of the experience. But maybe, now that you've read this, you'll find a little more joy next time you get your notebook out.