Austin native#039;s business works to provide fun

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 2, 2002

Buying school supplies often is the best part of starting the school year.

New binders, notebooks, pens, pencils -- all new and unspoiled and begging to be used.

The only problem for the style-conscious kid who is too old for cartoon character binders and too "cool" for plain navy blue binders is the lack of funky, yet sophisticated products on the market.

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This is where Chris Plantan's company, russell+hazel, comes in. The Austin native, who now lives in a suburb of Minneapolis, recently started her own line of office products for those who are looking for fun, yet sophisticated school and office supplies.

"I did a lot of research and discovered that it's a $30 million-a-year business and thought, gosh darn it, there's not really a lot out there for someone who doesn't want licensed products or 'adult' office supplies. There's nothing fun and sophisticated for them," Plantan says.

Inspiration to start the business, says the former architect, mostly came from her family. Her grandparents, for whom the company is named, sold office supplies at their general store when she was young.

But it was her own daughter who really gave her the idea to go into the office supply business. Before her daughter entered sixth grade, Plantan remembers the girl asked her to make a plain binder because she wanted to design the cover herself. Plantan obliged and when her daughter came home from her first day of school, she handed her mom $5 and said "Morgan wants a binder, too."

Morgan, it turned out, was a classmate of Plantan's daughter who liked the plain binder and wanted to know if $5 could get her one.

With that, Plantan found herself changing careers and researching office supplies.

"I went back to my days in drafting class and I look at things I used then. All the pens and pencils we used had to be really, really precise," she explains. "I did lots of research on erasers because I was tired of the pink and white-gray streaks you get on paper from many erasers. I found the best ones come from France, of all places, because of the way they boil the rubber."

She also spent time studying ways to reinforce the spines of three-ring notebooks and found that book-binding companies do the best job of that.

Doodling also plays an important role in all the supplies. Notebook and binder covers are left plain to encourage random scribbling.

There are other touches of extensive research and planning as well. Colors will always reflect what's "in" that season, thanks to a partnership with a company in England that forecasts fabrics and colors for fashion houses, like Gucci and Armani.

The russell+hazel product line even includes locker air fresheners in scents like tangerine, bubble gum, suntan lotion and "poopy."

Yes, "poopy." Does it really smell like …?

Plantan bursts into giggles and covers her face, nodding. "Those smell so bad! Kids throw them into their friends' lockers, in their book bags, their desks, as jokes. They're really popular," she says, laughing.

Most of her products seem to be very popular. Thanks to several magazine features and the power of the Internet, "we've been selling like hotcakes, especially in Los Angeles and New York."

Plantan started russell+hazel online and has received orders from all over the country, Europe, Australia and Canada. With that success, she says "in August we decided to try a retail store in Minneapolis. They've already had eight reorders in 60 days. It's been phenomenal. So now, we're reaching out to other accounts," she says. "Each step is really measured, really calculated."

Included in the handful of retail stores is Nemitz's/Black Bart's in Austin. Plantan says she wanted to include Austin in her business because of all her fond memories of growing up here. "Teachers at school were so supportive. I was the only girl in my drafting classes. I would sell things at the Windfall that I made. Things no one would buy, but they let me put a display there, anyway. I remember going to Nemitz's on my bike for caramel corn and comic books," she says.

She has plans to expand the product line to include desk accessories and back packs and to continue to improve existing products. She stresses that russell+hazel supplies aren't just for kids, either. "They're great for home and office organization, too. You can organize recipes, bills, Christmas cards," she says.

To find out more about russell+hazel school and office supplies, visit Nemitz's/Black Bart's in Austin or the company Web site at

Amanda L. Rohde can be reached at 434-2214 or by e-mail at