Switzerland is an understated innovator in the world of pens. Many people may regard Germany as creating some of the world’s best writing instruments; after all, the country is home to the likes of Pelikan, Montblanc, Faber Castell and Bossert & Erhard. But over its southern border is a very different kind of pen industry focused on a different kind of writing instrument. There, to employ national stereotype, German engineering comes up against Swiss design, and there lesser-known makers such as Wagner produce writing goods that are both more accessibly priced and less traditional.
Take the manufacturer Prodir. The company gently mocks its own Swissness: its latest newsletter notes that as well as being the birthplace of Le Corbusier, the nation is home to the Alpine horn, nude hiking, a variety of wrestling known as Schwingen and 700,000 cows. Yet the newsletter also states that Prodir’s mission is the provision of ‘good design, good and replaceable refills and a good price’, and that the company follows a design principle of less-is-more and a motto of ‘reduce to the max’. All of which is reflected in Prodir’s new DS9 pen. This comes with a mix of surface detailing (a matt or frosted casing with a polished or transparent clip and push button), a variety of unusual colours (cement grey, denim blue and sunset orange among them) and, importantly, Prodir’s floating ball nib system.
Impressively, the pen embodies subtle changes in shape, with its rounded tip evolving gradually into the oval shape of the push button. Prodir’s designers have thought carefully about the detailing, and the brand’s website notes that ‘the intentionally classic design is slightly ironically broken up by the asymmetrical connection between clip and cap’. Who knew a pen could be ironic? The important point, however, is that it’s a lot of pen for not a lot of money. This is Swiss democratic design at its best.
Christoph Schnug, designer for Prodir, explains that it’s all about ‘surprising compositions that remain recognisable. A disruptive element is often a detail that makes a design effective. It’s a feature that attracts the eye momentarily.’ He adds that when someone picks up the pen, ‘I hope that he or she thinks “I know this from somewhere. I have seen this before haven’t I?” If this is the case, the product has a soul. Beautiful things don’t cry out for attention.’
Indeed what could be more elegant and simple than the pencil? If there are notions that in the touchscreen age such a humble product has had its day, think again. According to Carole Hubscher, managing director of the 100-year-old family business Caran d’Ache, sales of pencils, both coloured and plain, are on the up. The company creates all of its products at a single site, just outside Geneva, and it makes pens to rival those of Prodir: its Goliath cartridge, for example, has 8km of writing capacity. Yet Caran d’Ache also has a worldwide reputation for turning that Swiss precision to the making of the pencil, the most basic of writing tools. Perhaps this is why the likes of Picasso and Miró favoured these products.
‘There’s still a big place for the pencil,’ says Hubscher. ‘With a pencil you’re creating by hand, facilitating that direct link between brain and paper, and I think there’s something very special in that. Besides, tablets and smart phones are relatively new; pencils have been a well-established technology for a long, long time.’
It’s a technology that requires specialist materials: Californian cedarwood, for example, which not only sharpens without splintering but smells good, too. Caran d’Ache has also played with the idea of aromas through the introduction of a pencil made of dark Swiss wood that has a distinctive, smoky smell.
Its specialist processes, such as the formula of the waxy oil in which the clay and pigment core of a pencil is soaked in order to allow it to actually mark paper, are industrial secrets. ‘Every child knows what a good pencil is. You get to feel it. It’s the kind of thing you often learn through bad experience,’ says Hubscher. ‘In many ways making pencils is like cooking: you can’t make good food with mediocre ingredients.’ The oil formula in the brand’s pencil making, she continues ‘is a know-how that has developed over decades ‒ what goes into it, how long each type of lead should be in it, how often the oil needs changing. As with many understated Swiss products, it’s the result of the kind of knowledge and attention that comes through making things for a long time.’