Scribes against the machines

Scribes against the machines

As new technology continues to threaten the old tools of intellect, one institution is fighting back, writes Josh Sims.

It might seem that in the age of email, in times when the Indiana Department of Education has decided that teaching children to type rather than write is a better idea, the traditional letter might be doomed.

Tell that to Germany’s Buttenpapierfabrik Gmund, founded 180 years ago and arguably the most elite large scale artisan paper maker in the world - both under its own name but also for the likes of Swarovski, Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Tiffany, among the many companies who still regard the paper they use as an expression of the image they project.

Tell that to the hard core fanatics for whom luxury is still ink and paper, not a keyboard, no matter how swish the gadget.

“Quality paper still matters,” says Gmund’s Anja Wackerhage. “Even if the only paper you use is in giving your business card, people recognise the quality of the paper almost subconsciously.

They can feel it. The market for top quality paper may be a niche one, but there is an appreciation for the evocative aspect of paper texture maybe precisely because we spend so much time sat at computer screens now.” And that touch quality to paper is something that Buttenpapierfabrik Gmund takes very seriously.

Aside from the 52 standard colours the company works with (it also creates bespoke shades as part of many companies’ corporate identity), it has also developed papers not only of different weights but of different tactility - with silky mother of pearl surfaces, for example, or a honeycomb or leather effect.

A paper might be blended with cotton or - one of its latest creations - even with mohair.

Small wonder then that each new style of paper takes 18 months to develop, often shaped around trends in travel, fashion and interiors.

Not that the company is in any hurry - suitably for one espousing the slower, more contemplative life that makes time for letter-writing.

Owned by the Kohler family for the last 107 years, and specialising in artisan papers since the 50s, “there is the freedom to design new papers at our own pace,” explains Wackerhage, “and that can be important when catering to a niche market.

Creativity goes into the paper, not the paperwork.” Indeed, much of Buttenpapierfabrik Gmund’s output is still made on a paper machine first installed in 1886.

It only bought its second machine a century later.

That does not mean, however, that the business is antiquated.

Growing environmental awareness has been one argument against the use of paper - not only to save forests but because paper manufacture is energy and water intensive.

Consequently, the company has systems that purify and re-use water seven times over while using the same water to generate 70% of its own energy.

Unsurprisingly, it has also recently launched the first 100% recycled and the first carbon-neutral artisan papers.

“There are still those people who just don’t care about the paper they use,” says Wackerhage.

“But those that do, understand the complexity of paper production at this level.

As with all luxury products there has to be an appreciation of the craft involved.

These same people know paper can transmit more than what is written on it.” How it is written on is, of course, just as important to some.

And if Germany is leading the way with elite papers, the nation’s strong reputation for manufacturing excellence is also seeing its pen-makers reap the benefits of this new interest in this decidedly un-technical form of communication.

With brands both international and niche, from Pelikan to Bossert & Erhard and Faber-Castell, from Montblanc to more modern, mass-market but no less smart designs from the likes of Rotring and Lamy, Germany’s fountain of ink runneth over.

“Historically the German industry has been relatively slow in picking up the latest in pen technology, so it is rarely cutting-edge - but when it does it perfects that technology to make it work properly, as it has also done with cars, for example,” argues David Peresi of the Writing Instrument Society and co-founder of the Hamburg Pen Show.

“The pen industry here is another branch of the engineering business, or of the product design business, for which Germany is famed.

It has a policy of always improving rather than simply adding novelty.” In addition to that engineering heritage - it was, after all, a German, Daniel Schwenter who first prototyped the notion of a pen that carried its own ink supply back in 1636, while German inventiveness has also seen the development of iridium-tipped nibs and specialist rubber - it was also commonplace in Germany to write in copper-plate script as late as the 1940s.

“There has long been a respect for the hand-written here, and for the instruments you use to do it with,” notes Peresi.

Just such a respect has given German penmanship a long history. Last year, for example, was the 250th birthday of Faber- Castell, launched by Kaspar Faber, a cabinet-maker working in Nuremberg who moved to Stein in order to escape the bigger city’s strict rules governing crafts - thus allowing him to start a side-line in making pencils, a tradition for the region that can be dated to 1660.

But age does not mean technology ceases to advance: the brand’s latest line, Ambition, has a twist mechanism to extend or retract an especially large-capacity refill, which uses a special quick-drying ink.

And Germany is still seeing the launch of new brands. Duller, for instance, is the latest and among the most contemporary, designed with strict Bauhausian ‘form follows function’ thinking by Dietrich Lubs, the esteemed designer for the German consumer products company Braun.

That gives competition for the Heidelberg-based Lamy, whose trademark minimalism continues with the Dialog 3, the first fountain pen in which both nib and clip are retractable, or its new sandblasted stainless steel Econ line, designed by EOOS, the design office that scooped the gold Design Prize of the Federal Republic of Germany last year.

Is the pen still mightier than the sword? Recent world events may suggest not. Is it mightier than Qwerty? It is certainly more intimate, more human, and, it seems, no less in demand.