I reviewed Chris’s brass pen a little while ago and loved it. While it won’t suit everyone, Chris has made a pen with a unique and beautiful style. That’s not all he does over at Ateleia Craft and Design, as you will be able to tell as you read this interview.
Of all the interviews I’ve done here, this is one of my favourites.
Tell me a little about your background. What led you to working with leather, and then to make a pen?
I’ve been making things with my hands my whole life. My grandfather was a furniture builder for many years, and my father worked for him, so I grew up around tools and inherited an affinity for making products for myself instead of buying what’s available.
In 2007, I began running a non-profit bicycle shop for a local community development organisation – the goals were to run a successful small business, teach youth how to work with their hands, and encourage community members to start businesses of their own. We got to know other small businesses in our area, and there just so happens to be a leather supply shop across the street from our non-profit. We took our youth to the leather shop to do craft projects from time to time, and I enjoyed the process and just took to it quickly. Over the years, I began making products like belts, wallets, and watch straps for myself as old items wore out.
In 2012, my wife was pregnant with our first child, and the prospect of becoming a father pulled out of me many deep-seated ideals of the type of father I wanted to be. The ATELEIA Journal and Pen were born out of a desire to find a few heirloom goods that I would use everyday and would become part of my children’s association with “Dad”. I made the journal cover to house a new notebook I was starting during the pregnancy – and since it would likely take several years to fill the notebook, I wanted a sturdy cover that would last, and look better as it aged. Natural vegetable tanned leather was the perfect choice for this, precisely because it ages so well. Fitted with brass hardware, it was pretty visually stunning, and I felt it wasn’t right to use a disposable plastic pen to go along with it. I had backed the Kickstarter Pen Type-A (Hi-Tec-C) pen and wanted something similar, but made out of brass and that had a cap. The Kickstarter pen projects were still fairly new at the time, so there weren’t nearly the options available that are around now. I tried a few pens out, but found that most were either too light or too heavy for my tastes. I drew a few early designs and took them to a local machine shop. It cost about $150 to get the first 2 prototypes made, so I decided to make a few more to try to sell or use as gifts to recoup some of the costs.
After a few months, I started getting compliments on the journal and pen and eventually decided to reach out to a few people. I traded Mike Dudek of the Clicky Post (we live about an hour away in Arizona) a pen for one of his walnut blocks – he loved the pen, asked to do a review of it, and within a week or two I had sold all of my stock. From there, it wasn’t long until I was gearing up for the Kickstarter campaign.
How central to your work is the idea of the small community business?
As far as ideals go, the small community business is about as central as any other target I have in mind. Through my work in community development, I have grown quite passionate about bringing others along with me on the path of business development. I love the notion of the small business owner, who knows his employees and their families, who gives his employees a stake in the profits of the company and thereby creates a community within the business, in which all the participants want to create the best product possible.
I have learned over the years, though, that ideals don’t keep the doors open – you have to earn the right to keep your business running through sales and proper management. We have a long way to go; thankfully there are several good examples to follow.
How was Kickstarter? Do you have any tips for other small businesses who might want to try a Kickstarter campaign?
The ATELEIA Kickstarter campaign went well. I was hoping to sell a bit more product to offset start-up costs, but I can’t complain about a successfully funded campaign. I think Kickstarter and other crowdfunding websites (I’ve run two Indiegogo campaigns for the non-profit) are great for start-ups, but they aren’t necessarily the best fit for everybody. If I could have slowly increased my production of the brass pen to match a growing demand, I probably would have chosen that path. The only way to make the pen profitable, however, was to have a batch of at least 500 made on automated machinery. I wasn’t able to bank roll an order that big, and even if I had access to the money, I needed more than 15 potential buyers lined up. These specific circumstances are what pushed me to do the Kickstarter campaign for ATELEIA.
From my experience, those who have (and need to keep) a day job (myself included) aren’t always best served by crowdfunding campaigns. The whole process (pre-launch, live campaign, and product fulfilment) takes a huge level of energy and commitment. Some do well enough on a campaign to justify quitting their day job and focusing on the business full-time. Most don’t sell enough product to make that jump, though, and get stuck balancing a day job with an overwhelming influx of new orders. In turn, all these new customers end up having to wait longer than initially promised and their first experience with your business is a negative one. It’s not always the best way to get things off the ground.
If you already are beyond the early start-up level, though, it might make more sense. Also, Kickstarter tends to work well for repeat campaigns, once you’ve established a reputation of being able to deliver a quality product.
How do you use pens and pencils day to day?
I mostly use pens on a daily basis for journaling and personal notes. My original leather journal and brass pen is saved for monthly mentoring sessions, or posterity-type entries. On a day-to-day basis, I carry one of the ATELEIA Large journals (with a grid-lined Decomposition Book) and use the Chronodex as a tool to help organise my time and keep track of ‘To Do’ lists. I have circle template and draw the Chronodex out by hand – I’d love to have a stamp made up, but haven’t done that yet. I’ve found the Chronodex to be instrumental in getting through the last year or so. I had never before been able to adopt a day-planner or daily scheduling system. The Chronodex has been an awesome tool that is flexible enough to tailor to my needs.
Pencils are used a lot less frequently – mostly in the shop, plotting out sketches or on woodworking projects.
Apart from your own, do you have any particular favourite pens?
I am growing more and more partial to the Pentel EnerGel needle points. I’ve only been able to find the .35mm EnerGel in a non-refillable plastic shell – so I keep a few of those around in accessible places. In general, I like anything with a needle point – it feels more precise and I love that it offers a unique look over and against traditional conical point cartridges. The Karas Kustoms’ designs are really great – I have a brass Bolt – I love the look of it, but find it a little too heavy to use for extended periods of time. I also have a Mover/Shaker set from Tactile Turn, again I love the design, but find them to be heavy for extended use. I put the Itoya Gel needle point in the Shaker, and I’m digging that cartridge quite a bit, although it’s dry time is a little slower that the EnerGel, so I get more smudging. I’m excited about the new d.caston.design bolt action – the overall design is gorgeous and the weight should be favourable with the metals used.
I’ve tried a couple fountain pens, but they don’t work for me, as I prefer to hold the pen almost perpendicular to the page. As an alternative, I have a few brush pens – I absolutely love the expressiveness of the lines they lay down, but I am not even close to having a handle on how to use them well … oh well, practice, practice, practice.
What do you feel makes a good pen and what were your prime considerations when designing the ATELEIA Brass Pen?
For me, a great pen properly weds beauty and functionality. I prefer a solid weight, but not so heavy that you feel inertia from the pen starting and stopping – which, for me, inhibits the writing process. I also love ink that flows smoothly but also dries fast.
But at the end of the day, I think a “good pen” comes down to considering how any pen’s merits or limitations apply to the intended uses of that pen. For instance, even though I don’t like the way ballpoints write, the best pen to keep in my car glove box is a Fisher Space Stowaway, because it’s portable, affordable, and I know it will always write. Or, on the go, even though I don’t normally like click pens, I always keep one or two in my bag because they are the best option when I just need to jot something down fast or let someone else borrow a pen.
With the ATELEIA Brass Pen, my main goals were to create a pen with a very simple aesthetic, a brass body, and a removable cap. It was designed to be a companion to the leather journal, so I wasn’t particularly worried about a pocket clip. All in all, I wanted it to fell like the kind of pen you reach for when you have something important to write.
Are you planning new products? And if so, is there any chance you’ll say what they are??
Yes, I have several plans for new products, in fact, I’ve already made and sold a few of them, but I withheld them from the Kickstarter campaign to keep the production process manageable. I have a laptop briefcase that is quite labour intensive (production will likely be limited to 5 or 6 a year) but I really love the finished product. I’m planning on adding a smaller notebook cover, featuring hand-stitched edges, instead of the envelope folds and rivets of the first model. These covers will likely fit the midsized Doane Paper, Field Notes, and Rhodia notebooks and include a pen holder. I have a near-final design on a more traditional billfold wallet. And I am also working on a few designs for new pens that will be better received by the tactical/EDC community.
Chris is very kindly giving away a Brass Pen and matching leather sleeve (hand-cut and hand-sewn) to one lucky reader.
To stand a chance of winning, leave a comment on this post saying thank you to someone you know. I don’t mind who or why as long as you’re thanking someone you actually know. I did this a little while ago for another giveaway and it was so lovely reading all the thank yous. People can be so lovely, when they’re not on anonymous internet forums.
The closing date is 9am GMT on Sunday 19th April 2015. The entries will be numbered in the order received and random.org will be used to pick a winner.
Thank you so much to Chris Williams for spending the time to give such a wonderful interview and for giving away such a fantastic prize.