An Interview with Ian Schön11 July 2018
Ian Schön is a designer of watches and pens. He started back in 2012 and is now known for making one of the best pocket pens there is. He went full-time in 2017. He was kind enough to talk to me and to tell me about how this came about and about his plans for the future.
“I’d never owned a fancy pen in my whole life,” but a friend had a good pen and Ian decided he wanted a good pen too. He looked at his friend’s pen and, fancy as it was, he felt he wanted that pen but with a cap that would go on the back, and he wanted it to be shorter, and then this, and that; and Ian realised that if wanted all those things he was going to need to make it himself.
In the beginning the pen was going to be modular but this was, it turned out, a “terrible idea.” There were too many attachments, too many parts to lose; there was nowhere to keep all the attachments, “it was silly.”
The first pen Ian made was a small capless brass pen, with a long tapered section, with three rings for grip, that unscrewed halfway along for access to the refill. The long section didn’t work because fingers would slide down it. Ian wanted fewer parts so wasn’t happy with the barrel being in two halves and he wanted a cap that would post invisibly: a cap that was the same size and shape as the barrel so it wouldn’t feel as if the pen had a cap on the end when it was posted. It was important the cap didn’t require too many turns to take off. He experimented with a knurled grip but dismissed it as being too industrial looking. Ian made over twenty pens, in different materials and styles, but it wasn’t until he made a pen with a short section that he knew he had what he’d been looking for. Over the course of these iterations the barrel had become a single piece, with the access to the refill being gained via a screw at the end, and the three rings in the original prototype had been moved to the cap; a way of distinguishing a Schön pen.
“It wasn’t like I designed the perfect pen and just made it. I made like oodles of pens.”
When it came to picking a refill, Ian prioritised reliability (and American-made) over all else.
“If I’m going to carry a pen with me every day, I want it always to write. I don’t want it to dry out, I don’t want it to leak in my pocket. I want it to be dependable, something I can always rely on. Because if you take out a pen and it doesn’t write it’s a bummer.”
The pressurised Fisher refill fulfilled these criteria but, being a fan of the D1 refill, Ian later made a D1 adaptor.
It’s no accident that the Schön pen is so great.
Of course you can’t please everyone and many people wanted a clip. Ian himself recognised that having your pen at risk of rolling away wasn’t always ideal. That led to a second Kickstarter campaign.
Kickstarter was “super important in my growth as a business.”
When Ian launched his original Kickstarter campaign in 2012 he’d already made most of the pens and spent a lot of money. It was primarily a marketing platform for him. In those days, any new Kickstarter project got a lot of press, particularly locally. The campaign had a goal of $1000, a deliberately conservative target (“to make sure I got some money”), and made $68 261. Drastically overshooting the goal didn’t do any harm when it came to marketing and helped creat momentum. However, it did lead to a lot of (welcome) work. It “showed me I could work incredibly hard. . . I was a beast.”
The second Kickstarter campaign, last year, for a clip version, was also successful, with $58 548 being raised, despite Kickstarter not having quite the same thrill of the new anymore.
“I had a lot of hobbies that were also business-related in a way, or became business related because I’d spent too much money on my hobby. So I needed to sell some things.”
Ian had always wanted to work for himself and as the pens, and watches, began to sell in larger quantities he took the money he’d saved from previous sales and, in April 2017, “went for it.” He went to lots of pen shows, contacted his distributor in Japan and took the plunge.
“I didn’t know if it was going to work or not, I really didn’t, I just said okay, I’m willing to risk this, to live this dream of mine.”
So far, it’s working out well, with the pens well known in the community and pens available in twenty-two stores in Japan.
It’s brave, to take that risk. That it’s worked out isn’t only due to having a fine product, it’s down to a lot of hard work too. Ian’s spent a lot of time in Japan and a lot of time going to pen shows around the USA. The pen shows have been important to the growth of the business but Ian has got much more from them than simply some extra sales.
“Going to these pen shows . . . These are people who don’t clock in, clock out; they love what they do. . . There’s a culture and collaboration and closeness I haven’t found anywhere else. And it’s very humble. I don’t feel I’ve met a lot of people with, like, massive egos. . . Everyone is approachable and we can talk. . . helping each other, giving feedback, giving business advice. . . it’s a very open community, it’s a very beautiful thing.”
I couldn’t let Ian go without asking him about his experience in Japan. He told me the major stores there have every pen and have staff with a huge depth and breadth of knowledge. They tend to be more interested in the person making the pens; they have little time for branding. Business is honest and straightforward. Pens aren’t sold online as much as in the USA or Europe. People go to a shop and spend time with the staff and the products; and leave with something they love.
Favourite pens and pencils
It’s obligatory to ask pen people about favourite pens, even if they’ve made their own. Ian showed me his Rotring mechanical pencil, Sakura Micron, Kaweco Sport, Woodshed fountain pen and special Tom Sacks Sharpie, given to him by a member of Tom Sack’s studio. Some of these pens have some significance when it comes to Ian’s future plans.
Ian will “only make pens where I want something that isn’t there or is better than is there.” So there won’t be a Schön mechanical pencil because he already has one he loves. (The Rotring, which is hard to argue with.) Likewise, Ian won’t be making a bolt-action pen or a large click pen.
“There are so many other great pens out there to buy. . . And it’s like, wow, I wouldn’t make a full-size click pen because this one’s beautiful. I wouldn’t make a bolt-action pen because I love this one, and there’s nowhere to go. . . I couldn’t improve on it. If someone had made something like my pen in the beginning, perhaps I would have just bought it and not made it at all.”
However, all is not lost for those of us who want more from Schön DSGN.
He is “thinking about a very short click pen but it would have to be really good. . . If it doesn’t feel right, I won’t launch it.” The pen would use D1 refills and Ian’s own mechanism, which “will have to feel really snappy and nice.”
“If I was just a company focusing on growth, of course I would have a click pen, and of course I would have a bolt-action, and of course I would have a fountain pen, of course I would have a short fountain pen, I’d have a whole line! Because I’d be focused on building out the space and owning the space as a brand. But because I’m a person making products, I’m not going to make anything unless I really care about it. . . That allows me to have a lot of space.”
Ian doesn’t have to make anything he doesn’t want to. Fortunately, he wants to make a fountain pen.
Ian has “a couple of architectures I’ve been working on for some time. . . Very much inspired by the Kaweco Sport and the shortcomings of that pen.” He loves his Kaweco Sport but “if it was one step better it would be really magical.” He’s looking at an eye dropper, that would be easy to clean, and be small, with a beautiful finish. It will be very focused, with just a few options when if comes to finishes. But we’ll only get to see it if it’s really good.
“If I make a fountain pen … and it doesn’t compliment . . . another iconic fountain pen design, I’ll just scrap it. And I’ll have made it for myself and it’ll be really cool but I probably won’t use it because I like my Kaweco Sport. I really don’t want to make something to make it, I want to make something to add.”
A Schön DSGN fountain pen would be amazing. Let’s hope we get to see one.
Thank you so much to the incredibly busy Ian Schön for taking so much time out of his day to talk to me in such an interesting and open way. You can buy his pens from his site or, if you’re in the UK and don’t want to have to deal with customs and shipping, from Nero’s Notes.