The Beauty of Simplicity

Chapter 2: The Pen.

When I was 9 years old in primary school I had this teacher, for purposes of this blog I’ll call him Mr H. He was the first male teacher that had taught me and it’s fair to say that I admired him. He was patient, had a good sense of humour, and was sporty – he played rugby. 

He was also creative. He was into creative writing and poetry, so my year 5 class spent a lot of time doing English work that I’ve not done before or since. I recollect creating a poem about a candle. Everyone was given a lit candle to place on their desk, draw it and write a poem about the way the flame flickered and danced around. I can’t imagine it would be allowed these days as I seem to remember a lot of us setting fire to our pencils before quickly blowing them out as soon as Mr H left the room! In hindsight things could’ve gone horribly wrong, but they didn’t so these remain happy memories!

Another poem subject matter was typewriters (or “old fashioned keyboards” as my kids like to call them!), everyone was given a typewriter to draw and describe poetically. Mr H instructed that the title of everyone’s poem should be “QWERTYUIOP” – genius!

I’ve always liked things; tactile objects and products. Things that can be purchased if the necessary amount of research and obsessing has taken place before the buy. I’ve tended to get a bit obsessed with things, how they look, work and feel in your hands. I think this obsession actually started when I was 9 with Mr H’s fountain pen.

He used to use a vintage leather medical bag for a briefcase with a folding split handle opening, I can remember thinking it old fashioned at the time but now I’m old and wise (I’m probably about the same age now as he was then) I can see the appeal. The briefcase is where he used to keep his pen….

The first time I saw this small object I was intrigued and found myself staring and trying to memorise its shape and colour – it was black plastic with three stainless steel details, it was a very grown-up looking object in comparison to all of the cheap Bic biros that we had at home or anything else I’d used to write with at school. The nib glided across the page in his hand and ink seemed to form a handwriting that I’d never seen the likes of before – it was mesmerising. This was where my obsession started. 

I used to keep an eye on the briefcase during class, waiting and hoping that I could get a glimpse of the coveted writing instrument. In time I worked out that Mr H had more than one of these pens, two black and wait for it…. one yellow! Seeing that yellow pen for the first time was like seeing Bumblebee from Transformers in real life!

As soon as each pen was in use I would forget the work I was doing and just study it from afar and, if I could get close enough, study Mr H’s handwriting so I could mimic it. I became convinced that having one of the special pens was my route to instant self improvement and all round happiness!

Back then (1991/1992) my main source for finding any product I wanted was the Argos catalogue, or one of the other catalogues, e.g., Kays or Grattan, that my Mum subscribed to which we very seldom actually bought anything from. But alas, these ancient forerunners to the Google search did not contain the pen – what was I going to do now?!

I was walking through John Menzies (another reference for the kids) one day when I spotted a familiar shape out of the corner of my eye, I felt a wave of euphoria rush over me as I got close enough to realise that it was a royal blue version of “the” pen. If I could’ve done a somersault I would have. I begged my Mum to buy it for me. 

Now, at this point I must say that being one of five children, it was a rare occasion indeed when I had anything bought for me that a) wasn’t a necessity ie food/school uniform, b) wasn’t for a birthday or c) wasn’t for Christmas, but because I had a bit of pocket money to go with it…. my Mum bought me the pen there and then! I honestly could not have been more grateful.

I opened the pen in the car to inspect it on the way home – I suddenly felt very grown up, the anticipation of being able to write with it was almost overwhelming. When we got home, I flew in through the house straight up to my bedroom, attached the cartridge to the underside of the nib, screwed the pen together and started scribbling – certain I would be able to mimic my teacher’s handwriting letter for letter. 

When the ink started flowing I felt like I’d just met my hero and been a bit disappointed. My handwriting didn’t look anything like how I expected it to. It was like I was being taught a lesson. I did still have the pen and it was beautiful so I was pleased even if I didn’t have the handwriting to go with it.

I took my pen into school the next day and brandished it like I was something very special. I got lots of attention for it and even got a comment from Mr H. Some other kids in my class also liked these very grown up pens and were impressed that I’d acquired one for myself. 

I had just about resided myself to the acceptance of my mediocre handwriting so my obsession slowly began to wane. Then one day when Mr H was doing a bit of casual handwriting I noticed something about his pen…. the end of the nib was flat!! That must’ve been the reason why I wasn’t able to replicate his handwriting exactly! So that evening I did what any 9 year old boy in my position would do, I found some sand paper and attempted to “flatten” down the nib of my pen. 

Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, the sand paper didn’t have the desired impact on the stainless steel tip so it wouldn’t flatten. What I did manage to do however was ruin the nib so I couldn’t write with it anymore. So I was left with a great looking pen that I could no longer use. I felt like a fool. 

I shrugged off the comments from my class mates who noticed that I’d gone back to my red Berol Handwriting Pen, kept my head down and tried to be gracious in defeat – I had been defeated by the idea of a product by trying to make my perfectly good pen into something it wasn’t.

Some time went by, I think I may have even turned ten, before something overwhelmingly fantastic happened…. Mr H said that he was going to buy a small number of the special fountain pens (the ones with the flat nibs the same as his!) and give them out to the kids in the class with the best handwriting. I almost lost my mind with excitement, but at the same time I was scared beyond belief incase I didn’t make the cut. What if Mr H thought that I didn’t need another pen because I already had my blue one – he didn’t know that I had sabotaged it attempting a misguided DIY hack!

What followed was about two weeks of concentrating so hard on my handwriting that I had perpetual brain ache and hand cramp. My tactic was to continue to try to mimic Mr H’s writing, I thought that gave me the best chance of making “the list”. I started to notice some fierce competition from my fellow classmates, they were also putting in maximum effort in their handwriting styles. Many of them wanted a special pen too. But I felt (rightly or wrongly) none of them wanted one as much as me.

I can remember the day so well. Mr H was sat in his chair and all us kids were sat on the floor cross legged in the small carpeted area of the classroom. He was holding a plastic carrier bag with the treasures inside. My heart was racing, my palms were sweating, I was surely going to have to try (and surely fail) to hold back an intense urge to burst into tears if he didn’t call my name… to my surprise, total relief and delight my name was the first one called. I stood up, walked over to Mr H, graciously accepted my prize whilst trying to hide my uncontrollable shaking and sat down admiring it. I had the biggest grin on my face, I was genuinely happy. 

When the list of lucky candidates was completed, one of my class mates who didn’t make the cut shouted and screamed and went to run out of the class and would’ve succeeded had Mr H not vaulted the book case to cut him off in front of the classroom door. It was this moment that concreted his legendary status amongst my peers and I’m sure that today, a lot the people who were in the class that day can remember that moment from their time at primary school if nothing else. 

I’d realised that the quest for the pen had meant just as much to some others as it did to me. I don’t know how I would’ve reacted if I hadn’t gotten a pen but I do know I would’ve been devastated. At that age, at that point in time, with the context that I had on life, it was the most important thing in the world to me, and I wasn’t the only one. The pen had taken over our lives and had an emotive impact on us. Looking back, that was an early lesson in the power of product design.

The pen I’d won was black with three italic nibs, fine, medium and broad – that was the secret to the unique handwriting and why Mr H had three of them; so he didn’t need to change over the nibs, he just pulled out the pen which suited the job in hand. Once I got used to how to write with it (I think I shredded the paper on my first couple of attempts) my handwriting was very close to how I’d imagined it would be. And I’d spent months imagining it!

Fast forward nearly 30 years(!!!!) and I’ve recently sold my house but haven’t found a new house to buy yet so I’ve moved my family into my old family home with my Mum – she offered! We’re all living up in the attic where I was living when the above episode unfolded. 

When I was going through the process of moving, I thought about the pens and was looking forward to coming across them. But somehow I didn’t, all I found was the broad italic nib. I feel a little bit sad that I could lose something that meant so much at a point in my life. 

I’ve thought a lot about it since moving, maybe its being back in this house, maybe its because my son is 9 and he’s in year 5 in the same school I used to go to. So I’ve rekindled that old obsession again, only this time I have more resources on hand than the Argos Catalogue!

The pen is the “No Nonsense” pen by Sheaffer. It was in production in the USA for a number of decades from the late 1960s but since the manufacturing has moved away from the States Sheaffer no longer manufactures them. There are Sheaffer calligraphy pens that have replaced the No Nonsense, but have lost something in their aesthetic. They have grown additional features that detract from the thing that make them beautiful – the simplicity. I draw similarities between a classic Ford Mustang from the 60s in comparison to the recent versions, the advancing technology and modernising of the design makes the recent aesthetic so much less appealing than the original. They look busier than they need to.

You can pick up these pens on Ebay for £10 to £20 each, much cheaper than a lot of other fountain pens. I’ve recently indulged in purchasing some of these pens to replace my lost treasures. I’ve bought four different coloured versions: black, brown, red and white. I’ve got a different pen for each nib (just like Mr H!) that I’ve managed to buy. I’ve even got a ballpoint version. Each time one has turned up in the post, those feelings have come rushing back and it makes me feel like that kid again. 

These “new” pens have made me feel like I’m actually taking pride in my handwriting again for the first time since I was 10. Somehow, too much emphasis was placed on speed rather than aesthetics after year 5, I think that’s probably the reason why I lost my original pens.

I’ve also become too used to using biros and discarding them when they’re out if ink. I must’ve ditched hundreds over the years. With these Sheaffer pens, you only need to replace cartridges or, even better; I’ve got my hands on a converter for one of the pens which I can refill straight from a pot of ink. It’s a small difference to the world but the small changes that will make a difference.

When I study the pens from a design perspective, they fit in my “perfect simplicity” category. From an aesthetic point of view, every feature of the pen has a function and there is nothing surplus – not a single thing on the pen that doesn’t need to be there. I suppose if you were a complete purist you could argue that the branding isn’t necessary but it doesn’t shout, you have to really look for it – and I love that.

The 3 stainless steel elements are the nib, the ball clip and the ring around the bottom of the lid which protects the lid from cracking and stops you from over-tightening it on the thread. The lid is cylindrical and the main body has a slight taper from the thread in either direction: to the end furthest from the nib and to the end of the grip. Just below the nib at the end of the grip there is a chamfered lip which stops your fingers from sliding down to the nib while writing, this is a lovely little design feature.

Okay, so it is probably not the most impressive writing instrument in the world, but it is simplicity at its best, pure functionalism and truly is “no nonsense”. 

It makes me wonder…. Was it because it was Mr H’s pen and he was a bit of a hero to me? Was it because it was a grown-up-looking object that seemed a bit too out of reach? Or was that I’ve always had a bit of an eye for quality design that drew me to the pen all those years ago? Realistically, I don’t think it was the latter, but the fact that today, as a designer; I’ve returned to it, cannot fault the design, and still find myself admiring these pens after all these years, speaks volumes to how well designed they are. 

My 9 year old son noticed me writing with one the other day. He said “Cool pen Dad”. I then took pride in showing him my new collection and telling him the story. 

I’m still on the look out for a yellow one to truly complete the ambition that’s been dormant for 30 years!

APT 2021

1 thought on “The Beauty of Simplicity”

  1. I agree, these pens were a very cool thing to have as a child. Having passed the handwriting test in junior school, I was one of the first allowed to write in ink in my class, I had a pink one, it was my most treasured thing at the time. Thank you for reminding me of this happy memory. I agree, it is a simple design that has stood the test of time, mine was 40 years ago and I used it throughout my school years and having just looked online I can buy another one off eBay!

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