We met Michael Gutberlet, CEO of Kaweco pens, for an interview in which he tells us all about the history of the brand and explains best strategies to keep his products at the cutting edge of quality and innovation. You might think fountain pens are a thing of the past. Yet, with the right strategies and creative thinking, that very quality of practical obsolescence can be pivoted to create a new definition of luxury. Michael Gutberlet, CEO of Kaweco pens, has done just that. We sat down with him to find out more about upcoming trends, modern materialism, and how to thrive in the digital age.
A well-designed pen was once a status symbol as well as a practical object. Has the role of your products changed over the years, and if so, how?
There was once a time when a well-known German company sold fountain pen caps in Africa – only the caps, without the pens, because they were too expensive. So just the fact that you could show the pen off in your shirt pocket mattered... It’s never been that crazy with us, but according to each country and its level of industrialisation, a good-looking and well-made writing utensil is still something special.
What does owning a Kaweco pen say about someone in the 21st century?
Kaweco products make people interested in handwriting again – especially with fountain pens. We’re always getting positive feedback from customers: compliments about the design, the technical aspects of the products, and general comments about the somewhat different writing implement. Of course, our products are often to be found in professions that have a lot to do with handwriting, for example illustration or architecture, but our target group is nevertheless quite broad – and this makes me very happy.
In an age of digital dominance, how do you manage to stay relevant and cutting-edge?
In earlier years, writing utensil companies could only depend on specialty shops. In the last few years, however, rents in city centres have gone up so much, that many of these tiny writing shops couldn’t survive. That meant writing utensils were no longer the subject of mainstream focus and sometimes, were no longer being noticed at all. Our goal is to awaken attention by not to offer typical or predictable products, and above all, to be visible. Therefore, the challenge for us is to find additional distribution channels besides specialty shops. We’re banking on the so-called lifestyle, design and concept stores like „Bube und König“ in Nuremberg or online shops like „Cultizm“.
Letter-writing and stationary are seen as a disappearing art, and this has prompted a renaissance in the use of material products, much like with vinyl in the music industry. Would you agree?
Yes, that’s correct, and even at Kaweco there were bad times when no one really thought the company would go through such a revival. But particularly because now, everything is digital and available at the touch of a button, traditional handicrafts and original products from earlier times are enjoying a comeback. These days, for example, hardly anybody needs watches – the time is displayed everywhere and can be found whenever and wherever you need it. But in spite of this, almost everyone wears a wristwatch – because it looks good or it’s made with special materials. It’s the same with our writing implements. In these times of smartphones and pens that are practically given away, people are hardly dependent on fountain pens, so even having one is something unusual. Kaweco products are very easy to hold and use, qualitatively highgrade and visually enticing, with a unique design.
What techniques do you employ to balance tradition and innovation?
I remember well the revival of Kaweco products, which, back in 1980, had fully vanished from the market as the company declared bankruptcy. We contracted with a designer to develop the next generation of writing utensils, and after five or six of his suggestions, we believed we had found the ideal product and design. At the next trade fair, however, our prototypes basically went down like a lead balloon, because our customers still wanted a sense of tradition in our products. Today, we have a product that with a unique characteristic: the design and the octagonal shape of the Kaweco Sport is iconic, like a Coca Cola bottle or a Porsche 911.
What are the upcoming trends in the industry?
Raw aluminium and brass are in high demand at the moment! These materials get signs of wear, spots and scratches. They don’t lose value through wear and tear, however, but rather become even more coveted. With colours, there are two customer groups: the mainstream, which almost always wants classic, timeless colours like black, grey or brown, and the collectors, for whom it is important to have as many of the models as possible, in every single colour.
What inspires you?
We don’t really look at other products and companies, but rather, are more interested in working on a market ourselves. But naturally, we’re open to material trends and new manufacturing techniques. I’m very often inspired by faraway lands; walks through shops and streets in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Taiwan. Sometimes we also get new ideas from the wishes of customers or business partners. These days, for example, we often get inquiries about wooden or titanium products. We’ve already experimented a bit with titanium – the material used in the making of high-grade golf clubs and watches.