Han Yu-ching is a world-renowned calligrapher. It is a joy and a pleasure to watch him at work. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
The artisanal pen and pencil makers ystudio are offering a new line of products marketed under the slogan: “The weight of words.” Founders Yanko and Yi Liao have special memories about writing. Shortly after starting the business, Yanko once wrote a card to his parents that didn’t really say much of anything of importance. Yet they delighted at receiving it, and put it on their refrigerator so they could view it every day when they ate.
Once, when Liao was feeling low, he received a card from his wife detailing 50 of his outstanding qualities. “She wanted to tell me that I was a fine person and didn’t need to be so hard on myself.”
ystudio: Pens that make their mark
The same information, if sent via text message or email, would quickly be forgotten, but thanks to their conversion into writing, the sentiments become so much more precious and lasting.
Because pens are used to tell stories, Liao and Yanko have chosen to make their pens out of brass since brass is a material that oxidizes, transforming through exposure to air. The pens thus change as people use them. The firm’s “Brassing” line features brass-barreled pens covered by a layer of black paint. Each comes with sandpaper, so that consumers can sand the paint to create pens uniquely their own.
Consequently, once the pens leave the factory, each will encounter different times, places, and people. Every little dent or scratch is associated with a different memory, so that “the person” and “the object” come to belong to each other.
This idea of finding one’s own personal style of using a pen fits, however unintentionally, with Western notions of pen ownership. Currently, half of all ystudio products are sold to consumers in Europe. The owners have observed that consumers in the Far East emphasize the usefulness of pens, whereas in Western culture, a pen is a personal object and a means to showing one’s good taste. Liao has noticed that ystudio’s European agents place their pens at fashionable retailers such as The Conran Shop and Mr. Porter. Their brass fountain pens are grouped with fashionable accessories.
In the West, a fountain pen may be passed down in a family, with each generation using it to write or sign important documents. Although ystudio is a youthful brand, some consumers visiting the Maison & Objet interior design trade fair in Paris shared how their whole family has fallen in love with ystudio’s products. The pens are helping to write collective family memories.
The firm has always put its focus on writing. Yanko says: “People become connected through writing.” They continually remind people that although writing may be an old-fashioned habit, its essential nature of being able to convey thoughts and emotions remains unchanged.
TWSBI: Determined to make good pens
TWSBI started out in manufacturing, handling metal stamping, other metalworking processes, and plastic injection molding, before producing mechanical pencils as an OEM for a Japanese firm. Altogether, TWSBI’s owner Jim Wang has been responsible for producing more than 100 million pens and pencils. With the profit margins for OEM work becoming increasingly thin, he decided to “make my own product” and thus created the TWSBI pen brand, which sells the first piston-filled fountain pens made in Taiwan.
Relying on his many years of experience, Wang—even before fountain pens took off in popularity—could see clearly the way the market was headed. T.Y. Lee, owner of the eponymous pen shop, was a friend, so Wang asked Lee about which kind of fountain pen was most popular. “Piston-filled fountain pens,” responded Lee. Wang borrowed one and within a week of studying it had created a prototype of his own.
At first, many elements had to be improved upon and many obstacles needed to be overcome. Wang went online to peruse forums devoted to fountain pens based in Taiwan, mainland China and the United States, posting illustrations of his designs and inviting comments. He noted that the most vexing aspects of fountain pens for most people were probably leaking ink, evaporating ink, and dried ink. Consequently, TWSBI’s fountain pens have twist-lock caps. Inside each is an airtight seal. This means that no ink leaks from the pens because of changes in atmospheric pressure or humidity.
When a fountain pen is damaged, you typically must send it back to the manufacturer to be repaired. That’s overly time consuming, says Wang. His pens are designed so that they can easily be taken apart. The parts are standardized. If a part gets broken, the company can send consumers a replacement part to install themselves.
The only part not made in house is the nib, which Wang gets from a German firm. Every time a shipment of nibs come in, each one is dipped in ink and tested for how it writes before being polished. After being cleaned, it is then installed on a new pen. “At our price point, no other manufacturer takes such pains to ensure that there will be no issues when a pen gets into a consumer’s hands.”
Wang also handles his own marketing. In the early years he often discussed TWSBI fountain pens with consumers on Internet forums, which created exposure for the brand. When foreign consumers from time to time posted “unboxings” of TWSBI fountain pens on Youtube, that helped too, as did the special area on the Fountain Pen Network website devoted to discussion of TWSBI pens. TWSBI takes consumers’ opinions on FPN and elsewhere seriously and incorporated netizens’ feedback into the design of its Diamond 530 pen, which won a German Red Dot design award in 2010.
From being a king of industrial processing and OEM work, Wang has come a long way. He is quite happy with his own product. “I’ve shown determination to manufacture good pens,” he says with satisfaction.
The art of calligraphy
A calligrapher grips an old fountain pen over a sheet of paper placed askew on a desk. The pen’s nib moves in circles as it makes a series of curving lines on the page. As the pressure varies, so does the thickness of the line. From the pen flow all manner of beautiful motifs. Charling Chung, who runs the Calligraphy01 Facebook page, first shared some videos of her writing English round-hand calligraphy three or four years ago. Currently, the page has more than 90,000 fans. After seven years of studying Western calligraphy, she hasn’t lost any of her joy in the pursuit.
With a background in music and design, Chung recalls how she was originally attracted to the romantic qualities of calligraphic script. It was only after assiduously studying the art that she discovered the strict principles governing it. Calligraphers must abide by rules of proper proportion and so forth. Once those become familiar, they can then add ornamentation.
At first, she shared videos on the Internet showing how to create different calligraphic scripts. In them, she unselfishly divulges tips she gained from self-study. Watching her apply her italic, gothic and round-hand scripts to products such as glassware, clothes, leather goods, and plastic bottles is quite therapeutic, and many of the videos have had more than 10,000 views.
Chung also teaches classes on calligraphy. In one day, students learn all 26 letters. They then can add their own flourishes. But importantly, “One’s hand must acquire a certain understanding of the pen’s nib if one is to truly put down beautiful lines.”
She describes a kind of meditative state she enters when practicing calligraphy. The art has notably mellowed her temperament. It is only when she is writing that she can find the peace of mind to talk to her inner self. Practicing calligraphy is the time by herself that she enjoys most. When life’s hassles have her down, she often finds that she just needs to pick up a pen and lose herself in calligraphic curlicues. In this calm frame of mind, the problems seem to resolve themselves.
Han Yu-ching: The joyous art of calligraphy
Han Yu-ching is a calligrapher who regularly collaborates with top international brands. The French brands Dior and Chanel, as well as the Italian firm Bulgari and the British company Burberry, all hire him to write VIP cards. Watching him write with his characteristic unhurried assurance is a real pleasure.
Calligraphy runs in his family: Both his father and grandfather were Chinese calligraphers themselves. When Han was little, his grandfather would have him practice brushstrokes using writing brushes to which steel rods had been attached. The exercise was designed to build up his arm and hand strength—much as the horse stance is practiced in martial arts training. From a young age, writing calligraphy was a family activity at Chinese New Year. They’d lay down newspaper, and grandfather and grandson would compete at writing.
Han teaches design at Shih Chien University, where he has discovered that students know little about the different styles of Chinese characters. Consequently, he added calligraphy to the coursework, so that students, armed with calligraphic brushes or fountain pens, can enjoy the experience of creating beautiful characters themselves. More recently, he has created the firm Bonne Journée, where he teaches both children and adults how to write calligraphy.
Each style of script has it proper use and beneficial effects. Take, for instance, kaishu or regular script. Its lines are tightly organized, so that students must pay strict attention to the fine details when writing. One’s body must achieve a steadiness and remember the different senses of rhythm that go with penning different kinds of script. Looking to attain the proper muscle memory for each style is where Han starts his instruction.
What is the basic skill needed for writing? “Drawing straight lines,” Han answers simply. Drawing straight lines freehand, ten centimeters long but only one millimeter apart, is a test of students’ hand control. Only by drawing lines well can you write characters well.
Forcefully promoting calligraphic culture, Han says that writing is an important form of “cultural therapy.” “Calligraphy is more than just writing. In fact, writing by hand is a kind of general art that has a certain sense of spirituality associated with it.” He observes that most people studying calligraphy, rather than aiming to write to a certain standard of beauty, are more focused on finding spiritual release and relief through the process of creating beautiful script. He encourages parents to come with their children to study calligraphy together. In addition to cultivating a sense of aesthetics, the study of the art also causes one to slow down and appreciate beautiful things. It offers so much—and so much that has a lasting impact.
The widespread habit of writing by hand and the high value placed on handwriting may be attributes of an earlier age, but important sentiments still need to be written out to be expressed properly, just as memories need the medium of writing to endure.