by Paul Armstrong
Rick Powell can’t seem to stop dropping, crushing or misplacing writing instruments as he designs bespoke furniture pieces in his London living room. Instead of simply accepting his fate, Powell took it upon himself to design his own sleek, metal pens that could be kept out of harm’s way using intricate magnetic lids. Each pen takes between two and three hours to create from start to finish and is designed, milled and packaged by Powell himself using an adapted Clarke mini lathe. The unique lids enable you to keep the pens vertically, horizontally or any way you like—as the finished pen has a built-in magnetic coin buried inside the lid. While earlier models had push-on tops and lacked screw threads, the final products each have magnetic screw threads that make losing the pen extremely difficult.
Powell went through more than 45 iterations—or “morphings” as he describes it—of the design before settling on the final version. “The pieces evolved from me having lots of broken Bic biros [aka ballpoint pens] that I had trodden on or chewed or snapped. I keep the inside bits and thought it would be nice to ‘Bling my Biro’ so I started making a jacket for the humble biro,” he tells us. “What surprised me along the way was how the pen visually morphed from being a pen to being an object of genuine intrigue and delight.”
Initially trialling aluminum for the body and lid didn’t work. The versions Powell tried were either too tough to mill or simply too soft and prone to cracks. Brass and copper were finally settled on due to the ease of machining and the look, feel and finish was what Powell was going for. “The machining process, on my little lathe is tricky. The bar you start with has to be bored out very deep with quite a thin drill bit. Some bars snapped, some bent, some went through the side wall while some got so hot the metal buckled,” he says.
Powell admits he is a little obsessed with the project as he refined, tested and explored what was possible. Scouring over 50 “geeky pen blogs” and writing aficionado sites led Powell to alter elements which led to new mini-obsessions like endlessly testing and comparing refills to get the right final product (although all designs can use commonly found refills). He tells us, “I was surprised by how particular people were about their refills. Some would say, ‘It’s only a ballpoint,’ while others like ballpoint. If someone wanted a pen for a specific refill though I’d be very open to it. It’s a challenge I love to solve and I get inspired when I learn.”
While there is no official pen set, Powell has added bespoke details for clients and made several modifications if they felt right: “I created one pen for a godson’s christening that had his initials in Morse code that acted as the grip for the pen and some have asked for initials but I’m no engraver so I tend to decline the expected requests.” Instead, Powell looks for unique touches that “feel right.” He explains, “One client requested two bands to signify her twins. My favorite so far is the person’s name in barcode. These sort of personal touches make people cherish them that little bit more.”
Currently thinking about 2017 designs—including a pencil version—Powell is playing around more with the idea of “object anonymity.” As he says, “A lot of people try to press the magnets, pull them, twist the middle and when they do find the lid, there is a childish joy at having been fooled by not having seen the joint. It’s making me think about more projects and objects that could be designed so they remain anonymous. Products that make you go on a small journey of discovery… perhaps that little journey can create a bond. It’s something I intend on exploring further.”
Images courtesy of Rick Powell Designs