with Wolfgang Fabian
The original interview was conducted in German and translated to English by Scrively.
Part I: Wolfang Fabian & his work
Scrively: A few words about yourself: What is it that you are doing today, and what have you been doing in the past?
WF: Today I’m retired and I’m not doing anything anymore that anyone would want to know about. Back then, I loved my job a lot and, to the sorrow of my wife, I also worked a lot. I was designing and developing numerous products that have become successful in their markets. Most often, these were everyday objects. For 25 years, I designed sanitary fittings (e.g. water taps) for American Standard, bathroom scales and kitchen scales for Soehnle, alarm clocks and clocks for Kienzle. I have also worked on the development of laboratory equipment for Roche Diagnostics, where I was responsible for the design of the instrument housings, ergonomics and serviceability – the latter being a term that may have been coined by me.
When I turned 65, which is retirement age, everyone thought that I will keep on working as a designer. My son Felix Fabian had also studied industrial design in the meantime, and he also worked in the small industrial design company that I owned. I always kept my studio “Fabian Industrie-Design” in Mannheim small – I once had five employees, which I didn’t like at all – because I wanted to be hands-on and design and construct myself; and not only acquire clients and manage projects. Back then, in 2008, when everyone suspected that I would probably never stop working, I just decided to gift the whole company to my son. I withdrew completely from the business ever since. Ha, they didn’t see that one coming!
In 2006 I bought a used motor yacht and renovated it for four years. Once done, it was simply perfect to travel with my wife for up to twelve weeks through Western Europe. Boating is our joint hobby.
Scrively: You have designed the Lamy Safari – which is certainly one of the worlds most well-known and iconic writing instruments. It is a fountain pen that many schoolchildren have been socialized with. What was the design process of the Lamy Safari like? What were the thoughts behind the design and naming of the pen?
WF: I’ve worked with Lamy for 35 years – as a freelancer, just as for all the other clients that I mentioned before. The Safari is the most famous, but far from being the only writing instrument that I have designed for them. After having studied industrial design in Wuppertal, my first job was at Gugelot-Design GmbH in Ulm. I got there through a personal recommendation by Dieter Rams, whom I have been in touch with at that point in time because I was also seeking for an opportunity at Braun/Kronberg – a company that basically every designer of that time wanted to work for. In 1974, Gugelot unfortunately went out of business and I was employed by Prof. Dr. Bernt Spiegel in Mannheim (“Entwicklungsgruppe Mannheim”). Spiegel was a market psychologist and advised companies such as Braun/Kronberg, Porsche, Bosch, BMW and Lamy on their future products. This is how I got together with Lamy as a designer. Dr. Lamy, the owner, had met Gerd Müller, who had been employed by Braun, around 1965. Müller designed the Lamy 2000, which turned Lamy into a design brand. Spiegel suggested to Dr. Lamy that from a market psychology perspective, what he needs would be a writing instrument for pupils. Would they obtain a Lamy in their teenage years, they might buy Lamy products for life. By then I was a young designer, still remembering the school days and own inky fingers, and without any entrenched thinking habits. I wanted to design a fountain pen that lies comfortably in the hand and where you wouldn’t slide onto the nib as you were writing. My boss came up with the marketing slogan back then: ‘The one for the saddle bag’.
In addition to Prof. Spiegel, there were a few other market psychologists that have been working on the development of the Safari. Several user tests were run with pupils, the grip section was slightly modified, and research around market communications, target audiences, and the right product framing was conducted. In the early 80s, the military camouflage look was slowing fading out of fashion, but it wasn’t entirely dead yet. The market psychologists came to the conclusion that the children of that time – boys and girls alike – were particularly interested in adventure and faraway lands. Eventually, this led to the name “Safari”, initially available with an savannah green colour for boys and the terracotta red for girls. I was then also the one who designed the accompanying gift box (resembling the wooden boxes used for transporting items overseas) and the desk accessories, made from plastic and cardboard, as well as the complementary writing instruments – mechanical pencil, ballpoint pen and fibre pen.
Scrively: Looking back on the Lamy Safari, its journey and tremendous success story – how does this make you feel?
WF: Well, the Safari actually went a route quite different from what the market psychologists had imagined. The development of the fountain pen began in 1975, the market launch was in 1980. It was a pretty slow process; and then the Safari wasn’t even a great success in the beginning. Apparently the initial colours weren’t loud enough to resonate with the kids. Instead, many adults bought it because it was so comfortable to hold in the hand. Lamy then had the idea to make a colour more tailored towards adults – so I whipped up all sorts of paint residue I had at hand, and the colour “umbra” came into being. At the same time I lacquered one of these olive-coloured fountain pens with a shiny white finish, while the clip got a black finish.
I showed it to Dr. Lamy who, immediately fond of it, asked me to design a white fibertip pen. A few weeks later I brought him a few models – I have always been a passionate craftsman and presented almost all of my concepts as models – and at the Spring Fair 1982 in Frankfurt, Lamy showed the first white writing instrument. The “White Pen”, as it was called, revolutionised the colour-scheme of then contemporary offices: from then on, there were many white writing instruments on the market, office telephones were suddenly no longer orange or green, but light grey, and the furniture in offices tended towards light grey to white.
Still, I think the fact that the Safari has been produced unchanged from 1980 to the present day is less a merit of the designer, but rather the result of the work of clever marketing people: they had the very good idea to release a new pen colour every single year. This helped an old product, for whose design I have not only received praise but also criticism, remained ‘forever young’. Another critical factor in the success story of the Safari is the lots of patience that Lamy has with its products: given how little success the product had in the very beginning, any other company would have quickly taken the product off the market. Lamy didn’t!
Part II: Wolfgang Fabian & Stationery
Scrively: What meaning does stationery and (analogue) writing have for you personally – and what is your favourite pen or stationery item?
WF: For me personally, writing down things is the easiest way to remember something. And that seems to be the case for others as well. Unfortunately, handwriting has taken somewhat of a back seat in our schools in Germany. Educators no longer seem to know which is the best method to teach children how to write by hand. And no longer do all children learn how to write with a fountain pen. I love fountain pens, of course – but not so much the Safari. The steel nib is too stiff for me. I like the softness of gold nibs. But even the modern Lamy gold nib doesn’t quite come close to the one of my favourite fountain pen, an old Pelikan, which I inherited from my father when he died. Its nib is wafer-thin and very elastic, which makes the writing very beautiful and individual. Unfortunately, in our times today such elasticity seems to be associated with a perceived lower durability. This may be the reason why most modern gold nibs are so stiff.
Scrively: May I glance at your desk? What’s on there/what do we see there? Please go ahead and describe a little!
WF: I tend to be a bit messy, so I can not show you my desk because I would have to clean it up first. But it is a special table: a shaker table made of American pear wood. It’s on wheels, so the shakers could push their tables towards the edges of the room and hang the chairs onto the walls, as they danced or cleaned. My table is in the small, cozy study in the basement of our terraced house. I enjoy being there. Just that I am not there for work any longer.
Scrively: Thanks so much for taking the time talking to me. It was an honour. I wish you all the very best and an enjoyable retirement!
WF: Thank you for your interest, too. I was more talkative than I initially assumed I would be – but it was fun for me to remember some of the things of the past.