Tom Gyr makes arguably the most beautiful calligraphy pens in the world. Tom trained in graphic design and fresh out of university started a furniture company in Newcastle, but that folded pretty quickly because he had no channel to showcase his products. He later moved to London to do web design at tech startups, in particular at a popular one doing food deliveries, but was soon disenchanted by the unsustainability of businesses driven by profit and obsessed with scale but not much more.
“I’m driven by creating something that’s unique, and personal and interesting… and that fulfils me. My workshop is a place for experimentation, for playing with so many options, different materials and combinations. And you can’t really do that if you’re working for a business that is driven by profit because you have to be certain about the fact that it has to make money”.
His love for stationery started early on through his dad, who was a graphic designer too, and it further developed through his wife, who’s a professional calligrapher. Tom would see her struggle with all these mediocre pens and he thought he could make something better. Already familiar with making physical products thanks to his stint with the furniture shop, he tried his hand at making a calligraphy pen using a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine for making watch parts until one pen finally came out with the right balance, which his wife now uses pretty much every day. After a few more successful attempts, the couple decided to move out from London, and for a while Tom was commuting back and forth doing consulting while making pens. The tide changed after he put a picture on Instagram and as a result people started asking if they could buy one. Pretty quickly freelance work went down and pen making went up until he realised he could make the leap, so he signed a lease for a studio in Pokesdown, on the Southern English coast. That was October 2016.
Sustainability and provenance are two key characteristics of Tom’s making style, both in stark contrast with today’s prevailing disposable culture — while dated, according to this New York Times article from 1988 about 1.6 billion pens end in landfills every year in the US alone.
“There were all these jars with pens on the desk that would end up being thrown away and I wanted to make something that people would have a personal connection with, and that it did its job as well as it did when it was first bought in 50 years time.”
If you look at the materials that Tom uses, you’ll find eco-resins derived from tree sap rather than petrol, or that all copper shavings from turning a pen in the lathe are then re-cast into the body. For a recent series of pens made for the Chelsea Flower Show in London, Tom embedded locally foraged flowers into the resin. Other pens were made using Oakwood from a 200 years old fallen tree from Florence Nightingale ’s estate. Unconventional materials are a constant source of inspiration too. During my visit to Tom’s Studio I found pens made with multiple layers of Colorplan papers, or using solidwool. I saw bits and bobs that ranged from trimmings of Alpikord, excess material from kitchen fittings, to colourful layers of compact resin and glass fibre leftover from a local surfboard maker. I got the impression that Tom tries to turn anything he finds in his 60 year old lathe and he didn’t deny this.
The workshop is small but it’s densely packed with tools, starting with the 60 year old lathe where it all started. It was from his wife’s dad, an engineer who used to make little motorcycle components. There’s a secondary wood turning lathe used primarily for polishing, and a CNC machine which is important for getting them goldilocked with right weight and measures and perfectly balanced in your hand. There’s also a vacuum chamber used when casting resin with flowers or other ingredients to crushe all the bubbles and make the final result denser. A souse vide water bath is used to cure and stabilise wood at an exact temperature so that it warps less with time, making it much more durable. Finally, there’s different 21 different grits of sandpaper and a few other things. And while manual tools play an important role in the making process, Instagram was the channel that allowed a very niche product to find an audience, and Square Space the website and e-commerce platform that allows this to be global business selling mainly to artists and calligraphers in the USA, Hong Kind and Singapore while keeping it manageable for one person. Tom also collaborates with a local product designer, James Wood, who uses SolidWorks simulation software and 3d printers to co-create a new writing instruments.
It’s still unclear what this business will look like in 10 years time. Will people still write? One thing is for sure though: there’s still going to be a high end market demanding beautiful handmade products that offer a superior user experience, and that is enough for someone not blinded by scale and profit.
Originally published at www.gchicco.com on June 25, 2018.