Hamburg is a town of bridges and two-halves: it’s a maritime city yet it lies around 100 kilometers away from the open sea. It enjoys the finer things in life, yet it has one of the world’s most notorious red light districts. It’s also the home of Germany’s media industry, many publishing houses, and is the wealthiest city in the country thanks to its tax-free port. So given all of these variances, splits and contradictions, when you hear of a company that’s making a deceptively simple yet sumptuous pen and writing pad that bridges the gap between the physical and the digital worlds, you can perhaps see where they’re coming from.
That company is Montblanc – the luxurious accessories maison that’s been making world class writing instruments continuously in Hamburg since it was founded in 1906. The product is called Augmented Paper. In a city like Hamburg, with a global customer base and an incredibly rich heritage to draw from, the inspiration for such a product is everywhere. But first, the details and the actual product: the way Augmented Paper works is through a specially designed version of Montblanc’s StarWalker ballpoint writing instrument and the accompanying Italian leather-bound Augmented Paper pad. Simply place Montblanc’s specially crafted paper onto the digitally responsive leather-bound pad and write or draw as you would normally (you can jot down a note or fill the entire page, it doesn’t matter). When you’re ready, press the button on the Augmented Paper and the notes you’ve just written or the illustration you’ve sketched down is transferred instantly through low-energy Bluetooth to the partnered Montblanc Hub app on your smartphone or tablet.
Once in the app, you can split these now-digital notes or combine separate ones together, tag them for organisation, and search for entire words or sentences with the results displaying instantly. When you’re done, you can export these notes as text, PDF, JPG, PNG, WILL, Pages or Word files to be worked on later or by others. And finally, in a neat little trick, Montblanc’s app can even scan and convert your handwriting into digital text characters for when you export.
“We wanted to create something that makes sense for people in the interconnected world that we find ourselves in,” explains Zaim Kamal, Montblanc’s creative director, as we sit in Berlin’s Soho House in the late summer sunshine. A calm, cerebral man, he’s dressed mostly in black despite the unusually warm September sun, with leather boots and jeans and a sharp black blazer. The only color comes from a wine-hued tee and a splash of silver from the skull-shaped ring he wears on his middle finger that almost conceals a small tattoo. Kamal has described his style as ‘Keith Richards meets Dorian Gray’, and it’s this streak of alternative, rebelliousness crossed with a sleek, minimal aesthetic that could equally be applied to Montblanc’s best products: one element respecting its heritage and its luxurious individuality, while another looks to the future, to a pared-down aesthetic with flourishes that unite the best in craftsmanship with modern, essential functionality.
With his background in fashion, it’s immediately clear that the man draws at least some of his inspiration from that form of art and applies it to the art form of writing. Both at Soho House and within Montblanc’s Hamburg workshop and company HQ, he talks about a key design inspiration of Augmented Paper arising from his watching of Wim Wenders’ 1989 documentary on Yohji Yamamoto, Notebook on Cities & Clothes, which follows the iconic designer ahead of one of his Paris fashion shows. “There’s several moments in that film where you see Yamamoto and his assistants working across lots of different sketches and various production notes,” says Kamal. “So that’s the first thing to bear in mind here, but then, the second is also how now at fashion shows, rarely will its end be met with any applause. And the reason for that is because people are too busy within their phones or pads, sending emails, finishing notes, adding their thoughts in immediately, or taking pictures to send off to editors. And I wanted to help design something of quality that would allow people to think and yet remain connected, but also to collaborate.”
Actually, Augmented Paper is ideal for collaboration. The act of transferring your notes through the product is an intuitive step-by-step process. But Montblanc Hub’s inbuilt annotation tools also allow you to mark up and scribble down thoughts to help you and your team in whatever creative process you’re involved in.
However, one of the main draws of Montblanc’s Augmented Paper is simply its physical presence. Augmented Paper’s soft black leather case, crafted at Montblanc’s own Pelletteria in Florence and from the brand’s Urban Spirit collection, gives off a rich smell that lingers as you write. The new StarWalker pen’s balance and feel across Montblanc’s specifically designed writing pad is easy, smooth and well appointed. But the physical act of writing is important in itself. “When you write, you’re naturally ordering your thoughts and filing them in a way and a process that makes sense. You’re actively thinking about them, but it also means that you can remain present in a room,” says Kamal. Although the official literature from Montblanc gives a business man in a standard business room setting as a case study, it’s clear this product can be used and will benefit anyone – including the people at today’s fashion shows – and, more importantly, is designed for everyone.
The Hamburg Maison has taken this to a whole new level in recent years, tailoring their product to the point where its exclusivity is not marked by simply how many (or rather, how few) were produced, but the fact that the product was designed, produced, and tailored specifically for the writer who’s buying it. In Montblanc’s luxury atelier in its Hamburg site (where 98% of their pen manufacturing occurs), the Maison has taken the more than 35 individual steps that go into manufacturing its official range of writing instruments and transferred it down a corridor to a small team of people who create the luxurious writing instruments that mark Montblanc’s special editions, as well as who then create in-house bespoke one-of-one pens for their most revered customers. However, this tailoring to the individual is available to anyone. Step into one of the 16 special Montblanc boutiques around the world that provide the service, such as Zurich’s Bahnhofstr., London’s New Bond Street, or Madison Avenue in New York, and you can have your individual writing characteristics looked at so you can have a specific recommendation of fountain pen nib size and shape recommended to you. It’s something I personally tried and it’s surprising how accurate the analysis – charted on graphs as if like on some kind of medical monitoring machine – actually is in terms of what your writing says about you, about how you write, as well as what you were actually feeling as you wrote.
It’s this utilization of technology to not only bridge the virtual and physical worlds – as represented by Augmented Paper – but to provide a deeply personal product attuned to the customer, that you then understand how and why Montblanc has continued to stay relevant and at the top of its game for more than a century. When the world turned digital, then when it turned social, and now as it becomes virtual in the increasingly sped up way in which we live our lives, to see a brand like Montblanc actively select which technology they think can enhance our lives through their products is impressive.
Of course, there are scare stories about children whose exposure to tablets and smartphones at an early age has meant they’re unable, or they at least struggle, to write and draw with pen and paper. I ask Kamal what he thinks about this and he pauses for a second before answering: “The act of writing and marking a physical surface with your own hand, whether or not with a tool, is ancient and marks us out as humans,” he counters. He pauses again, before adding: “Writing can never be replaced by the digital or the virtual. It can only be augmented and supplemented by it.”
Shop Augmented Paper direct from montblanc.com. Alternatively, find your nearest Montblanc boutique to experience Augmented Paper in person. Montblanc Hub, the Augmented Paper app, is available for free via Google Play and the Apple App Store now.