If both your father and grandfather ran office supply stores you might be forgiven for any ‘writing implement obsessive disorder’. My grandfather opened his in Yonkers in 1907 with 2 of his brothers and was called, predictably, Biber Brothers. My father’s was further up-county and upscale, in my (and Rob & Laura Petrie’s) home town of New Rochelle, christened Westchester Office Supply.

I literally grew up wandering the packed aisles of paperclips, rubber bands, ledger paper, loose leaf binders, red bordered gummed labels, telephone handset shoulder supports, adding machines, carbon paper, file folders, metal desks and filing cabinets, blotter paper, typewriters, slide rules, onion skin paper, paper tape moisteners, mimeograph machines and every variety of writing implement know to the post-war world.

I remember the ubiqiutous Bic pens, bottles of blue-black ink & the very first (Pentel) felt tip pens; that Magic Marker smell; Cross, Parker and Lamy pens; the paper spiral on China markers, Rapidographs and lead sold in every softness to 9B and hardness to 9H.

Not only do I know virtually all there is to know about a certain vintage of things ‘stationery’ (which describes both the goods, and how business was at times…), but I have an abiding love of the analog world it celebrated. It is hard to even remember how, for instance, ‘copies’ were made before the first car-sized Xerox 914 (answer: carbon paper, ‘ditto’ duplicating machines, thermofax, photostats, and by hand) but it usually involved ink that smudged off on your hands.

Eventually I was in the last class of architecture students to use slide rules for mathematical calculations (seriously, because calculators were still plug-in affairs), Graphos (preset ruling pens) for ink drawings on white Strathmore illustration boards, and Letraset for typography. I was also among the very first architectural offices to switch entirely to CAD in 1987 and I never looked back.

Just as there is no other reasonable way to produce professional documents than CAD, there is no better way to connect an idea in one’s brain to a spontaneous visual expression than drawing by hand. And drawing is intimately tied to that panoply of writing instruments that are effectively the same analog tools that have been used for millennia.

There are only really two ways to draw (putting aside the essentially fine art media of etching, painting, airbrush, etc.): either you can lay down a line of wet ink, or you can rub something dry that leaves trail on the surface. Deceptively simple as this is there are endless variations for each method, each with its own precise technology and manufacturing process. How they are made is an even longer story: even crayons are not child’s play to make.

What fascinates me is how each medium produces its own style of drawing; every degree of lead produces a unique line and therefore a unique drawing. Each felt tip has a different degree of friction, wetness, opacity and squeak.

One of my favorite clients, Ann Kirschner, Dean of Macaulay Honors College at CUNY, experimented with new and old reading ‘devices’ by rereading a favorite book, Dicken’s “Little Dorritt”, in print, audio book, Kindle, iPhone, iPad, etc. to assess each alternative.


If we could do the same thing with writing/drawing implements, what would it produce? My little set of doodles above only hints at how designs diverge depending on the implement chosen. Just as it is disturbing to imagine what the ballpoint pen version of the Declaration of Independence might have been, I can’t really believe my own work would be the same if I had to trim a quill every few sketches.