When you first see a Schon DSGN pen, you have to pick it up. The bare metal cylinder commands the landscape of a coffee table like a tiny monolith. A curiously pleasing screw action opens and closes the cap, an enticement for endless fiddling.
Depending on which metal yours is made from — aluminum, titanium, brass or bronze — the pen is either surprisingly light or formidably heavy. It looks like some mysterious James Bond accessory. Once uncapped, it looks like the Platonic model for all pens ever created, descended like a stray lightning bolt straight from the desk of Zeus.
There is something paradoxical about it. Perhaps it’s the simple yet stately design. Perhaps it’s the satisfying feel of solid metal in an item that is usually no more than a petrochemical trifle, destined for the wastebasket.
It is this ponderous pen, a favorite of our Work collection, that has brought us to the Schon DSGN studio today. But it turns out there is a lot more to this maker. Ian Schon is an engineer with some revolutionary ideas. His portfolio includes an impressive collection of retail products and machine parts that he has independently designed, prototyped, manufactured, and brought to market. He keeps production as local as possible, even when it means designing machine parts and processes to circumvent typical methods of mass production. This “systems level approach to product design” is his response to a retail world inundated with mediocre goods and dubious branding. Schon goes the hard route to prove a point — that integrity matters, even in something a basic as a pen. How radical.
“I like to make ‘physical interaction designs’ that are interesting,” Schon tells us. His screwtop pen is a prime example. “I don’t want to make something and then just put it on a shelf.”
We are standing in Schon’s home studio, on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brookline, Massachusetts. This small but fruitful workshop is the vessel in which Schon sets out into uncharted territory again and again, designing his way from one step to the next. Myriad parts and prototypes — from watch faces to custom pen cartridges to unexplainable metal plates, diagrams and pieces he simply refers to as “bits” — cover most of the available surfaces in the room.
Schon digs through a series of drawers in his workshop, eventually pulling out a small box. Inside is his latest edition — hefty pens made from stainless steel.
“This is the new hotness,” says Schon with a smile. He is an engineer at play.
With his exuberant explanations and that confident grin, 26-year-old Schon gives the quirky impression of a boy genius. But he is no poindexter, mind you. Factor in the light-footed energy of a competitive cyclist, then add the keen gaze of an engineer who possesses a powerful raw intelligence, a command of his craft, and an unbridled creative spark. He is driven by a cause. When he talks about the challenges he faces as a maker dedicated to “Do It Yourself,” his passion nearly boils over.
A collection of artwork adorns the walls of Schon’s workshop, all of which speak to the dynamic forces at work in him. There are complex geometric patterns, which Schon programmed on his CNC machine as he was learning to use it. There are DIY flyers from various friends’ bands featuring original punk artwork. There’s a still-life drawing of a bicycle part, drawn by a tattoo artist friend. The crowning piece, mounted above his antique lathe, is a print of a laughing skull, wearing a bike cap that reads “Can’t Stop.” Below the skull, a banner that reads “Don’t Wanna” completes the sentiment.
Indeed, Schon doesn’t ever seem to stop. During our two hour visit, he doesn’t sit down once, even though he has just biked here from across the Charles River. Not only is he eager to tell us about his work, he enthusiastically demonstrates various processes for us on the customized machines in his workshop.
Schon works on his entrepreneurial projects in his free time. He is able to fund many of his projects out of pocket. This is thanks to his “day job,” working as an engineer at Ideo, a global design firm located in Central Square, a hub of Boston’s tech scene. He cites this advantage as a huge privilege for a maker, one that he is grateful for. Schon seizes upon all of the opportunities his talents bring him to take a stand in the world of product design, pushing the limits of what it means for a brand to be authentic.
What does that mean exactly? Consider the pen. Schon needed a lathe to prototype his design. He had a hard time finding one, and no one would let him use theirs. Rightfully so, perhaps; he had no formal training. He was not enrolled in a metalworking class nor was he employed in a machine shop.
“No one would really teach me, so I kinda had to go on my own,” says Schon. “You’ve gotta be in the trenches to make innovation.”
He tracked down an antique industrial lathe on Craigslist, purchased it, and spent the summer restoring it. Then he learned to use it and began turning prototypes in his spare time. Eventually Schon would get more formal training at the scientific instruments facility at Boston University, but he was his own first teacher.
“Let’s run a part on it, it’ll be fun,” says Schon. He fires up the lathe, which he approaches like a an old friend. In a room that includes powerful computerized manufacturing equipment and a large industrial metal press, the lathe seems almost quaint. He grabs a pen, explaining the finer points of polishing aluminum with red rouge over the din of the machine.
Schon’s final pen design was contingent on the condition that he would be able to produce every part of it with his own two hands. Hence, a metal cylinder with screw threads, which can be turned entirely on his lathe from raw stock. No internal spring action, and no pocket clip. A simple custom screw locks the cartridge in place. Nothing requires outsourcing of material, parts or labor.
“People design themselves out of the equation,” Schon explains. His goal is to prevent what he considers an all-too-common phenomenon. Manufacturing methods and material choices are usually tailored to meet profit-driven, lowest-common-denominator industry standards. The archetypical example is the ubiquity of products that bear the phrase “Made in China.” For Schon, it’s a red letter that indicates a failure — a failure to prioritize local production, and to preserve the integrity of the product. It means the design has become an orphan in the world, reared not by it’s parent, but by strangers in a factory, far, far away.
“It’s hard for me when people say ‘made in Boston’ or ‘made in America’… what does it really mean ‘to make’, anymore?” he asks. “When I couldn’t produce [the pens] by myself anymore [due to increasing demand], it was about finding a way to produce them in America… and still capture the spirit of what I put into it.”
This meant nailing down a production process that fit Schon’s final blueprint, his budget, and his ethos of keeping it locally and authentically made.
Eventually Schon found a Massachusetts shop that agreed to produce small-batch runs of his pens, in between runs of the high-volume products that sustain their business.
“They’ve got big machines to pay off, right? And I have to be respectful of that, I have to be respectful of their time, and make it work for both of us,” Schon explains.
Schon took the same “systems level approach” with his “certified slammed” bicycle part a few years back. The piece became its own brand, piggybacking off of a cyclist blog and creating its own micro-culture, all known by the moniker Slam That Stem.
The niche part is a result of Schon’s natural tendency to innovate. A common pain felt among competitive cyclists is a limitation in bicycle design. The issue lies with a minor piece called a headset bearing cover — a metal washer that seals the joint where the handlebars fit into the bike frame. It is crucial for keeping dust and debris out of the joint, which must remain accurately spaced, sealed and lubricated to perform properly.
A typical headset bearing cover is over an inch thick. For serious racers, who raise their seats high and crouch as low as possible over their handlebars, every millimeter counts. Schon designed a cover that is only 1.9 mm (or .075 in) thick, and weighs a less to boot. It’s the best option on the market for racers who want to get as low as possible (or “slammed,” according to the devotees) without an expensive custom alteration.
But once again, Schon hit a hurdle. He needed access to an industrial metal punch called an arbor press, fitted with a custom stamp, to produce his design. The stamp alone would cost him upwards of $15,000.
“So how do you get around that?” Schon asks us. “You’ve gotta do that weird engineering thing, you’ve gotta make your own tool. Then you’ve gotta convince the stamper to put it in their machine. You can’t just design, and say ‘make this part’ — you have to find a way to make it, too.”
Schon tracked down an arbor press, purchased it, then learned how to use it. He went ahead and designed his own stamp for it, then made that, too. For three years, he used it to punch out the part by hand. Eventually, he found a machinist at a shop in Detroit who was willing to attach Schon’s stamp to one of their presses and stamp out Schon’s part in between shifts.
“That’s the only reason why [Slam That Stem] is able to exist,” says Schon, proudly standing next to his arbor press. He was able to sidestep a huge start-up cost, go into production, and keep the retail price at only $22, while maintaining full control of the project.
“That’s American ingenuity, that’s that special sauce, that’s what makes American makers special, because we’re scrappy as fuck, because we can just get in there, and figure out, and say ‘ok what’s the loophole? What’s the way that I’m gonna nail this?”
We arrive at the heart of Schon’s ethos when he reveals his latest project — handmade watches. Schon shows off the timepiece on his wrist — a handsome, simple design, noticeably unmarked by any logo or branding, just like his pens.
“This watch was made here,” he says with a gleam in his eye. “Like, in this room.”
Inspired to try his hand at making another “everyday use” item to follow his pens, Schon ordered a quartz watch on eBay, took it apart, and then reassembled it to see how it was built. Not long after he made his own watch case and a dial with a 3-D printer. It was only the beginning.
“I wanted more, I wanted that tick, I wanted the mechanics,” says Schon. “What if I could make a watch entirely from scratch, I thought. So, I got to it.”
Schon reworked his case design to fit a mechanical watch movement (as opposed to quartz), so he could begin building the individual components. After three years of trial and error and many redesigns, (indeed, there are at least a dozen iterations of watch faces strewn over Schon’s work table), he began to arrive at a prototype that he would be capable of building.
“I created this watch and many more in between — many, many, many more in between,” he says. “I’ve just been diving super deep into this trying to figure out what I can make of it. I’m all over the map with how I create these.”
Each redesign required Schon to try new processes with his machines, particularly his CNC machine. Schon spent months writing the code to “draw” his watch case and other components on the computer.
“I had to develop the process,” he says. “There’s no book on it. You have to be really frickin’ creative and you have to use your engineering brain.” Once again, Schon had to design his own proprietary tool, this time for his CNC machine. He points out a custom mounting plate on the CNC table and asks us not to photograph it.
“It’s my special sauce,” Schon says with his grin.
Schon reiterates a that key element to maintaining control of the project is limiting the design to what is practical. Many watch design elements require specialized manufacturing that isn’t typically available in the States, or is otherwise cost-prohibitive, even for big companies. He points out certain details, like tiny, hair-thin sticks of metal decorating a commercially produced watch he has nearby, as examples of this kind of heedless design. Then he holds up his own watch face again to illustrate his point.
“If you look at this watch… I have drilled dots [marking the hour] — because I know how to drill things. If you design with what you know, you can produce it and you can make the parts. And then your design lives — it makes it to market and it’s made in Massachusetts the way you ethically wanted to create it. You have to know your limits and your boundaries. The reason why [a company] says ‘oh it’s so hard to manufacture things in America’ is because [they’re] not thinking about it the right way.”
Schon explains that the watch world is enormous, full of behemoth companies, generating millions and millions of dollars a year in revenue. A lot of that revenue is based on brand image and stance, but not much scrutiny is given to the actual manufacturing behind that identity, at least not enough, according to Schon. He cites a prominent American watch company, who proudly boasts “made in America,” as an example. At best, he explains, they are simply assembling their designs Stateside, but not actually making the components.
“They have the value I have, from a marketing standpoint, right, but not the guts. They’re not actually making it. You’re paying for marketing, and that’s sad, that’s something that hurts me, as someone who cares about goods,” says Schon. “This watch thing is an exercise — to say ‘dudes, you can make it in America, but you don’t want to, because it’s hard.’ …If you’re crafty about the design, you can produce it in America. And that’s where I’m at.” For him, the watch project is a social statement, a challenge to the status-quo.
“I just want to be there to set an example. I love competition. I want to encourage other makers to think that way, because it just strengthens their brand.”
Schon plans to have ten finished watch prototypes — all already at various stages of completion here in his workshop — by December. Rather than hastening his design to the production stage for the sake of efficacy, Schon is focusing on completing a design that he is capable of producing himself, that he will be able to scale up locally.
“You’ve gotta be so clever to do it. You don’t have a ton of money, you don’t have a ton of scale, so you’ve gotta get really creative, you’ve gotta do stuff like this, like have a little factory where you’re doing one-offs in your house. It’s a blast.”
On our way out, Schon leads us outside to show us one of his earliest and dearest projects — his bicycle. To build it, Schon apprenticed with some bike makers in Baltimore, learned to use a brazing torch, then purchased his own. He designed and assembled custom tubing blocks to build on, then built his bike. What a surprise. It bears his personal lightning bolt “logo.” He handles it with the same affectionate touch as his lathe.
“I’m here to inspire, that’s the only reason I did this,” Schon says with another smile.
It is most certainly inspiring. We came here to learn about his pens, but it feels like we’ve just taken a whole curriculum in product design, engineering, industrial manufacturing and anti-establishment maker-activism. Schon is his own one-man production firm, on a mission, designing his way through uncharted territory. He seems to be having a lot of fun doing it.