In Conversation With Marta Verdes-Montenegro of AJOTO

In Conversation With Marta Verdes-Montenegro of AJOTO

Taking its name from the Japanese word for ‘first-class’, the Manchester-based AJOTO employs a high-art approach to crafting the perfect pen. Marta Verdes-Montenegro talks us through the creative process.

Can you tell us a little about the philosophy behind AJOTO?

Our philosophy is the result of being fed up with the disposable nature of consumption, the questionable ethics around production, and the short obsolescence of products that can’t be fixed or repaired. When we began AJOTO, we knew we couldn’t force the world to change, but thought we could do our bit and try to inspire others through our actions.

We are constantly challenging ourselves to improve every single aspect of our business – from operations through to how we design. We enjoy meeting people and listening to their stories, exploring different and innovative materials, and seeking out approaches to our work that are not only profitable for ourselves but also our wider community.

In regards to our products, we ensure that each facility we work with meets our exacting environmental requirements and operates to the highest ethical standard to ensure everything from safe working conditions to fair wages. The careful selection of not only materials and processes but also the people and the factories we work with is something we are very proud of. It’s a holistic approach but working together with world-class people helps make it a simpler, more rewarding process.

How did you guys get started? What made you turn your attention to pens in the first place?

We didn’t start AJOTO with pens or stationery in mind, the evolution to developing The Pen was a little more serendipitous. We actually began AJOTO as a design studio and consultancy agency. We spent the early days formulating a process that reflected our personal ideology and ethos around design, manufacturing, marketing, retail, and business.

The problem at that time was that we didn’t have anything to share that showcased our vision, so we set out exploring a vast array of products and services that we could develop. Throughout the early stages of this journey, we realised that the product we were looking for was in our hands the whole time. So we decided to do justice to the most important creative tool that we used: the pen.

It’s important to note that ten years ago, pens and stationery were massively overlooked as a product category worthy of attention and interest. They were either seen as throwaway, utilitarian, mass-produced products; fountain pens aimed at a small group of collectors; items of designed novelty and gimmicks; or – most tragic of all – a relic of the past no longer required in the world of the smartphone. So we began creating our first timeless tool: ‘The Pen’. It reflected our obsession with modernist craftsmanship and had a story to match that could be openly explored by every customer and last a lifetime.

Your pieces show some truly remarkable refinement. Was it ever a challenge to express yourselves through such a unique canvas?

Our approach to design follows many of the principles of Dieter Rams and the Bauhaus. That’s across our aesthetic language and our approach to materials and manufacturing. I remember reading an interview with Jonathan Ive of Apple that resonated. He stated that when they are designing products, they try to ‘get to a point where the solution seems inevitable’. This is what drives us forward. We don’t want to create products that aim to shock or stand out; we want to produce tools that become the gold standard of what a product can and should be.

I would say that the biggest challenge has been being self-funded from day one with very limited resources. For a few years, we were living very much hand-to-mouth and sleeping on camp-beds in our studio to ensure that we had enough money to cover the production costs. This approach brings with it a number of limitations, but it has also ensured that we maintained focus on making a successful product without getting distracted with other projects. With The Pen, I believe we have made something very special and we hope our customers enjoy their investment.

Of course, there’s more to a pen than how it looks. How did you go about getting the feel of the pen just right?

In developing the first AJOTO pen, we produced hundreds of prototypes made from a wide array of materials – from modelling foam and wood to 3D-printed resins. Some were created to explore the overall form, while others looked at the mechanical elements. Our archive is full of 3D-printed prototypes and pre-production samples. Every detail was fine-tuned and perfected.

However, it wasn’t until we began production that we got a true understanding of the complexity of making something that looked and felt simple and balanced. Ever since launching our first edition of The Pen in 2013, we have constantly evolved and improved every aspect. At first glance, the pen produced when we launched is similar in looks to the one we make today. But as a finished product? They couldn’t be further apart.

Above all else, the quality of what we make is as much about the people and specialists we partner with. To produce our pens, we have partnered with over 30 individual specialists across the UK and Europe – not counting our own workshop and studio. This list includes bespoke spring manufacturers in Skipton, Yorkshire; precision engineering machinists in Preston, Lancashire; and traditional letterpress studios in North Wales. We truly believe that how a product is made is just as important – if not more important – than how it is designed and we openly share these stories across our website and social media.

As you’d expect every production batch of pens is an improvement on the last as we learn more about new production processes, seek out new partners to work with, gain access to better technology and invest in new machinery. It takes a little bit of time, but the result makes all of the effort worth it. Plus, we are obsessed with details!

Credit to Will Halbert, Essential Journal.

Photography: Source Studio 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *