Q&A With Richard Koehler, Art Director at Retro 51

Last year I got the amazing opportunity to work with Retro 51, one of my favorite brands, to create my own special edition Tornado called The System. Before The Clicky Post even existed, the Retro 51 Tornado was my first ever “nice pen”, so to be able to do a collaboration with them was like a pen nerd’s dream come true!

During the design phase of the collaboration and over the last few years I’ve gotten to know Richard Koehler, Art Director at Retro 51. As with most things, the “behind the scenes” work often goes unknown or unnoticed by the end consumer, but I thought it would be fun to showcase and introduce Richard to the pen world. If you enjoy Retro 51 pens, he undoubtedly has had a hand in many of them…

He was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions about himself and his time at Retro 51. Enjoy!

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How long have you been with Retro 1951? How did you get a job designing cool pens?!

I have been working at Retro since September 1999, so this year will be 20 years with Retro which is hard to believe! It started as a graphic design internship class I took at the University of North Texas (UNT). I had finished a class project that had a 50s look to it and my professor thought Retro would be a good fit. In December, I told the owner my internship class was ending and the next week would be my last. He asked if I wanted to stay on and I accepted.

Nineteen years later, I'm still here and it's been a huge blessing. The job started with print design, packaging, catalogs, sale sheets, etc and grew into product design for pens and many other items over the years.

Tell us a bit about your design background...

Prior to graduating High School, I got a job helping a freelance designer make safety posters which introduced me to graphic design and Corel Draw programs. I really enjoyed it and being creative so I went to UNT and graduated in 2001 with a BFA in Communication Design with a Graphic Design emphasis (instead of advertising). Since I started as an intern, this is the only career job I have ever had.  

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How many Retro 51 pens/products have you helped design?

I don't even know how many but quite a few! (Somewhere between 200-300…) The Tornado was already being sold when I joined Retro, so I did not have a hand in its initial design, but have done numerous designs on it since. Together with our team I had a hand in designing past pens such as Double 8, Scriptmaster and a couple others I’m sure… 

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Where do you get your inspiration from?

I love art, design and illustration so in my free time I look at Instagram, Pinterest and other design/art boards. I spend too much time on there but it's my passion. 


Can you share a bit about how the design process works?

 We like to keep our design process a secret, but I will say that it involves a team looking for "cool" designs that we are excited about having or gifting to someone.

Since my early days at Retro when a project was approved, the boss would just say "cool." Whether in person or via email. Once I got the "cool" the project moved on. I don't think it's any secret to say that there are several stages in producing a design: research, presentation, designing, pre-production sampling, revisions and then production and market release.

Another detail most people don't know is after designing the pen the art has to be set up for printing which can be quite difficult and take multiple hours to prepare. If you're familiar with silk screen printing, it's like this, but on a 360 degree tapered surface. Our factory does an amazing job producing the complex designs we’ve thrown at them.

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What are your top 5 favorite designs and why?

Lift Off - Seeing the reaction to this design was awesome! It came out after Homerun (baseball design) which was a huge success and this one had an even better response. After seeing this reaction, I realized I needed to start watching the space documentaries with my wife more.

Flying Tiger & Tiger Shark - This design came out right after the Lift Off and we had no way of knowing at the time that it too would ultimately be considered an all-time fan favorite. There's also the kid in me that remembers playing army or GI Joe as a child and using this pen brings back good memories. The Tiger Shark is one of my most used Retros.

Fahrney's Signers of the Declaration of Independence - Something patriotic sparked in me when this pen came about. I had to trace every signature on the Declaration of Independence because I couldn't find good enough art to produce the pen with. It was time consuming but interesting seeing each signature in its uniqueness. One of the signatures was by someone who barely knew how to write, which made me think about what the signers might have been thinking when they signed this document.

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Nightwalkerz - Someone outside of Retro suggested this idea and was proposed in early August so it was one of the fastest turnarounds we've ever done (it was released in late September).  I was really happy with how the scene on the pen turned out, although it was a very challenging piece to put together. The stress of a short timeline plus the desire to make sure it's good (a pressure that is always there) was very paralyzing to some effect, so once it was complete I felt a great sense of accomplishment. Also I never bought one because I’m not into zombies personally and I always regretted it. I was talking with a Retro fan and mentioned something to the sort and a week or so later I was gifted a Nightwalkerz. I thought it was beyond kind of a fan to do that for me, plus the gift had come full circle.

Space Race - The reaction to this design was very fulfilling for a designer. As I mentioned before there can be a lot of stress to make sure the design is right and how will it be received and the positive feedback was very fulfilling. Also getting to look through all of NASA's photos, diagrams and schematics is a lot of fun. It's also very humbling to think how many brilliant people there are to have launched these behemoth rockets into space only later to walk on the moon and make it back safely. My brain can't comprehend how they did that.

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If I could add one more...Vintage Surf. I watched Endless Summer countless times and surfed a little while in high school and college so it brings back good memories, plus this is considered one of the "holy grails" by Retro fans to have in the collection.

It's hard to narrow down to just five. These are some of my everyday carries: Shark Alley, The System (of course!), Smithsonian Dino Fossil, Ebony Bamboo, Stealth, Lincoln FP and the Hex-o-matic Pencil. 


Do you have any Retro 51 discontinued products that you totally loved and wish would come back?

One of my favorite designs was the Kaligraffiti (click-top pen with spray paint nozzle top) also produced with the Disney license for their Bloc28 (street influenced) line. We felt the pen would be well received and the owner patented the design and graciously put my name on the patent. I had ideas of how we could continue with this design but unfortunately they weren't meant to be. 


What is your favorite non-Retro 51 pen? (Blasphemy!)

I really like Pigma Microns to draw with. I also like Le Pen, very similar with a fine line. 


What has been your "coolest" experience while working with Retro 51? (Example: meeting a celebrity you admire, a cool trip, getting to see stuff that normal people don't, etc)

The friendships that have developed over the years and traveling around the world is by far the coolest experience. I am beyond blessed to get to work at Retro doing creative work but working with the Retro team, developing friendships and traveling bring the most joy. 

From dining with the factory in Taipei to getting to meet and befriend Retros fans and having happy hour with them, it's a lot of fun. Retro has sent me on multiple trips to Hong Kong and Taipei and also a couple trips to Germany and France. 

On my honeymoon in Italy my wife and I met with a Retro contact and we toured his factory and dined with him. One specific memory and experience is the ride on the Star Ferry in Hong Kong. It's just a boat ride from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island but it's a simple pleasure I do even if I'm staying on Hong Kong island. I remember the first time I took the ferry with George the owner and how excited he was about riding on it. He passed that onto me. The factory in Taipei also took us up this mountain where we went to have tea overlooking Taipei City. It was an amazing experience sitting there with them, learning about drinking tea and just chatting. As our packaging says about the Tornado, they are "Made [by our friends] in Taiwan" and there couldn't be more truth to that. 

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The "New-ish" Zebra V-301 Fountain Pen Review

Oddly enough, this pen is definitely a bit on the obscure side in our community it seems. Being a sub-$5 fountain pen, it doesn’t get a lot of press.

Sometime last year I saw a Tweet from Zebra about how they had changed the V-301 to have a different, more hooded style nib so I wanted to check it out.

I recall buying a Zebra V-301 a long time ago from a Walgreens drug store. Probably my FIRST fountain pen ever actually. (wow, that realization just came to mind…crazy) This was way before The Clicky Post or my foray into fountain pens at all. It looked interesting so I bought it and tried it out. At the time I didn’t quite “understand” fountain pens and probably tried to use it for something like writing on a Post-it (which totally stinks with fountain pens) and then went back to my ballpoint or gel at the time. Needless to say, it didn’t stick with me and was nearly forgotten.

This seriously is a pen I give little to no thought to, but after seeing their post it made me want to give it a fair shake. Is it a good pen? Zebra is still making them, so they must be selling a decent number of them? And for 5 bucks?…

The V-301 is definitely a made for the pen aisle sort of pen as it comes in a blister pack like a gel or ballpoint. That isn’t a criticism, but it isn’t meant to be fancy, and that’s ok.

I’ve got to admit, all of the stainless series pens from Zebra like the 301s, 402s, 701s in their various forms are really good looking pens. The shiny metal look gives them a presence and appeal, like they look like a nice pen. Maybe even a little futuristic.

Performance wise they are usually pretty good, but are probably one of the better looking cheap pens on the market. Not to mention how the F-701 has been taking the EDC crowd by storm for years since you could hack them to fit a Fisher Space refill. (I have a whole post about some hacks from a few years ago)

Even though the V-301 is made with a lot of metal components, they are really thin which makes it super light weight. Inked up it only comes in at 0.5 oz with the cap and 0.2 oz uncapped. 0.2! That is so light.

Although, even with it’s airy composition it is pretty comfortable. It is a good size and the length fits nicely in the hand.

The grip section is a molded plastic with ribs/grooves throughout which provides some texture. For my grip I find that I try to put my fingers closer to the nib where they meet a pretty sharp dropoff where the cap seats when closed. This is a pretty sharp edge and not very comfortable, so it forces me to move my grip back a little more than I’d prefer.

Along with the fountain pen the blister pack comes with two cartridges. One of these is touted as a “bonus” which is nice. Shoot, most expensive pens only give you one… +1 Zebra.

These cartridges are a proprietary size, so no swapping internationals in here. If someone really wanted to they could syringe fill the old carts with their own ink.

And, being a strange size and a really inexpensive pen I highly doubt that there is a converter that you can purchase to go with it.

The packaging says to push the cartridge until you “hear the click”; that thing wasn’t going in super easy, so I ended up pushing the cart against the top of my desk until it snapped in.

Next, the instructions say to give the pen “a few shakes” to get the ink flowing… a few didn’t really cut it. I decided to do quick sharp “shakes” in intervals of 10. “1, 2, 3, 4…. 10” to try and get it going.

It took 60 shakes.

How did it write? Ok I suppose for a sub $5 pen. I wouldn’t call it great, but ok. It is a pretty dry writer (for me), and at certain angles it is on the scratchy side. But from other angles it is glassy and pretty good.

I’ve seen some product ratings for the pen where people had a lot of skipping with theirs. Some slow starts with mine, but not problematic in my experience. It may vary from pen to pen with these…

It works, but I wouldn’t say it impressed or surprised me in any way. No, “Wow! For $5 this thing is awesome.”

From a line width standpoint I’d put it in the “fine” range (it doesn’t say on the packaging but read 0.7mm online). My personal preference in Japanese pens is somewhere in the medium range, particularly with light pens. If it is really light and really fine, I find it takes some effort for me to get the sort of flow and lines that I like. For someone who really likes narrower line widths, this would probably be ok.

Being one of the cheapest, refillable fountain pens on the market it is hard to give it too many gripes. It looks cool and it does write ok. What’s wrong with that?

Would I recommend this pen as someones first fountain pen? Only if they were willing to buy a couple of other cheap pens to try alongside it...

When someone is used to writing with ultra smooth ballpoints or really rich dark lines from a rollerball or gel, trying out their “first” fountain pen experience is really touchy. People already have preconceived notions on how a pen should behave and the fountain pen is an unknown. They may think it should feel better than those other pens they like and are used to or that their mind is going to be blown when using it and will instantly be in love.

I think back to my original Walgreens V-301 experience mentioned before… I had my favorite gel pens that I loved and that worked well for me. I inked up and tried the V-301 and was immediately indifferent to it or maybe even didn’t like it and never went back to it. It didn’t have enough in common with my regular writing for me to maintain an attraction, where a different starter fountain pen might.

I must be an exception to the rule of “coming back” to fountain pens since, well, here we are at The Clicky Post and I’m now writing reviews on fountain pens. If I went back to my old Walgreens V-301 trying self and told him that I bet he’d say I’m crazy.

Being only $5 I would say someone could be safe to try it with very little risk, but would certainly put some caveats in there that it isn’t the Rolls Royce of pens and to keep an open mind. Probably a GREAT pen to get for someone to learn how fountain pens work for extremely cheap that doesn’t want to spend a lot, or even for a kid that wants to have their own.

What are your thoughts on the V-301?

Baron Fig Squire - Blackout Edition Giveaway! WINNERS!

Thanks everyone for the turnout for the giveaway! Excited to be sending a couple of these Blackout edition Squire pens to their new homes…

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And the winners are… Matt and Jacob!

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Connect with me through the Contact page this week to claim your prizes!


Special Coupon for Baron Fig: If you weren’t one of the winners but have been looking at getting something from Baron Fig, you can save $10 off with a coupon from my referral link. This isn't a sponsorship link, but can help me to purchase more goods for review (and do more giveaways!) from the folks at Baron Fig.