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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