An art nouveau castle in the southern town of Stein with marble-clad hallways and lacquered floors is the centre of one of Germany’s oldest stationery empires. “History has always been a strong part of the company,” says Count Anton Wolfgang von Faber-Castell from the satinwood-panelled room where his grandmother, Baroness Ottilie, once conducted her correspondence.
The count is the eighth generation of his family to run Faber-Castell. In the 1980s he spent a week in the company’s archive, which inspired him to resurrect ideas from his ancestors. “Things that were done by the fourth generation were absolutely state of the art,” he says.
He’s even dredged up old family rivalries: in the 1990s, Faber-Castell sued Staedler for claiming to be the world’s oldest pencil maker. Though Friedrich Staedler started making pencils in Nuremberg in 1662, guild rules prevented the family from setting up a company until 1835. Meanwhile, Kaspar Faber skirted the rules to set up shop just outside of Nuremberg in Stein in 1761. Faber-Castell won the injunction.
Faber-Castell relaunched its brand in the 1990s, resurrecting the jousting knights image as its logo and adding the company’s founding date. The firm also introduced its Graf von Faber-Castell luxury line, starting with the €195 “perfect pencil”. Though management initially balked at the idea of the pricey implement, the count got his way. It has fans in high places: in 2009, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, sent one to Barack Obama. Industrial designer Heinrich Stukenkemper says that the aim is to create a product line that evokes a different era. “It’s about taking history and putting it into today,” he says.
The count is also looking to the future, diversifying away from regular pencils by breaking into the cosmetic pencil business and focusing efforts in areas such as art and crafts. Now pencils form 30 per cent of the company’s sales.
He’s also succeeded in innovating the humble pencil to combat the mass-produced glut coming out of China. Faber-Castell designers and engineers spent three years trying to put his idea for a grip pencil into practice. In 2001 the company introduced the grip 2001, a silver triangular-shaped pencil with 156 non-slip black grip dots. Made in a factory just down the road from the castle, it takes 10 days to produce. “There is always something to be optimised if you focus on these details,” says the count. “Many small steps create a big step.”