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Small pen, big impact

Five facts about an all-rounder - in fashion, in Hollywood, in keeping records.

At a length of 174 millimetres and a diameter of 7 millimetres, its standard dimensions are seemingly negligible and rather unremarkable.  But what does standard mean anyway? After all, over its centuries-long career the pencil has not only evolved into one of the most important objects on desks around  the  world,  but  it  has  repeatedly  caused a  sensation  in  other areas  as  well –be  it as  a  fashion inspiration, the object of a legal dispute or a record holder. An everyday hero: here are five surprising pencil anecdotes from around the globe.

1. The pencil skirt: when fashion “learned to walk”

A trend that emphasises the beauty of the feminine silhouette while also allowing wearers to make a dynamic entrance: it made French designer Christian Dior famous after World War II and turned him into a pioneering legend. The creator of the New Look is also responsible for the modern version of the pencil skirt:  a form-fitting skirt that ends at knee length, enabling the wearer to move relatively freely. The original model, which was designed by Dior’s compatriot Paul Poiret around the turn of the 20th century, was an ankle-length skirt whose hem ideally had the same measurement as the waist. It was very difficult to walk in these creations, which allowed for little more than tiptoeing.  The attractive yet impractical design was known as a “hobble skirt” – until Christian Dior drastically shortened it and added a pleat to provide even more range of motion, thus inventing the “pencil skirt”.

2. A pair of pencils: the greatest art heist in British history?

What began as a small act of revenge was to culminate in a major legal battle. Angry over a lost copyright dispute, London graffiti artist Cartrain stole a pack of pencils from Damien Hirst’s room-sized “Pharmacy” installation at the Tate Modern gallery in 2009. The 17-year-old graffiti artist then proposed a swap on a wanted poster:  the mini-exhibit in exchange for his collages, which had been seized by Hirst. Unfortunately, the stolen goods just happened to be a true curiosity:  a rare treasure from the “Faber-Castell dated 1990 Mongol 482” series. The sometime grandmaster of controversial conceptual art was not amused. Hirst accused the teenager of art theft valued at GBP 500,000 (which would amount to around EUR 560,000 today) –the highest sum that had ever been disputed in the UK at that time. The youngster was indeed arrested and subsequently released on bail. Six months later the Metropolitan Police dropped all charges against Cartrain.  

3. The super talent: everything except writing

German Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck used a pencil as a pipe tamper; legendary Tonight Show host Johnny Carson sat at his studio desk and gesticulated with a pencil that had an eraser at both ends for safety reasons. While gardeners use the graphite-filled wooden stick as an effective insect deterrent, car makers know it as a valuable test instrument. The eloquently named "Wolff-Wilborn surface scratch test" is used to check the hardness of paint by applying pencils with different degrees of hardness to a surface at a 45° angle.

4. The “loftiest” pencil

Not many writing utensils are used 400 kilometres above the Earth –and still work. Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli launched the first of his three space missions accompanied by a special “Twice” model from Faber-Castell.  He flew the space shuttle to the ISS for the first time in 2007 in order to coordinate exterior work on the internationally manned space station. Because “work in space requires constant note-taking”, Nespoli, who was 50 years old at the time, used a version of the multifunctional device that had been specially adapted for astronauts and which had to be at hand at all times and able to write even in zero gravity and in any position. 

5. An incisive business model

Who has ever taken the time to carefully consider “the artisanal craft of pencil sharpening”? Cartoonist David Rees, who lives in the picturesque Hudson River Valley north of New York City, has done just that, his reference book with the above title becoming a cult phenomenon.  Over more than 200 pages, the 45-year-old Rees relays the pertinent aspects of sharpening a pencil by hand (never electrically!). Readers absorb his explanations with equal amounts of disbelief and fascination: Is it nonsense, or a fervent plea to slow down and practice mindfulness in these hectic times? Rees skilfully walks the line between the two, as do his subsequent offerings: For the equivalent of EUR 30 (USD 35), he sharpens his customers’ pencils and sends them back along with the shavings and a certificate exclaiming “Caution, dangerously sharp!” His latest coup: He will provide the pencil for a price starting at USD 500. The pencil business, honed to the extreme. Learn more at: www.artisanalpencilsharpening.com 

The Pencil Room

Kerstin Schulz created a complete room ou of thousands of green Castell 9000 pencils