Tastes vary. I don’t think there is a universal “ugly.” I find the Lamy Safari attractive, personally, but then I like using the pen, and I like modern design. But aesthetics are personal. The Safari will not appeal to everyone. Its design is a little bit out there.
But the Safari was never meant to appeal to everyone. It was designed and targeted to a particular niche, and I wonder if being a little controversial might even have been part of the plan.
The Safari was issued in 1980, and Lamy credits the design to Entwicklungsgruppe Mannheim, an outside firm. Lamy names two principal designers. One is Wolfgang Fabian, an industrial designer who went on to design more pens for Lamy. The other is Bernt Spiegel, not a designer but rather a professor of marketing psychology.
What Lamy wanted in the Safari was a school pen for older students. Lamy says the Safari was for “the new, young Lamy target group: the ten to fifteen-year-olds.” Lamy describes a Safari as a writing instrument that “is made of colourful, extremely resistant ABS plastic and with its unusual shape unmistakably signals robustness and reliability. And perhaps a touch of adventure, too.”
Consider that. Lamy wanted to develop a new market in preteens and young teens. The Safari wasn’t born because a designer had a dream of a beautiful new pen. It was created to sell to adolescents. That group doesn’t necessarily want things that are traditional (“boring”). Adolescents want a style that isn’t for little kids, and isn’t for people their parents’ age. If a product alienates or repels traditionalists, that’s probably a plus for many preteens and teens.
What defines the Safari look? It is plastic, but a lot of pens are. The Safari is colorful ABS plastic molded into a chunky shape that doesn’t downplay but emphasizes the plastic material. The design looks a little industrial, but in a playful way. It invokes school and office, but not with dour results. The design is fun. It is humorous. It is colorful. It is youthful, but not childish.
When I see the red, yellow and blue Safaris, I think fondly of children’s toys, like LEGO bricks, and also of items you’d find in a stationery store, like paper clips and spiral notebooks. I suspect those references are not accidental. ABS plastic is glossy, tough and impact resistant, and as a result it is often used in toys and sports equipment.
Yet there is something so right about the Safari design, and the pen is such a good, inexpensive tool, that its appeal stretches much farther than the original preteen market. People I’ve met who grew up in Germany tend to think of it as a school pen. But elsewhere, it’s seen as a pen for people of any age.
For an adult, admittedly, some of the school pen touches may be less than ideal. The triangular grip can teach or enforce a proper grip, but it doesn’t make the pen comfortable for everyone. I can’t really mind a little discomfort, myself, because I think that grip is so nicely shaped it’s actually beautiful. Women wear high heels; we can deal with a little discomfort.
Lamy points out that the Safari is robust. In part that’s the material. But one also can see how carefully it was designed and engineered. It needed to be inexpensive. But it was never designed as a cheap piece of plastic. Ask a user: the quality is excellent. Your Safari will not fall apart on you, and it can take very hard use.
The designers paid attention to each element of the pen. Look at the filling system, for example. The converter features tiny nubs to fit firmly into notches inside the section, to ensure a tight fit and prevent messy ink spills. And the converter is also styled like the rest of the pen: fun, with the colorful red knob.
I love to see any utilitarian object so carefully designed, and lifted above the ordinary. The Safari is one of those objects for me. It may not be your own personal style, but it has style to spare.
1. Lamy’s quoted comments on the Safari, plus its identification of its designers, were taken from the Lamy website as of the date of this post, and can be found at this link. The complete quote is as follows: “The new LAMY safari is a school fountain pen like no other. It is in a class of its own. At the beginning of the 1980s this is the message which quickly spreads in the new, young Lamy target group: the ten to fifteen-year-olds. Their wish to have their own “writing tool” specially designed for them is ideally embodied in the LAMY safari. It is made of colourful, extremely resistant ABS plastic and with its unusual shape unmistakably signals robustness and reliability. And perhaps a touch of adventure, too. The LAMY safari becomes a real international success when further writing systems and product colours are added and its avant-garde shape also finds high acceptance among adults.”
2. LEGO is a trademark of the LEGO Group, which does not sponsor, authorize or endorse this web site.