Barry Rubin closed his upscale pen store on the 45th floor of the IDS Center when the recession hit and choked off his corporate business.
But the art collector and former accountant hasn’t given up on selling writing utensils.
“That was a standard pen store, and I needed to reinvent myself,” he said.
Now, instead of selling pricey fountain pens to law firms and brokerages, Rubin, who turned 70 on Friday, is betting there’s a different set of buyers for a $200 pen that’s also a piece of contemporary art.
When his corporate orders were disappearing, Rubin saw that urban vinyl art — Japanese-influenced statues and toys — was still popular and selling. So not long after he closed Ink, his shop, he decided to create a series of limited edition pens designed by artists.
He talked Portland, Ore.-based artist Michael Willmott into designing the first one, and now they’ve revealed “The Creator,” a rollerball pen — plus a slide-top box — covered in intricate red, black, yellow and orange art.
Willmott, a former Hot Wheels designer for Mattel who with his wife, Thuy, designs for several big companies and is an artist besides, agreed to the collaboration because he thought the box gave him enough space to create something worthwhile.
“I would almost call it like tattoo art,” Rubin said. “We are taking the whole pen world into a new genre.”
Starting probably this week, they will take orders on a crowdfunding site for 30 days. If they don’t get commitments from 500 people — the manufacturer’s minimum production run — the whole thing gets called off and nobody’s credit card gets charged. Rubin hopes to sell more than 500.
The price? The first 125 will sell for $195 each, the next 125 for $210, and the rest for $245. Rubin and Willmott will split the profit and have sold about 50 pens so far on Facebook. All the pens will be numbered.
“It takes someone with imagination to get it,” Rubin said. “Lots of people do, but some don’t.”
It’s been a long road for Rubin. About the time he closed Ink, his mother died, he went through a divorce and one of his best friends died. Then the tsunami off the coast of Japan in 2011 swamped the factory in China where the molds for “The Creator” were kept. He lost $12,000 when the molds were lost in the water, and he had to start over.
“That really set me back,” Rubin said.
But now he’s optimistic. The economy is strong enough to support these types of purchases, in Rubin’s estimation, and he envisions a signature pen in a striking box as the type of thing that even young people wedded to their smartphones will want sitting on their desk at work or at home.
“There’s a lot of wow factor to this,” he said. “Nobody says that about a pen.”
Also, the collectible pen market is doing just fine, said Eddie Kallman, owner of Airline International, a firm in El Paso, Texas, that sells pens for anywhere from $10 to $10,000.
Expensive pens are usually made in limited editions, but what Rubin and Willmott are doing is different because it’s actually art, instead of pens based on a theme.
“His falls into a certain segment of art,” Kallman said. “Barry’s edition reminds me of Keith Haring-type art.”
Kallman recently made a special run of 300 black pens printed with green and red chilis and accented in chrome. He used the same company Rubin used — Retro 51. The chili pepper pens are tasteful and solidly built, but they won’t be mistaken for art.
Kallman is always looking for new concepts, and will be watching to see how Rubin’s project goes in the next month or so.
“I’m anxious to see how it performs,” Kallman said. “I feel it’s going to be a big hit.”