Wednesday, 18 August 2010


I've seen two things in the last couple of weeks that have unsettled me. Not disturbed, just unsettled. One was the Cow Leg Trouser from our marvellous Retroprogressive feature. The other was this story about artisanal pencil sharpening:

"With an electric pencil sharpener, a pencil is meat," Rees said. "It's this thoughtless, Brutalist aesthetic. For me, it's almost a point of pride that I would be slower than an electric pencil sharpener."

This is how Rees' artisanal pencil sharpening works: You might send him your favorite pencil, but Rees more often selects and sharpens a classic No. 2 pencil for his clients, he promises, "carefully and lovingly." He slides the finished pencil's very sharp tip into a specially-sized segment of plastic tubing, then puts the whole pencil in a larger, firmer tube that looks like it belongs in a science experiment. Throw it at a wall, he says, and it won't break. The cost? $15.


So far, Rees is the leader in the field. "Nobody else is doing what I do," he said. "I guarantee an authentic interaction with your pencil. What mechanical pencil sharpener can say that? The X-ACTO XLR 1818? The Royal 16959T? Don't make me laugh."

"I'm going to have this nice, authentic, considered reaction with your pencil," Rees said. "I just want to treat it with respect..."

Both of these things - the Cow Leg Trouser and the artisanal pencil sharpening - may have been embarked upon in a mood of high seriousness or they may be elaborate jokes, but whatever the intention I like the note they hit: internally plausible but externally absurd. The closest analogous thing I can think of is Duchamp's Fountain. In which case perhaps they're both art? If so, they must be very good - contemporary art is always threatening to unsettle but, for me at least, it doesn't usually do half as good a job as these.


  1. Brilliantly funny! How absurdly arty - and curiously anal too...

  2. awesome! love a bit of bloody-minded mentalness. I too want to have 'authentic interactions' with my office stationary.

  3. Susan, I'm intrigued to discover what the words 'curiously anal' appended to a post of mine will do for its Google search appearances. Could be interesting and not in a Freudian way.

    Worm, I've decided to have my Google Android phone hand-polished with beeswax. Never mind the sheen, think of the aroma...

  4. I once attended an adult course in art and spent 20 minutes of the first lesson learning the correct way to sharpen a pencil, so I can appreciate where this man is coming from.

    Of course, when it comes to slow points we mustn't forget to mention Dalton Ghetti

  5. Ian: What are the dos and don'ts? Is waste a factor? Is sharpness of point the main parameter of success? And Ghetti: quite amazing stuff.

  6. From memory, never use a pencil sharpener, always use a sharp craft knife. Don't move the knife, instead hold it steady while moving the pencil - always towards you (I know, H&S creeps in everywhere). Aim for an even concentricity; the cone ratio of revealed graphite, h/d, should be within the range 2.7 to 3.9, where d is the base diameter, and h the height. To test if a pencil is ready, throw it against a wall - it should stick. Sharpen several pencils of the same grade before commencing any work...