The journey of design

Published in Wanted 14 February 2017

Montblanc creative director Zaim Kamal on designing for young professionals and creating the perfect sketchbook .

Montblanc creative director Zaim Kamal could be accused of having a relationship — with his sketch book. “My wife makes fun of me,” he says. “I draw all the time. When the new sketch book arrives, she says it spends more time in my bed than she does.”

The sketching is probably the reason he doesn’t stress so easily. “I used to drive my parents crazy. I doodled all the time and was obsessed with detailing. It’s refreshing to sit in a team that shares the same traits, and to work for a maison that gives us freedom to be designers and to explore ideas albeit within very clear guidelines. Finding the solution is up to us.”

Although he’s been filling sketch books since college, Kamal’s never managed to find the perfect one so when Montblanc began working on the stationery line in 2015 he grabbed the opportunity to create it. Just a little larger than A4, comprising of about 100 pages, the Montblanc Fine Stationery Sketch Books are handmade in Florence. “They used to bring me samples to test. I used to bend them and drop them and if they didn’t open completely flat, they were rejected. I also used to listen to the sound of the paper. They used to think I was completely insane…but the detail must be perfectly right, there must be a functionality that you don’t question. This is in everything we do — we want people to have lifetime companions in our products.

“Using a Montblanc pencil doesn’t make me a better designer but I know it’s going to be as functional as I am and it’s never going to let me down. You imprint your personality on the product rather than the product imprinting on you — be it the bag, the watch, the writing instrument, even the cufflink.”

A fashion designer who trained in the early 90s, Kamal says in those days the job of accessory designer did not exist. “Whoever designed shoes well, designed shoes and whoever designed bags well, designed bags — it was always an add-on to your job. I figured out that the accessory is a very integral part of style and that it was going to get stronger, because fashion items don’t suit all bodies. A good accessory is much more universal.”

When he joined Montblanc in 2013, Kamal was able to draw on his experience to work on totally different categories and his early training at Central Saint Martins proved invaluable. “We were taught that while the idea and the finished product are important, the most important thing is the process.”
On that note, Kamal always has his watch set to London time. “It’s my grounding point. No matter where I am (in the world), whenever I look at it, I can judge where I am, where I’m going. If you can do that in the creative process too, you’ll never get lost. You might not get it right, but you’ll never get lost.”

Kamal works periodically with the design teams who specialise in crafting timepieces, leather goods and writing instruments at the Montblanc manufacture in Le Locle and Villeret, Florence and Hamburg respectively, or sends them photographs of his sketches for comment before getting into the technical drawings and 3-D renderings. He says the ability to work with them directly has taught him new skills he would never have learnt in a design studio. Having designed watches previously, he says he would often be unable to find a connection between his drawing and the prototype.
At Montblanc, there is constant dialogue among the movement makers, case makers, and research and development department. Once they’ve discussed the idea, and decide on a movement that determines the thickness of the case, the work begins. “It’s never just a paper design given to someone else. Watches are more complex but for me the learning was incredible…the highly complicated mechanical structures, the incredible detail. In a watch, 0,1mm makes a huge difference.”

1858 Chrono Tachymeter

1858 Chrono Tachymeter

Does he find that restrictive? “No. There is so much detail and precision, the more you work on it the more freedom you get because you have to dig in to really see and make the differences.”
When Kamal joined Montblanc, one of the first things they did was analyse the brand in terms of design as well as their clients and their requirements and looked five years ahead to determine the functionality they may require then. “Since 2011, we have seen the emergence of sartorial elegance. Young professionals wearing what their fathers or grandfathers used to but with a twist. Cufflinks unbuttoned, a watch with bracelets, trousers shorter, suits slimmer. It was important to address this paradigm shift for the contemporary urban professional across the categories in order to stay relevant,” he says.

Adding tactility to the products was key. The leather goods, for example, have the same functionality but are much more refined. Proportions have changed, and they are more tactile and less static, without losing any of the Montblanc codes. “Over the years, I figured out I could trick the eyes, I could trick the ears, I could trick the smell, and the sense, but I could never trick touch. Coming from fashion, I mean, we tried…it was very much about tactility. Never forgetting our values of craftsmanship, innovation and excellence, we’ve tried to instill that without compromising functionality, finish and quality. This has been an amazing journey to show people you can have it all.”

What does he enjoy most about his job? “To see all the work that goes in, and get the results, the positive feedback. You don’t really realise it when you’re in it. The same effort goes into designing a pair of cufflinks as into a timepiece, even though a watch is ultimately more complex. It’s the same iteration. We find that it adheres to our value of excellence,” says Kamal.

“And I love the pioneering spirit of Montblanc — if you know where you’re going you can find your way back. In terms of job satisfaction, whenever we do a good product, no matter the category, it’s exhilarating.”

Among Montblanc’s launches at the annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva in January were extensions of the 1858 Collection that pay tribute to the manufacture’s Minerva heritage. We loved the Montblanc 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter Limited Edition 100 but the Montblanc 1858 Automatic Dual Time will do nicely too, thank you.

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