From stationery, lifestyle products, to personal accessories, these metallic designer goods all carry a distinctive, refined European flare of luxury and sophistication. Upon closer examination, it can be seen that meticulous craftsmanship has gone into creating the linear form of the pens, the polishing on the surface of the trays, or the construction of the cutleries. This is the Taiwanese brand that has been generating enormous traction both in domestic and foreign markets in recent years, ANTOU.
ANTOU began as a collaboration between a metal processing factory located at Antou Lane, Changhua County in Central Taiwan, known for its solid strengths in processing, and an innovative, creative designer. After completing his master’s degree in product design, Yen Chen Chang, the aforementioned designer, joined forces with Ying-Fen Sung, who hails from a background in international trade and owns Dicas Metal Co., Ltd. with clients coming from major brands from across the globe.
The partnership that marked the beginning of ANTOU
“At the beginning, Sung wanted to create some product displays for an international exhibition, and three designers, myself included, had taken on this one-stop visual to product design project,” said Yen Chen. Though Dicas was a major supplier to European and American brands and its OEM portfolio spans industrial components to metallic logos of luxury cars and parts of designer bags, confidentiality agreement prevented these works to be shown. Needing to display Dicas’ technical competences through alternative products, Sung had reached out to Yen Chen.
Hence, they divided metal processing into five areas: stationery and souvenirs, electronic appliances, furniture, and cutleries, and designed more than 30 products. Having no budget constraints nor sales pressure from sketches to prototyping, the designers worked on all aspects of design to showcase the products’ craftsmanship and industrial strength.
Just as expected, the international exhibition was a resounding success and Dicas’ technical strengths impressed many foreign buyers. Though Dicas received many orders, Sung began to wonder, “Though our processing skills are superb, we don’t have our own brand and Taiwan is still absent from the international market. Though we work diligently, we aren’t always guaranteed any reward for our efforts.” And she became determined to develop her own brand!
Dicas is an upstream supplier to many small-scaled, family-owned metal processors in Antou Lane. An invisible processing value chain is found within the lane, where a product is often created as a result of a collective effort. As long as orders continue to arrive upstream, revenues could also be shared with downstream small-scale factories. Therefore, the new brand was given the name ANTOU, which is not only the name of their location, but also means “source of the water” in Mandarin, in the hopes of leading the value chain through creating designer products in an endless, circle of life.
Creating brand positioning among diverse products
Located in an area of comprehensive industry chain and long-term vendor partnerships, ANTOU is able to maintain excellent control over the entire metal processing procedures and techniques. Nevertheless, having access to such a competent value chain has also led to new problems – what products to make and how to shape brand positioning?
Moving from “expo displays” to “mass-produced products”, the team is required to consider channels, target audiences, and transportation costs among other factors. After checking and integrating their resources, the team also exchanged experiences and observations acquired from attending international expos. The duo then decided to focus on their familiar favorites – gifts and souvenirs. From there, the team decided to target “stationery”, which is widely enjoyed by the international market and has a good growth potential.
Manufacturing skills provide the strongest support for innovative pen design.
ANTOU launched PenC in 2017. From observing factory machinery and their structures, the writing tip has been designed into a claw-like fixture that works with hundreds of ballpoint refills from different brands. “People’s writing habit is actually based on the writing tip. Some prefer Japanese gel-ink, while others prefer fountain pens.” The fixture design works with different writing habits, allowing for reuse and reduces waste.
Countless efforts, including various metals and processing techniques, had gone into adjusting the writing tip to allow for diverse refill sizes. Finally, a flexible fixture was created that secures the writing tip in place. In 2019, the pen was further updated to accommodate the widely used G2 ink refill in Japan, thereby helping the brand to penetrate the Japanese market and generating more than NT$2 million on a local crowdfunding site.
Sustainable management: optimized experience & expanding product lines
Since its inception in 2017, ANTOU has launched various stylish stationery items, each of which having won the Golden Pin Design Award. To make the brand more sustainable, ANTOU has come up with two important strategies, “continued optimization through market feedback” and “cost control and product expansions”.
Take their multi-functional pens for instance. Currently, ANTOU offers Pen S, which has a rounded body, and Pen C, crafted with an angular body. Small adjustments were made based on user feedback even after their launch; for example, to make Pen C more wear resistant and durable, hard anodizing and frosting were adopted for its surface coating from generic anodizing and paint. Besides market-specific product adjustments, user feedback regarding size and weight were also accepted, and a solution in the form of Pen C mini was offered in this year.
An equally important strategy includes cost control and product expansions. By mixing Sung’s years of experience and knowledge in processing and international trade with Yen Chen’s design skills, the W stationery items are created from three modules and can be further processed to become 12 distinct products that include cord organizers, trays, paper weights and stationery holder. On top of saving costs, ANTOU can also rapidly expand its product offering to accommodate for market expansions.
All products in the W series carries the same design element and can be stacked together to achieve an elegant and consistent look. By using different processing techniques, the objects are also more functional and better serve the preference and need for each user.
Having thought of the products rubbing against one another while being stacked, the surface of the metal has gone through hard anodizing treatment to prevent scratches from forming. In addition, after taking the direction of the milling machine’s cutting process into consideration, a ripple-like silhouette was given to the tray.
A mutual desire for product quality leads design and production to work hand-in-hand.
When asked to elaborate on the mediations between design and production, Yen Chen admitted, “There will always be a struggle between design and production. But Sung knows “the kind of quality that designers want” and she is always willing to try new things. I think this is the most valuable and beneficial part of our partnership.” On the other hand, Sung laughed, “It’s not like I can work with just about any designer! I choose to work with Yen Chen because I love his designs.”
There may be opposing viewpoints from designers and production personnel during the product development process. But in ANTOU’s case, Sung has frequently participated in international expos in the past, and besides having a unique eye for products, she is also committed to quality. Coming from a trading background, she lacked technical expertise at the beginning but quickly made up for it by researching technologies and requiring all employees to have hands-on processing skills. To achieve even higher standards, not only does Sung participate in tests and machinery enhancements herself, but she also designs machinery tracks based on her craftsmen’s experience. This pursuit for quality allows her to pay more attention to design details, thereby securing their partnership.
Alternatively, the design blueprints also highlight a designer’s understanding of the production processes. Yen Chen understands the limitations in every processing technique, and by reflecting this understanding in his designs, ANTOU is able to save processing costs and to create unique product characteristics. Production cost, the most important element in product development, is also carefully saved through the designer’s partnership with production personnel to create modular designs that allow for further expansion and product innovations.
“It would be terrific if your design could be liked by even one-tenth of the world. It also took centuries for European brands to get to where they are today.” ANTOU acknowledges that it takes time to build a brand; getting different countries to enjoy your products at price points accepted by the market is a laborious process. Rather than being a fad, ANTOU wishes for long-term sustainability. By using their respective expertise, the ANTOU duo join forces to create products that they love.
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