The Parisian maven of calligraphy
Long read: Dubai writer Hisham Wyne talks to Paris's favourite calligraphist Nicolas Ouchenir and realises the man's inkwell is his carefree soul. For Shawati Magazine.
He is Paris’ most coveted calligrapher, and can spend up to eleven hours a day hunched over his desk. For all that, Nicolas Ouchenir has never been formally trained in calligraphy. He prefers being an autodidact because the idea is always more important than the method to him.
Talking to Ouchenir is like trying to dam a fast swelling stream of consciousness. Words, thoughts and half formed phrases come bubbling forth in a warm French accent. Technology is not always his friend. The Skype interview should have come to fruition about an hour ago. “I’m a calligrapher,” he explains charmingly. “This technology - I sometimes forget passwords.”
When a robust virtual connection has been made, Ouchenir wants video to be switched on. He wants to invite his interviewer into his little world. The busy desk is littered with the accoutrements of his trade. French, Japanese and German calligraphy pens fill the space, as does paper stock.
He’s currently working on an important assignment for an influential client, creating flamboyant script on white card. “Today, I’m creating wedding invitations in royal blue. And I’ve built a special logo for them,” he explains, holding up gorgeous lettering to the grainy Skype camera.
We are in his studio. But that isn’t where he started. Eleven years ago, Ouchenir took over a former Parisian butchery and set up shop there. It seems a peculiar choice. “I’ve always said I was born the way I was. Doing high end work for influential clients wasn’t always in my roots. It was a case of moving up the social ladder. So, it was really interesting setting up in a butchery, and sort of coming back to my roots.”
Ouchenir was born into a middle class family. His father is a locksmith from Algeria and his mother an administrative assistant from the Pyrenees in the south of France. “When I first started working with high-end clients, it was a difficult shift for me. So being in a butchery grounded me. And also, there’s a parallel: my calligraphy tools are rather like knives. Except I use them to create, not cut.”
Nicolas Ouchenir, Paris’ pre-eminent calligrapher, has had a busy youth. He went to business school, and interned with a bank before realising finance didn’t suit him. Later, he fell in with collector César Pape. Together, they opened up a gallery behind the Academie Francaise. Other twists to the tale have seen him escape to Brazil, and then teach at the Alliance Francaise to raise money for a return ticket home. But through it all, he says he’s carried the love of letters around.
“Since being a small child, I’ve always walked around with a pen. Children, they love to play and they love sweets. For me, it was just writing. A pen was my constant companion. And I remember being super impressed every time someone signed their names with a pen.”
The discipline required for a well-formed hand seems to run in the family. “I was very impressed by my father’s writing. My father and grandfather, and all the men in my family, had beautiful letters. They were also beautiful at drawing. They used to believe that writing shows all your personality. So for me, it was an obligation to write with ink and a fountain pen from my early years, because that enables you to show your own feeling. As far as I’m concerned, if you can’t write with ink and pen, it’s because you’re afraid of making mistakes.”
It is this absence of fear; this sheer desire to express himself that makes Ouchenir fascinating. His ideas may come across as slightly arcane, but his generous, gregarious nature makes one want to immediately share his world, sit with him at his desk and talk about abstract ideas of human nature all day.
It’s a conundrum that a man so determined to share is partaking of a craft that is so inherently solitary. But Ouchenir says his inspiration is people. “I’m a social creature. I love going out often, and am in love with my friends and family. Human beings and human nature – that’s what I draw on for inspiration.”
So are romantic interests part of his inspiration? “Oh yes, that’s very important. I love to be in love. And that influences my work. I’m happy when I’m in love. It makes your life into an existence. It makes your life freer. And it makes you less selfish. I’m too heavy in my head to be alone. I love to share experiences and discovery. Even loss – I just lost my grandfather last week – is so much easier to bear when you have someone.”
But surely there’s a fly in this ointment of gregariousness. Ouchenir works with the crème de le crème of the fashion world: the likes of Cartier, Gucci, Hermes and Louis Vuitton come knocking on his door. Surely these powerful maisons would demand corporate perfection, not expressiveness? Ouchenir says corporate perfection is simply not how he works.
“My work starts before I pick up my tools. It’s about how to bring it out of myself, to mine my personality. When I’m working on a signature, whether it’s for a friend, or for Mrs Prada, I always start with trying to impress myself. The definition of calligraphy is two things. First – the science of beautiful letters. But beauty is super-subjective. The other – being a person who is trying to serve different clients and putting work out in front of the public Before finding clients, you need to find your personality. Because that informs the creative process. You bring out different elements of your personality for various clients. My mood in all my signatures is really different.”
There are tales of him working through the day and late into the night. Ouchenir nods almost shyly, holding up his thumb to camera to better display a gigantic callus. “I’m at my most creative when I’m feeling a bit exhausted and not entirely fresh. I love working when I’m a bit tired, and so like the early mornings and late nights. You have to work a lot. Calligraphy is like ballet dancing. It has rhythm. You’re dancing with the letters in your mind. The “d” or the “a” are your dance partners. It’s also like travel. When I was in India, the smell of spices and curry inspired a new script. And when I work eight or ten hours a day, my head is travelling to different places.”
The conversation thus far has been almost vaguely spiritual. Not once have lines, thickness, kerning or typefaces hovered into view. Does he not believe that calligraphy is technical? Ouchenir says the starting point is, but inspiration must soon take over.
“It’s very technical, yes. I started by people trying to ask me to work in various scripts. But it’s easy to copy established scripts. So the next time I got a request for a specific British script, I tried to do something different. I wanted to keep the character of the script and do something different. I remember, the dinner party I was doing it for was very nervous about what I was doing. I remember cutting the British flourishes in the capital letters, and instead put little touches in the lower case letters. And when the end result came out, the hotel owner in charge of the dinner party decided my script looked much more contemporary. And asked if I could please continue the same way the rest of his collateral.”
His first innovation had been a success. But he doesn’t know why. “If you had asked me the technical reasons why they liked my script, I couldn’t tell you. And a female client once told me that a script I’d done was awful. And is said. “I’m sorry. I know it’s awful, but I love it for that.”
In fact, Ouchenir believes his lack of formal training frees him from the constraints of reproducing classical scripts. “It’s a fight between concepts and an idea. When you have an idea, you want to translate it to reality. You don’t quite know how you’re going to make it, but you’re going to make it. A concept, on the other hand, is just that. A cookie cutter. People from arts schools always think in concepts. They don’t think in terms of a burning idea in their head, and how to get it out.”
By now in the interview, Ouchenir is in his element. He’s fiddling around with his tools, holding conversations with people off screen, and exerting himself to capture fleeting ideas in words. Eventually, he bursts out with, “Look, I don’t know when I’m going to die. No one does. You only live once. So lighten your soul by creating, by expressing. By bringing yourself out.”
He continues trying to explain, digging for words and analogies. “I guess what I’m saying is that formally trained people, when they’re doing something, they’re looking out for the consequences. And I actually don’t care about artistic consequences. What’s the worse that can happen? That a script doesn’t work out? If the thing I make makes people think, it doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad. I really can’t help but make it.”
But surely there must be some technical elements to his craft that he has to consider? “The first time, I just went with imagination and spirit. That’s the thing that I love. Calligraphers are like move directors – trying to express a certain idea and composition and emotion in a scene or a frame. But a lot of technical people must work with a director – for the sets and the lights and the cameras. Similarly, I have a lot of people who make it happen for me, because they are technical people.”
Calligraphy as communication is an interesting idea. So does Ouchenir believe that aesthetics don’t count at all? He gives this some thought, delving inwards with a look of concentration. “Aesthetics – well, I believe it’s all inside of me. I can’t choose a different set of aesthetics – I really feel that I have no choice but to make what I do. What I do comes out beautiful. I’m a calligrapher. I can’t do discordant, or ugly. At the back of my head, there is always the rhythm and harmonics of letters.
He’s one of those lucky people who have sufficiently mastered their craft that they can neglect technical baggage in favour of beautiful catharsis. Nicolas Ouchenir has taken calligraphy and retooled it into the art of unburdening.
Interestingly though, this spiritual man has appeared in interviews holding forth about his tools. He once spoke about a new Mont Blanc pen he’d acquired. It seems at odds with his philosophy towards his craft. So the question must be posed: how important are his tools to him?
“I can’t understand the material tool. For me, it’s nothing. I’ll give you an example – I was in a huge library to buy a book, because I was looking for an illustration inside of it. And the book cost a lot and a lot. I didn’t want a book anyway. So I just ripped out the page I needed and walked away. It was the idea I wanted. Not the material representation. I don’t care about pens. A jeweller once asked me to work with diamonds. I liked the end product because it looked beautiful. But I honestly didn’t care about the diamonds.”
All this, said without the slightest hint of pride in his cleverness. Here is an earnest man desperately trying to explain how he perceives the world. The idea is not to encourage larceny or book vandalism. It’s just that the compulsion of ideas is scorching and immediate. He continues explaining with examples from his world. “I was in an Indian village, living in a hut, for a month and a half, when this magazine asked for me. They had a huge commission for me, from one of the world’s most influential families. I told them I didn’t have any tools, or an Internet connection. I didn’t have a scanner. But I did have a notebook. And I had pieces of wood around me. From there, built a pen. And tools to draw. I used the earth for ink. And I drew. And I put it all in an envelope and I sent it by post. It was the idea they wanted. Not beautiful paper.”
Ouchenir might take creativity seriously but he’s not a tortured soul. He’s too hospitable, too generous with time and ideas for that. But does he ever look back at previous work and excoriate himself?
“No. I can’t really look back. When you create something, it’s from you. But it’s not your property. So you can’t look at it and judge it. You’re a conduit. When I’m looking back, I realise I was in a particular mood, and that influenced the end product. But I don’t spend a lot of time looking back. I prefer looking forward.”
He might not be a fan of self-criticism, but surely he has his favourites? That one project that he remembers fondly? Ouchenir becomes positively shy, hanging his head and looking away. “They’re all beautiful,” he says, almost bashfully. “I can’t choose between them. Every project has its own significance. They all have different fragrances and personalities to them. Though Renault was a client I really appreciated. They weren’t a luxury brand. And they were impressed not by my creativity but the idea that anyone could take up and understand art. People are alienated from their art because they’re afraid of themselves. When you’re afraid, you can’t pull out your feelings on a plain paper.”
It’s almost time to wrap up; we’ve been in conversation for about forty minutes. It’s the right opportunity to ask Ouchenir why calligraphy is enjoying a resurgence in a time of new media and technological prowess. What is it about painstaking handwriting?
“Do you remember the Minitel? Do you remember the fax? Do you remember the Internet? The Minitel is dead. The Internet too will die one day. After the Internet, we’ll have something else, and that too will die. I think writing is completely separate from a question of technology. It’s the other part of humanity. People keep saying writing is going to die. But if writing dies, a part of humanity dies.”
Nicolas Ouchenir the calligrapher is at the height of his powers, and the toast of Paris. Ouchenir the man is generous, warm and sometimes shy. But he seems to have achieved a measure of certainty in his beliefs and creative processes. That brings us to one final question – has he finally managed to find himself?
“I’m always trying to find myself. You must start by being young, and being curious. I’m afraid of people who become very certain about what they can do, and what they want to do, at a very early age. Too much certainty. Not enough curiosity. It’s almost like being dead. Mistakes are important. People want answers to their own existence.”