The Parisian Calligrapher Elevating Handwriting to an Art Form
Nicolas Ouchenir spends his days writing, but he’s not a writer. From his Paris atelier, the calligrapher puts pen to paper, gingerly spelling out names and addresses; practicing alphabets of his own making; and experimenting with new letters, flourishes, and blots. He often dips his pen in a pot of ink and flings it toward the paper,
He became a calligrapher in the early 2000s, after teaching himself the art while working at a gallery and creating invitations for its openings and dinners. Now quite sought-after for his skills, Ouchenir counts major fashion and luxury brands among his clients, crafting bespoke alphabets for the likes of Chanel, Marc Jacobs, Christian Dior, and Cartier, to name a few. For each Paris Fashion Week, he pens over 15,000 invitations, all by himself.
“Doesn’t your hand get tired?” I ask Ouchenir when we meet recently; he’s in town to give a calligraphy master class in celebration of Raffles Hotels at TEFAF New York. The calligrapher shows me a black-and-blue knuckle—the aftermath of four hours of writing the day before. He assures me it’s not painful while he’s writing, though later, it hits him as he’s going to sleep. But the physical strain is not the hard part.
Ouchenir compares his profession to that of a dancer. While anyone can dance at weddings or in clubs, he notes, few can do what we see on stage at the ballet. Like dancers, and athletes, too, calligraphers must train. They also tend to obsess over their art. Ouchenir says that it can take up to eight hours for him to create a new letter. And while the traditions of calligraphy are ancient, the beauty of it might be more palpable now than ever before. In the digital age, where we primarily write by tapping on screens and punching keys, the act of crafting words by hand with painstaking care is rare, and somewhat mystifying.
Calligraphy is more than just beautiful handwriting (even though the word “calligraphy” is believed to come from the Greek kallos—beauty—and graphein—to write). “People think it’s really hard to write correctly, to make calligraphy, but it’s not hard,” Ouchenir reflects. “To express feelings in the movement of the letters, to make an impression—that’s hard.”
Today, the practice is most commonly used for invitations and place cards for weddings and other special occasions. This writing might be composed of traditional calligraphy alphabets, which are governed by rules that dictate the angle and direction of pen strokes. But as Ouchenir illustrates, being an in-demand professional calligrapher today is about mastering those rules, while also breaking them—being able to craft countless new, original, and innovative scripts that can evoke particular moods, personalities, styles, or eras. When Ouchenir works with a client, he learns about their inspirations and what they hope to say through the lettering; then, he distills this into a new unique alphabet, which he may use for that client again and again, over many years.
Despite being self-taught, Ouchenir is drawing upon historical traditions. The way we understand calligraphy today—as a skill that requires great artistry, patience, and dexterity—dates back to around 1440, when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. At that point in Europe, ornamental scripts began emerging as counterpoints to mundane handwriting and the more practical, easily legible fonts used for books and manuscripts. Calligraphy, in fact, doesn’t need to be easily legible; it’s more about presenting familiar names and phrases in unusual or elaborate ways.
“It’s a form of luxury,” Ouchenir says of calligraphy today, noting that envelopes adorned with it are more likely to be opened—it can make the recipient feel important. The novelty of calligraphy has made it desirable to brands, even beyond invitations; the handmade, intimate nature of hand-lettered scripts have also made the practice alluring for branding and logo design.
For his part, Ouchenir looks to historic texts for inspiration, as well as iconic lettering, like signage for The Ritz in Paris or Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. He summons the memories and emotions of writing love letters during his school days, or the waning tradition of writing postcards to family members. Often, though, he’ll discover a new “A” or an “L” while playing with alphabets, and even by making mistakes. “For me, perfection is in the imperfection,” he says. “When people see that in my work, they remember it.”
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Creativity Editor.