I’ve often come across many faded and dog-eared postcards at antique shows with hand-written messages barely legible on the back. What’s always surprising is how elegant and expressive everyone’s handwriting seems to have been 100 years ago. There was a time when every postcard, contract, or love letter was a thing of beauty – giving each document an intrinsic sense of value and permanence that no longer exists in today’s digital world. Once the primary means for both personal and business correspondence, handwriting is now quickly disappearing from our culture, and our education system. Recently I saw that places like Hawaii stopped teaching cursive in their public schools this year in favour of keyboard proficiency. Soon even signatures will be a thing of the past.
The founding fathers of England employed the reigning handwriting style from England, called English Roundhand or Copperplate Script (the Declaration of Independence is written in Copperplate). But it’s slow and painstaking style inspired Platt Rogers Spencer to develop a new style of handwriting in 1840 that could be executed more quickly and elegantly. Spencer’s books and penmanship school were highly influential, and largely responsible for the ‘golden age’ of American penmanship that lasted from 1850–1925. Spencerian letters are made with a graceful, rapid, swinging motion that is less fatiguing and more spontaneous in action. The enduring Coca-Cola and Ford logos are derived from Spencerian letterforms. But beginning with the popularization of the typewriter in the 1920’s, penmanship’s popularity has slowly lost ground to the cold speed of new technology.
But where keyboards are slowly taking over the written script, there lies an artist who takes up his pen and ink daily in search for something extraordinary. He’s the name behind all the brands us fashion people pride ourselves on knowing but yet, I had no idea he was the person who created the logos and image we use everyday.
Based in Paris where he grew up, he lives in an apartment surrounded by objects that have a strong sense of history. In this space, “there is no need to turn on the TV.” He came upon this inviting nest with a balcony in an unexpected and spontaneous way by slipping into an apartment viewing without needing a new place to live.
How many invitations does Anna Wintour receive each day? Guesses are welcome, but it’s safe to assume that we are talking about a high, double-digit figure — a number that single-handedly explains Nicolas Ouchenir’s job.
Ouchenir is the go-to calligrapher for a list of clients that reads like a who’s who of the fashion industry: Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Christian Dior, Gucci, Miu Miu, Chloé and Cartier are among the brands that regularly commission Ouchenir to create invitations, logotypes, original signatures and other customised designs that involve beautiful letters.
Etymologically, calligraphy is derived from the Greek words for ‘beauty’ and ‘writing.’ In one of its most exalted forms, the discipline flourished as an autonomous art in the Islamic world between the 13th and 18th centuries. But anyone who assumes that its courtly pedigree means the profession is antiquated or obsolete would be gravely mistaken.
In fact, Ouchenir’s services are in such high demand that he regularly turns would-be clients down. The reason he is so sought-after? That pile of invitations on Anna Wintour’s desk.
Ouchenir is tasked not just with writing invitations but with writing them in a way that will make them stand out from the crop and nudge some of the busiest people in the industry to take time from their over-scheduled calendars to attend an opening, show or dinner. His job is not just to relay the important information for the event — venue, time and requested attire — but to make the invited party feel personally and instinctively moved to attend.
All of which, paradoxically, makes the ancient art of artistic handwriting a thoroughly modern form of communication. When everyone has access to software that can produce hundreds of sleek, perfectly identical mailings in mere seconds, in order to appear exclusive, brands must turn elsewhere: to the hand-made imperfection of a personalised, hand-written note or text.
It was a rush job he was asked to do for a Balenciaga fragrance launch in New York , agreed to on the condition that he could deliver something “huge and beautiful.” Even though they look perfectly executed to the untrained eye, Ouchenir reveals that the Wintour invites before us are, in fact, the stationery equivalents of bloopers, trials discarded because he made a mistake or simply wasn’t a hundred percent satisfied.
Ouchenir has to be satisfied, even if it takes dozens or hundreds of takes. For this reason, he spends up to 11 hours a day penning invitations and letters. Just physically, this is a feat for his wrist, eyes and attention span. Yet, there is a lightness to his person, as well as a charming gregariousness, that belies the intensity and solitary nature of his work. In person, the 36-year-old is almost effervescent, the proverbial life of the party, one would think. But it wasn’t always this way.
In fact, Ouchenir used to be deeply shy. “I was alone, a very timid child.” Ouchenir grew up in the bustling Paris district of Belleville, a working-class melting pot of ethnicities, flavours and life philosophies. The son of an Algerian locksmith and a French mother, his neighbours were as much of an influence on the future calligrapher as his formal education: “I grew up between a Rabbi and an Imam. And I went to a [private] Catholic school. So early on I was in touch with the three monotheist religions.”
How did this exposure to the world’s great faiths mark him? In purely aesthetic terms, he says. “Not because of the beliefs. It was more related to the soul and the books. Before I could even understand the content of these books, I was attracted to their high aestheticism and to the rhythm of the words.” Ouchenir didn’t care so much what the Torah or the Holy Quran said, but how they said it. Similarly, at his paediatrician, it was the smell of the ink that sent the young Ouchenir dreaming. “It was the smell of old books, and even though I didn’t know why, it was a world that was calling me.”
Ironically, in books, the timid boy found a way of belonging. “I was afraid of playing football with the other kids. I had to build my own world to represent myself. Books and letters did that for me.” Even though Ouchenir first found expression in writing around the age of six, he went on to study economics, which he found fascinating in theory but less compelling when applied in the real world.
A series of gallery jobs led to his discovery and acceptance of his vocation as a calligrapher. Namely, it was when Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand, the gallery owner (and son of former French president François Mitterrand), put his assistant in charge of the opening dinner for an exhibition, around 2001, that Ouchenir turned to his hidden talent for help.
“[Yves] Saint Laurent was a guest, among other very important people from France’s art and culture elite. I was afraid, worried. I decided to write. It was the first time in my life that I used handwriting to communicate, except for when I had exchanged letters with lovers.”
The experience taught Ouchenir that a handwritten note could set the stage for an event and make its ephemerality memorable, and that an individualised gesture could help make an occasion special and entice people to want to come. The approximately 100 invitations he made for the occasion were a success, as he later found out that many guests had kept their copy.
An interview I found online was one of the most motivating things I’ve come across. He is humble and sophisticated, suave and yet has a salt of the earth attitude to him. Anyone wanting to read it can check it out here.
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